Delucion

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Chapter 2

Beast Hunting

The forest, wreathed in sun-bestowed gold, lay silent, calling in the rays and the wind, but doing no more than shining, no more than swaying. The birds, noticing the silence, added their clamorous, sweet melody to the air, filling it again with life.

But the birds weren’t the only visitors to this realm today. The ground gave way, a little ways off, to a young man just coming into the clearing. His eyes glinted with the sun, mischief brimming through his steady smile. He was clad in leather, and although he moved powerfully forward, his feet fell soft, and his breath was quiet. He trekked towards the clearing ahead.

So far as the young man heard, there was silence all around him, and the noise was above. Not in the trees, no, but in the sky. It seemed to scream to him, with a voice both inhospitable and sweet. In the middle of the clearing, he stopped, tension appearing on his face. His eyes narrowed, as he towards the sun. His smile... faded. Reaching behind him, he unhinged a large bow from his back, and in it, strung an arrow. He pulled the arrow back, dropping slowly onto the weight of his left leg as he did so. The arrow was pointed at the sun. He waited there, arms beginning to shake from the tension, until, in an instant, he released it, and let the arrow fly.

Off it went, straight toward the center. And the world, the sky, the clouds, the trees, all seemed to swirl around the arrow as it flew. Not that he saw it, exactly. But that was, exactly, what it felt like.

But then it was gone. The arrow curved out of sight – into the canopy below – and with it went his in-drawn breath. He was smiling. A sad, uplifted smile.

The next thing he heard was a loud, annoyed growl, somewhere to his right.

What... are you doing?”

Delucion, that being the young man's name, felt his gut clench as he looked to his right, feeling keenly self-conscious, now, of what he'd just done. The growling voice came from a tall, fierce-looking boy who hadn't quite yet filled out his proportions. His rough chin hung at an odd angle as he headed towards Del. He had a bow, too, and a piece of its tar-coated handhold swayed lazily in the breeze.

...What... were you doing?”

Del scratched the back of his neck. “Ah, well...” he laughed awkwardly. “You know.” He wasn't sure how he could explain this one to Merik. That was the other boy’s name, Merik.

Merik grunted as he jabbed his head towards where the arrow had gone. He looked like he was about to say something, but sighed and shook his head.

Look, it was my mistake,” said Del. “Wanna go get it?” He readjusted the quiver on his back.

It's not like I think we'll need every single one,” said Merik through his teeth, arms crossed as he looked forward. He glanced momentarily up at the sun. “Even so... don't know what we'll find.” With that, he began marching off in the direction of the arrow.

Del followed suit, but after a few paces Merik dropped back.

Here,” he said, tossing a filled waterskin at Del. “So, mind telling me what that was all about?”

They strode through the sunlight, until, out of the clearing, the light merely danced between the shadows of the leaves. 'What was that all about?' Del wondered that himself. It felt strange that he would do something like that. ...Why? He thought of the sun, so far away, of the sky, the great openness... It was as though something had stirred deep within him, something that made him angry, and sad. Something that felt unfair, immobile, and oppressive. But, he'd felt something beautiful too, there, for a moment.

I... felt like it,” said Del. “Don't know why.”

Merik grunted in reply.

He thought Merik might pursue the subject, but instead continued to walk, facing ahead, scowling his scowl. Merik was often scowling. And on the rare happy moment, usually the most Del saw was a smirk – never anything too light-hearted.

When they found the arrow, it wasn’t in the most accessible place. It was stuck halfway up an oak tree, with sap oozing out around its buried point.

On seeing it, Del laughed to himself, somewhat impressed at the fact that his arrow had landed in such a way.

Merik, however, growled.

Del laughed awkwardly, scratching the back of his head. He could understand why Merik was upset – but they could still get it, couldn't they?

Instead of trying to convince Merik to be patient, Del set about looking for some tools to get the arrow back. Some rocks - that might work. He gathered them up and began chucking them at the spot where the arrow was stuck in the tree.

Merik, meanwhile, just watched, his arms crossed. Del was thinking he seemed remarkably sluggish today, but thought better of it when a rock bounded off the tree towards him, and he edged out of the way so swiftly, it was clear that he was in tune with the present.

Oh, ah, sorry,” said Del.

Merik shrugged, with a grunt.

Well... ah, maybe this one. ...Nope,” said Del, his stone missing by a few more inches than the last one. No, if he just adjusted his arm in just such a way...

Merik sighed.

You know, you could help too,” said Del. “I mean, I could stand on your shoulders or something.”

At this, Merik let out a much more aggravated grunt, as if trying to make it absolutely clear that he wanted no part of such a plan.

Or... throw some rocks,” said Del. “Come on, don't you want to... dislodge it first?”

Merik let out a grunt of impatience and looked up, away from Del.

Okay, guess not,” said Del, tossing his current rock into the air and catching it again.

Let's get on with it,” said Merik, growling.

Del felt apprehensive about drawing this out any longer. If Del really felt like it, he could just find this place another day, and fetch it himself.

Okay,” said Del resolutely. “No arrow.”

We have enough,” said Merik through gritted teeth. “It doesn't take this many.”

Never know if...” started Del, but the annoyed look on Merik's face made him pause. He looked away as if distracted, trying to hide his own apprehensive feelings. “Yeah, I'm fine with it. No need to waste time here, right? Let's go.”

Right, exactly,” said Merik, who marched ahead.

Del shook his head, turning over the stone he was holding, before pocketing it. He then took it out again and placed it near his feet. He looked back at it several times before he turned his attention fully forward, and caught up to Merik.

Del felt a little sick to his stomach – this was the first time he'd hung out with Merik in a while, and he wasn't sure whether this annoyance of Merik's was directed at him, or something else. Yeah Merik usually didn't say much, and often had a bitter, grim attitude, but, Del didn't know if something out of the ordinary was bothering him.

Merik's mood wasn't something he could necessarily figure out right now, though, so Del put it aside, gazing at the greenery around him, and at the light as it filtered in through the leaves. The air was fresh, though weighted with the heat of the summer, and the light wind felt cool. He thought about what Merik had told him the day before.

A large beast,” he had said. “That’s all I know.”

Large? Del thought, at first, it might be a yurk. It would be something if they caught one out of its cavernous den in the late summer. But what really excited Del, what made him agree to go in the first place, to grab his bow and head out into the darkness of the dawn, was precisely because it might not be a yurk. Maybe it would be something fantastic, something he had never seen, or even heard of. What would it look like, he wondered. The thought kept him moving at Merik’s swift pace. However, the air was quiet between them till they reached the bridge.

The forest they were in, that is, the Right Wood, was on the right side of Falturn River. (And going back into town, when it was on the left side, it would still be called the Right Wood.) But woods were divided further by a branch that deviated from the river’s course into town and spilled instead into the ocean. This water reached the sea at the Chillfall, a furious waterfall that tumbled over the edge of the sea cliffs and into the depths of the Endless Sea. Beyond the river that led to the falls was the Far Wood, and it was, as everything else, aptly named – it wasn’t often someone went into those woods.

At the split of these rivers, there were 3 bridges to serve hunters as they went from wood to wood looking for prey. While the two friends’ silent bickering continued, they happened upon this spot. It was clear on the riverbanks, all except for one large willow at the fork. Its limbs hung lazily in the crisp, rushing water. There was a woman underneath, staring upstream.

Hold up,” said Del, “it’s Cecile.” He would know her anywhere by her bright viridian dress.

Merik sighed and slowed to a stop, looking away. Del took this as a sign of Merik's begrudging permission, and rushed to the willow.

Cecile was sitting against the trunk of the tree, which was elaborately carved with various scenes. She turned around just as he was nearing, and smiled softly.

Hey,” said Del.

Delucion,” she said. “Good day... to you.”

Ah, yeah, um, well.”

Cecile glanced over to where Merik was kicking pine cones forcibly into the river, his arms crossed.

I... will make this short,” she said, laughing softly. “I know you are busy, or, it seems so.”

It's ok,” said Del. He spotted a rucksack on the other side of her. “You... saw Rylus.”

Cecile nodded.

He was... as stubborn as ever,” said Cecile, gazing across the river. “But... thank you.”

It's fine,” said Del. He sighed and looked about, feeling annoyed. Not at her, no, but at the town itself. Cecile and Rylus had once been married, but had split apart because of... oh it was impossible to describe! No – it was the pressure, the unending pressure to shun Cecile. Kind as she was, she spent most of her time in the forest, wandering the woods. And that brought up suspicion, and doubt about her character. Maybe they thought she'd “infect” them with her values. Not that there was anything wrong with those values. Del himself knew what it was like to be shunned. Moreover, he knew Cecile's goodness, and thought he could do something for her and Rylus. Maybe he couldn't change the town, but, connecting them once in a while, that might make things better for them, personally, wouldn't it?

Things are always changing, Del...” said Cecile, looking down, a gentle expression on her face. “But...”

Well, it's not always for the better,” said Del, looking away. He looked back. “So this will help you, right? The supplies.”

She nodded.

Good. Well, uh, I better...”

Wait, one moment, Delucion,” she said. She looked across the river, to the Far Wood.

Del stopped, wondering what else it could be.

The woods...” she said quietly. She seemed quite grave, all of sudden, as though something serious and out of the ordinary was the matter. “You're going to Far Wood, are you not?”

Yeah,” said Del. “Well, probably. Why though?”

Fall has come early...” she spoke in a hush. “The leaves are dying, and dropping from their branches.”

These words sent a chill through Del, and his neck tensed. But he wasn't ready to start chasing suspicions just yet. Instead, he looked more closely at the Far Wood. Scanning it, he indeed saw yellow, red, and brown leaves. Strange. That's something he had never seen before – after all, it was lush green in every other forest, as far as he knew.

Alright,” said Merik, losing his patience and finally marching his way over, avoiding all eye contact, before stopping and looking grumpily at Del. “Ya done here? Uh, and hi.”

Cecile nodded to Merik, smiling.

Del adjusted his bow.

I think so...” he said. He looked at Cecile. She knew the forest – was it really so bad, what was happening? Fall happened every year, after all... would it do any harm if it happened early?

Cecile looked between them, a look of weighty concern taking the place of her smile.

Good luck – to both of you.”

Merik grunted. “Yeah, we'll be fine,” he said.

You didn't hear what she said,” said Del. “The Far Wood–”

Yeah I heard it,” said Merik. “How far away do you think I was?”

Well, what do you-?”

Doesn't matter to me.”

This time it was Del's turn to sigh. He turned to Cecile.

Alright, well, bye for now,” he said, laughing a little.

She nodded back to him, her gentle smile returning.

Good to see you both,” she said.

Del nodded, and Merik grunted, and they both headed off again, crossing the bridge into the Far Wood. Del was keenly aware of the yellow leaves, and with his eyes he scanned his surroundings more than he usually might. He noticed, too, how Merik marched forward, hands in pockets, like something unsaid was bothering him.

Still angry about what happened on the mountain?” said Del.

Merik sighed and looked up, still walking ahead at a steady pace. “I never was,” he said. “It was my choice to go. And it's over. Done. We're all still alive, right? What's the rest of it matter?”

Del was still a bit uncertain whether or not Merik was still holding something against him, but, given his reply, maybe he was being sincere.

One of the more dangerous things he’d done, Del had led a band of his friends, Merik among them, into the mountains a couple months ago. They had barely escaped alive, and Del, for one, had learned the sheer fury of those snow covered peaks. He knew he had almost killed his friends, but even so, his heart still ached whenever he looked at those peaks, rising to limitless heights on the horizon.

Ok...” said Del, “Then what is it? You've been grumpy all morning.”

Not a thing...” said Merik.

Alllright,” said Del. “Nothing. Nothing wrong with me, either... Maybe I should be gloomy too.”

Merik grunted.

Ah... nevermind, nevermind,” said Del.

A long time passed in silence between them. Del tried to busy himself with looking for tracks, but he couldn't help but think about how normally, he and Merik would be able to talk more openly. Merik was shutting down for some reason, Del just didn't know what that was. Was it something he, Del, had done? Would sure be nice to know about it... Had something happened to Merik? Yeah, ok, Merik usually wasn't the talkative one, but... Del did have one vivid memory of an occasion where Merik had, by a campfire, told a story. It had been when Del, Del's brother Thomas, and Thomas's friends, all happened to be gathered together one evening. It was just a simple story about a hunt from Merik's day, but when he had told it, he had looked animated, excited, invested in the reactions of his audience, and relishing the act of telling every detail. Not only had his audience enjoyed it, but Merik himself had enjoyed it. That's how it had seemed to Del, at least.

Merik stopped abruptly and Del was distracted from his thoughts.

...look.”

What Merik was looking at was so obvious that Del wondered how he had missed it before.

Well that makes our job easy.”

On the ground were tracks, large ones. A yurk had been this way. Its foot-long hoof prints were etched into the dirt, and disappeared in a fairly straight line eastward towards the sea. They looked like they were covered over by a layer of dirt, so they might've been a day or more old, what with the wind and all.

A female, by the looks of it,” said Merik, looking down the line of tracks.

So, a yurk. And while maybe a yurk wasn't fantastic and new, this might be better than nothing. Something bothered Del, though...

Hey – hey, Merik, how far is a yurk’s stride, usually?”

Eh,” he looked from imprint to imprint, “Shorter than this, that’s for sure, usually only a yard.” His eyes scanned the imprints repeatedly. “Prime catch...” he said under his breath. He took a deep breath. “Alright. Let's go,” he said, looking to Del and nodding up the trail.

Yeah,” said Del distractedly, moving slowly, still a bit bothered by the length of the stride. Merik marched onward, though, so Del ran to catch up. Even a large yurk had a stride little over a yard long. At a good two yards, this monster hadn’t been taking a leisurely stroll. It had sprinted.

Hey, what if this yurk was being chased?” said Del as he caught up with Merik.

Possible.”

Hey – whatever's chasing it might be the monster you heard about.”

Maybe.” said Merik, eyes gazing fiercely ahead.

Del's mind jumped immediately to a dragon. But, looking around, wasn't sure one could fit in this forest without creating some serious damage to the surrounding trees.

Whatever we find,” continued Merik, “that's what we're going for. I hope you're prepared.”

Yeah...” said Del. “I'm prepared.” He wasn't entirely sure, though. Yes, the thought of some unknown monster was great and all from a distance, but here, now, they had solid evidence that something... something had actually chased one of the largest animals known to Falborough. Neither Del nor Merik were bulky like a yurk. Tenacious, yes, but...

While engaged in these thoughts, Del had been watching the path they were following. It suddenly occurred to him how odd it was that there was a “path” at all. Not the path of tracks alone, no, but... the very fact that there was a dirt path through the woods, with no undergrowth in it. This dirt looked freshly turned, as though it had been made by the hunters themselves. And yet, the hunters rarely went to the Far Woods – and wouldn't news of a project of this scale have gotten back to town?

He voiced his concerns to Merik.

Does it matter?” replied Merik with a grunt. “We've got tracks, don't we? That's what we're here for. What does this trail matter? Maybe it was always here, and that's why the yurk ran along it. Or – maybe it was recent, but formed naturally. ...Hell, I don't know.”

Del sighed uneasily, but didn't bring it up again, since he had no ideas about it either. And Merik was right, he supposed. It wasn't what they were here for.

The two of them marched on, and the sun made its way to its highest point, at noon. By this time, Del was getting hungry, and convinced Merik to stop so they could eat. After an annoyed sigh, he agreed. They found a few rocks to sit on not far from the path and got to work on their food of biscuits, jerky, and plums. They ate in silence for a while. Merik was staring fixedly at the ground between bites.

Something on your mind?” Del asked, trying his luck with the question yet again.

Huh? No.”

Del kept the breach of silence going. “This luff jerky any good?” he said, looking at his own piece. “Never tried it.”

This? Yeah it’s good. ...Just like any other.”

Del took a bite. It was too sweet for his taste. Nevertheless, he took another bite – his concern wasn’t with the meat, even if it was his lunch.

So, what do you think chased it?” he said.

Merik looked up at this, amused. “Maybe we'll find out.”

Well that's a comforting thought.”

Merik grunted in amusement, as silence set in again. After a while, Merik stopped eating, and just looked up towards the sky.

Uh…” said Del, noticing this, “you ready to go?”

Fara...” said Merik. “What happened to her?”

Del was shocked at the mention of her name. The piece of plum he had been chewing slipped down his windpipe, and he was thrown into a coughing spell until it went down the right way. “Uh- what?”

Merik grunted in annoyance. Maybe he didn't want to explain himself.

You know full well...” said Del, looking down, feelings of anger pulsing up through him. “She stopped talking to me, for now, and, that's... how it is, now, I guess.” He let out a heavy sigh. “Why?”

Curious,” said Merik, looking up. He stood up abruptly.

Del eyed him with suspicion. No, he didn't want to view his friend with suspicion, not ever, but... was he trying to, was he interested in... Couldn't be... was he?

Merik noticed Del's look, and returned his own of consternation.

What?” said Merik. “You two used to be like that, always hangin' out together.”

Del felt a little relieved at what sounded like concern. “Yeah, well, she didn't exactly approve of me taking three kids into the mountains with me... Not that I blame her.”

Yeah...” said Merik, looking up, his teeth gritted.

Del remembered. He remembered so vividly. The biting cold, the blizzard bearing down upon them. He could barely even see the others, though they had stuck close together. Maybe if they'd just prepared differently. Still, he could see Willard tumbling backwards through the snow, and hear Thomas's shouts. There had been strange black birds, too. Merik had taken care of those. Roger had stayed upright, but Del had seen him shivering intensely. Caught between his dream of seeing the tower, and his concerns for the kids, that's when Rylus had appeared, barreling up the mountain. Together, they had all gotten down safely. But even so, Del supposed that Fara had been right, it had been irresponsible to take those kids to the mountains. Maybe Del should've shouldered the burden himself. He still thought about it, wondered about it – what he could've done, what he should've done, and why he did what he did in the first place.

But it wasn't that Del had been entirely irresponsible. Yeah, they were kids, but they were adventurous through-and-through... who was to say that with a little more preparation, or even more persistence, they couldn't have made it? Just because something's dangerous, Del thought, that doesn't make it wrong. Fara may have stretched things a little too far, there. He remembered her face, full of disappointment, and how she wouldn't look at him. She had looked... afraid, too. But she had no reason to be! Or, not much of a reason, at least.

Well...” said Del, repacking his bag and shouldering his bow. “Let's keep moving.” Merik silently agreed, and they continued to follow the tracks.

At the edge of the forest, the yurk's erratic tracks continued out towards the sea cliffs. Not only had this creature been out of its den in the wrong season, it had actually left the forest. But there was something even more disturbing. The tracks continued on straight.

The Endless Sea came into view beyond the edge of the cliffs. Del and Merik were both moving slowly now, waiting for the moment they’d see tracks going back in the opposite direction. But that moment didn’t come. They followed the imprints till the distance between each one shortened, until finally, the tracks stopped altogether.

They stood over the last hoof print. It was blurred – not as clear as the rest.

The waves crashed against the cliff wall far below.

Del sighed.

What now?” he said.

The coastal air was dotted with epims, quick-moving, six-winged birds. Merik watched them, and let out a rattled sigh.

We can't stand here sighing all day,” said Del. He took off his bow and handed it to Merik. “Here. I'll go check over the edge of the cliff to see there's any sign of it falling. This thing's bulky.”

Merik took the bow and grunted in agreement. He looked tense.

Del walked towards the edge. The wind began to whip through his hair, and the strange salt scent of the ocean came with it. Within a few feet of the edge, Del got on his belly and shimmed forward.

Poking his head over the edge, he scanned the landscape below. It was a long way down. The cliff itself was adorned with epim nests, spilling out in areas where the cliff’s irregularities were deep enough to be called ledges. But then there was the sea – glistening, treacherous. And the spot where the land and the sea met was a region of razor sharp rocks, soaked with the white fangs of the crashing tide, which bit in with such a fury that the sound of it was drowning out Del’s thoughts.

Drawn away from his thoughts about the yurk, he wondered how big the rocks at the bottom really were. Perspective was lost at such a distance. Then, as he continued to stare, he got the distinct feeling that he was drawing closer, falling endlessly, freely towards them. A shiver ran through him as he shook himself out of it, looking again for a sign of the yurk… But there wasn’t any sign of it, or of any creature, having fallen from these heights. Something else caught his sight, though, that wasn’t rock or water. Del squinted at the object far below.

It was wood. Del was sure of it. He wondered for a moment what it might be from, but then... a terrible thought shook him. The only wood that would ever have been sent to sea would be from coffins. What he was seeing below... that was someone’s final resting place, smashed to pieces. The only things ever sent to sea were coffins, sent over the Chillfall at a person’s Resting Ceremony. Fancy name for the end of everything. He couldn’t look anymore. No yurk had come this way.

Del moved back and stood again. He looked back and shook his head to signal to Merik that there was nothing.

Merik was sitting, staring at the edge with a sickly look on his face.

Nothing,” said Del, once he was close enough so that Merik could hear.

Okay,” said Merik, nodding and getting to his feet. He looked dazed. “We keep moving.”

Del turned around and looked back out to sea. “I wonder if... I wonder if we could get down there somehow.” His only thought was removing the coffin, but when all he heard was silence in reply, he looked to Merik, and saw that on his face was a withered and brutal expression. A fire burned beneath his eyes, eyes fixed toward the sea. His gaze then drifted away, and down to his right.

Del thought for a moment to inquire about this, but then he suddenly realized his terrible mistake. He felt his heart clench.

Ah, look, nevermind, let's-.”

Yeah.” said Merik. He turned slowly, deliberately, towards the woods.

Nevermind the sea, let's just-.”

Yeah,” interrupted Merik loudly. He left it at that, and started off towards the woods. A short distance away, Del could hear him mutter, “That's enough.”

Del didn’t know what else to say. He knew – and remembered – full well what had disturbed Merik. His parents, both hunters, had died while hunting. No one knew the conditions of their death, only that they fell from the cliffs. Their bodies had been found days later, and Merik had learned second hand. Del had a feeling, though, that Merik had seen them himself. Del had never asked.

Look, I'm sorry,” said Del, catching up to him.

It's fine...” said Merik, not looking at Del. “But drop it.”

Once again, they walked in silence. Del was wishing that they could just find the beast and get out – chasing this creature with Merik was wearing on him. But at least it was something new. Routine was one of the things that bugged Del the most. The sad thing was – the town was saturated with routine, and norms only interrupted for tragedy. And even when someone died, they still, according to custom, just sent them right over the edge of the Chillfall in those wooden crates.

Not that Del was bitter. He still had the sky, the stars, and the woods. Not that that’s all he had, either – he wasn’t entirely like Cecile in that regard. Life, even in town, was alright. He had friends – somewhat. And he had his brother.

Del smiled, thinking about his brother Thomas. Del hadn’t told him he was out today, though he was smart enough to figure it out. He’d likely be out in the woods too, exploring it with his band of friends after school. Hah, thought Del, one might even say that Thomas was more adventurous than Del was.

He dwelled on these thoughts as they walked through the forest, scouring it for clues. Along the way, they found plenty of tracks – from smaller luffs, glurgletugs, targles, worfulps – but the yurk’s tracks had disappeared. It was getting on to late afternoon before Del broke the silence.

So... we gonna keep looking?”

They both stopped. Merik sighed and looked up, his teeth gritted.

The sun hasn't gone down, has it? We can spare a little more time out here. Even if it's dark we can find our way back. I can at least.”

Yeah, yeah, I can find my way back too,” said Del. “It's just, I mean, we're not really having any luck out here.”

Luck?” said Merik. “That depends on how much time you give. Nothing to do with luck at all.”

Ok, well, we could always try again tomorrow, during the day.”

We're out here now,” said Merik, taking this pause in their movement to scan the area. “And tomorrow it would be a risk. Technically the entries are supposed to be in by tonight.”

Del sighed. “Ok, well, any other ideas besides just traipsing around, looking for it?”

Merik was silent, continuing to scan.

Del sat down on a log nearby. “Look,” he said. “We could cover even more ground if we split up.”

And if one of us finds it?”

We could, I donno, shout at each other. Or just go for the kill...”

Yeah, well,” said Merik, “I'll get the finishing blow.”

Alright alright,” said Del. “Just an idea. I guess I could wound it, if I saw it, or something.” The idea didn't sit right with him though. Wounding an animal, no... it was better to kill it immediately, so it wasn't in pain for too long.

Fine,” said Merik. “Call me if you see it, but try to keep track of it. It'll probably dart, or attack, if it hears you. If I see it, I'll call you once it's over, so we can haul it back.”

Alright,” said Del. He nodded and got to his feet.

It was then that they heard something strange, or, rather, out of place. It was the sound of a flute – a soft melody, floating through the air. Both of them froze, and turned slowly in the direction of the music.

They exchanged glances, and then began to move closer towards where the music was coming from. Its sound became more clear, and Del began to get the sense that it coming from a tree that they were swiftly, and silently, approaching. Del thought it was a bit absurd to be so silent – it had to be a person playing that music – they didn't have to approach it as they would a prey. And yet, just around this tree... what would they find? There wasn't supposed to be anyone out here... was it, maybe, one of the hunters?

Looking for something?” said a voice behind them.

Del’s heart jumped. He and Merik both turned around. There, on the log where Del had just been sitting, was a man with a bemused, calm look on his face. He was thin and muscular, with dull blue eyes. He held a flute in his hand, and his head was tilted slightly.

But, the tree-” said Del.

Ah,” said the man, “You must've misheard. I was over in this direction the whole time.” He crossed his right leg over his left and played a little trill on his flute. The sound matched the one they had just heard. “There, you see?”

Del and Merik just stood there, staring. The man’s smile widened.

I did happen to hear your talking.”

Who are you?” said Del. The question slipped out. It was an extraordinarily odd question to ask, he realized. He’d almost never had to ask it before, and when he did, it was to rediscover someone’s name he’d forgotten. But this man he didn’t recognize.

The man paused.

Yeah,” Merik added.

Well, if you must inquire… I stay here in these woods. Hm, don’t get many visitors, out here.” His voice had airy, jovial quality to it.

And your name?” said Merik. Del looked over at him – his eyes were narrowed, and looked dangerous.

My name, since you ask, is... Joe George Smith the third.”

Ah... Which… one…?” Del asked slowly. No one had that many names.

The man paused again. He still looked as delighted as ever, though. “Well I don’t get many visitors out here, you know. I mean to say, well... I... sort of made a nice big name for myself, in my spare time. So, are you two from Falborough?”

Where else would they be from?

Yeah...” said Merik, slowly. “Hunting.”

So I gathered. Are you–”

Wait,” said Del, cutting him off. He spoke his next few words slowly and deliberately. “How come I don’t know you?”

The question hung in the air, unanswered, though not for long.

Well, I don’t expect everyone to know me- you see,” Joe George Smith III’s eyes left Del and stared into the space between Del and Merik. “I was left here when I was a small boy... Abandoned, as it were. Since then I’ve learned to live here on my own, making clothes from animal skins, wrestling boars... you know, things like that. You’ve probably never heard of me because I usually avoid people. But please, tell me about yourselves.”

Merik growled.

Um… Smith, or,” Del started saying. The man nodded. “Smith, well, wouldn’t someone know you? If you’d just… you know, tell me about your original family.”

Alas- I was too young to remember. But where are you two going? Do you need help finding your way?”

No,” said Merik.

It's just,” said Del. “I was sitting right there! How did you-”

Oh come now,” said Smith, waving it off. “It was a little prank. A jest. Surely you can spare such indignity, once in a while.”

I suppose...” said Del uncomfortably. He felt a strange fear begin to creep up inside of him.

I daresay I'll be fine out here on my own,” said Smith, staring directly into Del's eyes. His calm demeanor seemed disturbing to Del. “It's fine. I've had my fun – you can just, well, run along now.”

Well,” said Del, “I’ve never heard any stories, that’s all… It's just a bit...”

Strange?” said Smith.

Just then, there was a loud crashing noise somewhere close by, and Del and Merik looked wildly towards it.

I’m going,” Merik said to Del. He gave Smith a last, resentful glance before rushing off towards the sound.

We’ll check on this and be right back,” said Del. He had to ask this mystery man more questions. But – the beast! Maybe this was it, and, they had been looking all day for it, after all...

Smith nodded, and Del took off after Merik. His heart pounding, Del's mind vaguely drifted over the fact that the man had been wearing clothes made of dyed cloth, instead of fur...

Merik was stopped in a clearing, around the same place Del had also thought the noise had come from. But the forest, here, was as quiet as ever. No... movement. No tracks, either. No sign that anything had passed this way.

What was it, then…” said Del, his thoughts drifting out into words.

That sound was it. I’m sure of it.”

I, uh... said we’d come back if there wasn’t anything. Come on. That man-”

There's something here, I know it. That sound wasn’t natural.” Merik looked around sharply, this way and that, moving his head towards every insignificant sound – leaves that rustled too much, a bird that was out of place in its chirping.

One second...” said Del after a while. He wanted to ask the man some questions, and as Merik didn't object, he headed back to where the man had been.

But by the time Del had returned to the spot, the man was gone. Completely vanished, with not even a sign of where he went. No tracks. Del still didn’t get it. Where had this guy come from, if not Falborough? Unless he really had been abandoned. Del was caught between wanting to believe that, and a yearning to know what the truth of the man really was.

The sun was fading in the sky when he returned to where Merik was. But at first, he didn't see his friend at all.

Merik?!” shouted Del.

Here...” said Merik. Del looked to the ground and saw him, his face and arm sticking out of the dirt. He was trying to pull himself out, with all his strength. “Help me out, will you?”

Del, astonished, rushed over to him and started to yank him out.

What- what happened?” said Del.

The ground... opened up,” said Merik. He freed his other arm, and, with Del's help, got his upper torso out.

Del then saw something that made him freeze. His eyes were fixed to a spot in the dirt where there was, quite distinctly, a large living eye that had opened up. Another, then, and another – a whole host of eyes, popping open. They all stared.

Merik... Merik!” said Del. He redoubled his efforts to pull him free.

What?” said Merik. He looked casually over his shoulder, and the moment he saw the eyeballs, he wrenched his hands from Del and pushed himself out of the dirt with such intensity that he freed himself, rolling forward as Del got out of the way. In a flash, Merik was on his feet. He fixed an arrow to his bow and pointed it at the eyeballs.

There was a moment's pause, and Del thought for a moment that this creature, whatever it was, was docile, and would leave them be. But then the hole where Merik had been formed into a wide smile. A loud screeching sound echoed through the forest.

Del stumbled backwards, covering his ears. He was trying to grasp the situation.

Giant hands, made of dirt, emerged from the ground, pulling up the monster's bodily form. It rose, a hill of dirt, towering over them, more than a story tall.

Merik pulled back the arrow and let it fly into the monster's mouth.

Aaahahahahahaha...” its laugh was hollow and deep, echoing like a terrible, taunting, tormenting thought. “Ehehhehhehhehhehhehheh.”

Del didn't know what this was, but he knew that getting away from it would keep them both safe. He turned and ran, grabbing the back of Merik's tunic and trying to pull him along too. But Merik wouldn't budge.

Let go of me,” said Merik. He had already fitted another arrow to his bow, and, readjusting for aim, shot one straight into one of the creature's eyes, where its point buried itself, deep.

The creature let out another, piercing cry, this time, in pain. Its eyes all rolled back into its head as it screamed. The sound grated against Del, and he put his free hand to one ear to lessen it. With the other he tugged on Merik.

You wanna to fight it!? Fine!” shouted Del. “Get to a safe distance though!”

Shoot it, you fool!” shouted Merik with such intensity that Del released him. Another shot hit the creature's second eye.

Del was caught for a moment, considering whether to fire on the monster or continue trying to pull back. But then he saw the monster reel back one of its hands, ready to smash into the two of them.

Del acted quickly, rounding to Merik's left side before bursting forward, colliding with Merik as he let out a shout. The two of them were sent sprawling into the dirt.

Get off of me!” shouted Merik, shoving Del away. But the monster's hand had already moved, and caught Del as he was thrown off Merik. Del felt himself get sucked into the monster's hand itself, even though it was open-palmed.

Merik grabbed Del by the ankle and pulled. Del could feel himself getting free, but he had to let go of his bow in the process, which was absorbed into the hand. Del himself fell back to the ground, cursing the situation. That bow was important to him. But, all the same...

Thanks,” said Del.

Merik grunted, and then they both ran backwards, away from the creature. Del hoped that this thing wouldn't prove to be as fast as the yurk tracks had made it seem, if this indeed was what had chased it.

Merik slid to a stop and took his bow out once more. Del wracked his mind for what he could do. A diversion, maybe? The monster was approaching, but slowly, thankfully.

The third eye was pierced. Del counted – there were seven in all – had to take them all out before it would stop, maybe. But – a diversion. Del got ready to sprint towards, and around it.

Stop!” shouted Merik. “We can keep retreating – it's slow! Use your head!”

Oh... he was right, thought Del. Without his bow, though, Del felt all but useless. He wanted to contribute something here, he wanted to–

All of a sudden, the monster burst forward with unexpected speed, and the two of them launched themselves out of its way. It crashed somewhere behind them, sending up billowing clouds of dust.

Del looked towards where it had gone, but couldn't see it.

This didn't last long, however, for the monster pulled itself up by its hands once more, and the eyeballs emerged out of the opposite side of its head, a new mouth forming as well. They could hear its ragged breathing.

What was that thing? Del had never seen nor heard of anything like it, even in their myths and legends!

Ehhehhehhehhehhehhehheh,” its laughter echoed out once again. It then drew a long, raspy breath, and Del felt himself being pulled bodily towards it. What the!? Merik, too, was being pulled, and had used his dagger to anchor himself to the soil.

At last the creature's pulling breath stopped. Its breathing now ragged, it began to work its way towards them yet again.

Merik didn't get up, though. Del stared at him and saw that he looked like he was... almost falling asleep?! What was this? Merik kept shaking himself to wake up, but it wasn't working.

Merik!” shouted Del. But Merik fell, then, into sleep.

Del ran to him, the creature still bearing down upon them, though slowly, and tried to pull away Merik's bow. But Merik's hand snapped up and grasped it.

Not that,” he said, now awake yet again. With some effort, he got up, and readied another arrow. As he was taking aim, however, the monster rushed at them once again. Del jumped out of the way first.

Merik!”

Damn it!” Merik shouted. But despite the monster's speed, Merik managed to shoot out the forth eye a moment before he, too, jumped out of the way.

The monster seemed... smaller, all of a sudden. It moved, too, as if injured and weary. Its seven eyeballs, four closed and three open, reemerged on the side facing them.

You've almost got it,” said Del. “Take him out, n-”

But the dirt-made monster let out an unearthly groan, and, looking towards the sky, its mouth stretched wide... and it fell to pieces. Something, a tall, thin, solid object of some kind, seemed to be at its center, but it soon faded from view, like it had never been there at all.

Del stared. He couldn't believe what he's just seen. He looked over and saw Merik drop to his knees, shake himself, then get up again and start towards the monster's remains.

But what was left was a pile of dirt. This was no ordinary creature – not even the eyeballs remained. And yet, there was more than just dirt...

Del could see, that scattered throughout its remains, were dead and decaying animals. And – oh of course! There was his bow, too, which he quickly snatched up. He brushed off the dirt, suspicious of the stuff, from his bow. He had carved his bow, over time, with many scenes and images. That was, well, why the bow was important to him.

Merik walked across the dirt, his boot resting beside a thick gray horn jutting out from the soil.

Here,” said Merik. “Help me out.” He grabbed the horn and yanked it, little by little.

Del, with some hesitation, went to help. He knew what it was before he saw it. The yurk.

Fully removed, it looked a little sad... the way its small arms hung limp from its body, and its eyes stared vacantly. Del remembered what it must've gone through, how it must've been scared... and basically, eaten alive.

Del sighed. He thought for a moment that they hadn’t really killed this yurk, or that it would be too much for the both of them to take it back to town. But after all that had happened, he didn't feel like voicing those kinds of relatively minor objections.

It was a long way back. They both had to stop frequently to rest, and moving the yurk was awkward and cumbersome. But they made their way without complaint, hauling the beast, while in pain and thoroughly tired.

By the time they’d made it back, it was pitch black, and the streets of the town were silent.

Now, put it over in the repository, on the right side of the hall.” Merik was saying as they walked up the steps of the Main Hall with their prize.

Del looked from the hall doors to Merik. “Sure they’ll accept this?” It had been on his mind.

Merik sighed. “They will...” he said, looking annoyed.

Or?” said Del.

Yeah, whatever,” said Merik. “Let's finish this.”

They pushed open the heavy wooden doors. The sound resounded off of the walls of the hall within. As they were putting the yurk down, something else caught Del's eye.

At the far end of the hall was a pedestal. Atop it was something Del had never been able to explain. It was an orb, floating, when it should have simply sat. It was shrouded in a purple and gold mist that changed constantly. The orb itself was gold, or looked it, and was a sphere, and, as far as Del had ever seen, its surface was without the slightest imperfection.

The sense of the unknown he’d felt throughout the day crept back into Del. He didn’t want to stare at the orb anymore, the town’s strange relic. Yet it hung in his mind as he and Merik parted ways, and Del went back to his house. When he pushed open the door, however, the warmth of the house put these thoughts out of his mind.

He started upstairs, intent on getting some much-needed rest, weary from the day.

But he didn’t get it – the hallway wasn’t empty or dark. At the top of the stairs was his brother Thomas, waiting for him.






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