Arturia Velthrone jumped at an earsplitting screech that pulsed through the Therilean Forest's air. The sound came from the same direction that she and her two companions were heading—right into the heart of the woods. All three of them stopped and shared looks.
"There shouldn't be anyone in the forest," Arturia whispered. Her hood fell almost entirely to her shoulders. Her hands reached for the cloth and drew it over her head, concealing her hair and ears, then gripped the thick stalk of her staff, which she held close to support her body.
The travel to the forest from her home in Aldine had been strenuous, taking both day and night, and once she met with her companions, they had set out at once for the forest.
That was three hours ago. Now, an luminous blue moon hung high in the sky, watching as they trekked through the trees and brush of the Therilean. Her legs ached from the endless walking and her stomach rippled with hunger, which had set in an hour after they left for the woods.
"There were curfew postings posted everywhere in the villages around here." Ferrick, a self-made warrior of a local farmer, took a step forward, facing in the direction of the noise. "I don't hear anything else."
The last member of the group, a friend of Ferrick and another farmer's son of the same village named Briston, brought his left arm around Arturia's shoulders.
"Are you okay?" He asked. "If you need to rest, we can stop here."
"No, it's fine," Arturia replied. His effort of comfort was noted, but she politely shrugged his arm off and straightened her body, leaning off of her staff. "We've got to keep going. We haven't even reached the halfway point to the cave."
"And what about that scream, Bris?" Ferrick turned to face them. "Someone else came into the forest—and probably unprepared."
"Yes," Arturia whispered and closed her eyes. "It probably got to them."
It—the topic that they had avoided for the entire trip. It, which rose terror in every villager's heart from the Therilean to her home Aldine, several miles west of the forest.
This it, a monster who devoured any soul that infiltrated the Therilean, had terrorized her dreams and consciousness for nearly ten years.
Arturia gripped the staff tighter, causing small sparks of blue energy to caress the smooth, ancient wood. Briston watched the energy dance, his eyes filled with awe and hidden terror.
Briston gulped and turned from the woman, scratching at the back of his neck. "I guess we can continue."
"Whoever that is," Ferrick muttered as he picked up his pace, "is probably already dead."
The three of them ventured on. Ferrick brought up the head while Briston stuck by Arturia's side.
The story of the three coming together was one of simplicity. Arturia knew Ferrick Thigrass' family, and when the young man came to visit Aldine, they had stumbled into each other, claiming it was a "small world" coincidence.
What Ferrick didn't know was that Arturia heard him blab about his family's farm and the terror of the Therilean beast in the local hub. The information he freely gave to the drunkards of Aldine was enough for Arturia to formulate a plan. The next morning, she happened across him in Aldine's town square.
A week later, Arturia visited Krele, Ferrick's village, and was entertained by his family and his young friend.
Ferrick's family knew of Arturia's origins and of her magic.
The short of the story was that Arturia and his father were friends and had an adventure in a long distant past. The secrets of that story was what rampaged deep in the forest.
It was only during this journey that Arturia brought her druidic staff. At first, Ferrick was astounded—even disgusted—by the magic she carried. Briston was more in awe than disdain. It was also obvious that the boy fancied her.
An elder tree root came up in the path. Ferrick glided over it with ease, but Arturia lost her footing, catching herself with her staff just as Briston caught her arm.
"Are you alright?" This boy was rather finicky, what with his eyes darting about as if the monster would jump out at them from the shadows at any second. Or that Arturia would turn on him with the druidic magic that flowed through her veins.
She huffed, nodded, and dusted off her dress. "I am. Don't worry, I'm not some elderly witch needing the arm of a warrior."
Briston's face and neck darkened, and he sputtered, "Y-yeah, I-I, uh...I just want to make sure that you're not too tired."
"I have been traveling since last night," she replied, then looked down to her arm. Briston's hand still held her and his palms were sweaty. Arturia plucked his fingers from her arm. "But you expect too less of a woman of magic."
"C'mon, Bris," Ferrick growled. He stood and watched from a few feet away with furrowed eyebrows. "We don't have all night."
"No, we don't." Arturia nodded and continued over the little obstacles on the trail.
Ferrick watched the woman with a frown as she walked past him, using her staff to feel for the roots and bushes on the ground.
Arturia stopped in the middle of the trail. Her ears moved within the confines of her hood, straining to hear the quiet rustling of the creatures of the forest, which dwelled in the depths of the brush.
Her eyes followed a movement to her left and saw a streak of dark fur that glistened only for a second in the blue moonlight.
Arturia swore under her breath and turned on her feet, hurrying back to the boys, who only stood a few yards away.
Their entire bodies were wired with alertness as she rushed to them, her bright blue eyes wide with fear.
"Get your sword," Arturia whispered at Ferrick. He fumbled for the weapon, unsheathing it.
The weapon hissed and gleamed in the moonlight, catching Arturia in the eyes. She blinked and averted her eyes elsewhere, watching as Briston pulled his bow from his shoulders. His hands shook as they huddled.
Arturia held out her staff and put her other hand on one of the boys' shoulder, whispering, "Quiet, now. We don't know what it is until it shows itself."
She stated those words purely for their own benefit, for she knew what exactly it was.
Not what, but whom.
"Pray that we make it through this encounter," Arturia muttered, then gritted her teeth as a surge of energy pulsated from her core, reaching out to fuel her conduit, the staff.
Bright light filled the aura of the staff, a mixture of blues, greens, and purples. It bristled at the top of the staff, a crystal used to hold the energy and focus it on its target.
The light illuminated the darkness of the trail, giving the forest an ethereal hue.
Several yards away was a shadow, hiding from the farthest reach of the staff's light. Arturia squinted, seeing the shape twist in the shadows of the forest. She could not make out the exact shape, only that it was moving.
That was until it started moving at them.
All three of them stumbled backward as the shape grew in momentum.
Arturia steadied her staff, repeating a calming mantra in her head as the creature approached.
The light fell on the shape, revealing the fur she had previously seen in the forest's brush. It was a deep brown, and several patches of it was matted to the creature's body in what appeared to be blood.
The eyes glistened in the light, filled with caution, furiousness, and...curiosity? There was a small ounce of intelligence in the creature's stare as it slowed its pace.
While its eyes were fascinating, everything else was terrifying. Arturia heard Briston whimper behind her. She felt the two boys press into her back, as if a united front would strengthen them.
Arturia highly doubted that as the ten-foot creature came within two or three yards of the three.
Its snout was long and the teeth protruding from its mouth gleamed with saliva. Its ears twisted in directions, picking up the noises of the forest and the panicking breathes of the three humanoids which stood before it.
Arturia let out a long, controlled breath and lifted the staff higher, catching the creature's attention.
It shuffled closer again, only a few feet, before it snorted and growled through its massive canines.
"Stay where you are." Arturia raised her voice and pointed the end of the staff toward the creature. "Or else."
The creature tilted its head. Its eyes dilated in the light and narrowed.
"I don't think that thing can understand you," Briston piped up. "It's a beast—"
The creature bristled, hissing through its large teeth, and came closer. It leaned forward on its hind legs, reaching out toward the group with its claws.
"Holy shit," Ferrick whispered.
The beast made a sudden movement, closing in the distance within a blink of an eye. The boys yelled and Arturia felt an arm wrap around her chest, ready to pull her from the reach of the beast.
But all movement stopped when the monster opened its mouth.
A whimper came out of Arturia as the monster stepped forward, calling out to her once again in a low growl that ranged near a human voice.
"Ar...Art..." A misty breath caught Arturia in the face. "Art...ur...ia."
Her chest seemed to cave in, with her heart pattering like the rapid beating of a hummingbird's wings. Arturia swallowed back bile and breathed through her mouth, trying to calm down as the monster observed Arturia and the two boys huddled behind her.
"What do we do?" Briston whispered.
The beast was so close that its hot breath warmed Arturia's face and its saliva trickled over her cheeks. She blinked as a drop neared her eye, withholding the urge to flinch.
"Don't move," she whispered to Ferrick and Briston, who in turn stiffened.
Then Arturia moved the staff, ever so slowly, to touch the breast of the monster. Its eyes bulged at the movement, hissing through its giant, clenched maw. She flexed her fingers, letting the energy slither from her skin to the tip of the crystal at the point of the staff, which rested on the monster's chest.
"Leave." Arturia held her staff tighter in her hand, pushing more on the beast's chest.
Its hissing turned into yowling as its jaw slacked. Whether it was in pain from the energy or not, it let loose the noise, causing the boys to flinch. The movement caught its eyes and its feet shuffled forward, its head hovering over Arturia.
Her staff was pressed fully between her body and the body of the beast. Its fur, while sticky with blood in various places, was hot and soft at the touch, a great contrast to the night's air.
Saliva continued to drip from the creature's mouth, coating Arturia's hood.
"Leave," Arturia said this word with more conviction, thrusting the staff into its chest with more power behind her arm.
The monster didn't move, of course, but its attention went from the boys to her. She could feel its snout dig into her hood, inhaling her scents.
Arturia closed her eyes briefly, repeating the calming mantra in her mind, then urged a surge of electric energy through her hands.
The energy burst from her finger tips and erupted at the tip of the staff, searing the monster's chest with a ring-like burn.
It howled, stumbling back only a few feet, as it clutched its chest.
Arturia turned on her heel, stumbling into the boys in the process. "Move, move—move."
Ferrick and Briston tripped over their legs only for a moment as they turned and ran. Arturia followed, throwing glances over her back as the monster recovered from the energy blast.
It snarled and rushed after them, running on all fours for momentum.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck," Ferrick hissed through each exhale, gripping the hilt of his blade tighter.
Briston stumbled into the warrior as they competed to get farther down the path, then he turned and saw Arturia falling over the roots into an elder tree outside of the trail. He yelled for her as the beast focused on the woman.
The monster caught and shoved her into the tree, caging her arms. The edges of its sharp talons dug into her skin, causing blood to flow from the wounds.
She winced, holding back a yelp as the monster breathed in her face. A wicked stench of decay and rust filled her nose. Her eyes stung from the smell, while her breaths caught in her throat.
"Art..." The monster snarled.
"Get—back," Arturia said, blinking through the tears the stench caused. She tried to move the staff back against its chest, but the monster gripped the staff with its claw and threw it to the side.
The staff disappeared into the forest's bushes.
"Art!" The monster shouted, gripping her shoulders. The claws dug into her back, slicing down into her flesh.
She gasped, blinking through more tears, as the monster collected her against its chest.
The boys started when the monster turned with Arturia crushed against its chest. Briston shot arrows with a shaky focus, while Ferrick swung his sword in an arc toward the monster's head.
It blocked the attack by turning its back. The sword's edge slid through the fur, leaving a fine, shallow cut through its hide. The monster snarled through its teeth, swinging an arm out to hit Ferrick in the head.
Ferrick dodge narrowed, moving around the monster to target its chest, but halted when it used Arturia's body as a shield.
"Get my staff!" Arturia said and grunted from the pressure against her chest.
Briston threw his bow over his shoulder and ran in the direction the staff was thrown.
Ferrick continued to spar with the monster, swiping at its arms rather than its chest. The monster replied to his attacks with swipes of his claws, catching Ferrick a few times in the arms and sides. The warrior tried to win Arturia back from the monster's grasp, until he cut deeply through the muscle of its left arm, causing it to lose strength. Arturia's body dropped slightly from its grasp.
The beast rushed away, clutching the woman in its uninjured arm. It watched Ferrick move after him through the corner of its eyes, then jumped.
Its leap landed the beast and Arturia several yards ahead in the trail, toward the heart of the forest. After it landed on its feet, it sped up.
Arturia's world tilted and blurred from the super-speed of the creature.
The beast grunted with each step, saying in a low voice, "Art...Artur-ia...Art."
It screeched when an arrow pierced through its back and the tip came through its chest only an inch away from Arturia's head. She groaned when the beast stumbled forward, crushing her harder into its body to keep her from slipping its grasp.
It turned toward the boy who shot the arrow.
Briston swallowed a giant lump in his throat and withdrew another arrow from his pack, readying it on the bow's string. "Ar-Arturia, don't worry. W-we're going to s-save you—"
The monster roared, scaring creatures for the several miles that encompassed the four of them. Briston whimpered as his hands became unsteady.
Ferrick prowled around the beast as it continued to guard its captive in the confines of its chest. Arturia wheezed from the pressure on her body, begging silently for the monster to drop her.
"Art," the monster wheezed and then its grip on her slackened, until she fell from its arms and hit the ground rolling.
The rocks and roots dug into her body, and her head bashed against a boulder a few feet away from the beast, blacking her out.
The monster turned away from the woman and toward the two boys waiting to attack. Briston gaped at Arturia as she laid unconscious at its back, then forced himself to steady his hand on the bow.
Ferrick paced closer to the monster, holding the sword out in front of him.
The monster reached for the arrow, gripped its neck and snapped the end. Both sides of the arrow seemed to slide out of its body. Mist rose from the wound as it sizzled and began to close.
"M-magic—" Briston paled.
"Just hit him with another fucking arrow," Ferrick snarled before lurching forward, attacking with an offensive blow toward the torso of the monster.
It balked, narrowly dodging the attack before throwing its arm out to hit the warrior in the head.
For a moment, it was a battle of dodging and throwing ill-aimed attacks. Ferrick heaved with exhaustion as he backed away from the monster, who seemed to be regenerating energy with every passing moment.
"We have to get Arturia!" Briston hissed as he launched another arrow. "Don't worry about killing the thing, Fer."
"You think I'm not going to take this chance, when we probably won't get it again?" Ferrick swung his blade again at the monster, landing a blow in the monster's leg as he moved to dodge.
Ferrick grunted as he ripped the blade from the flesh of the beast, who responding by howling and reaching for Ferrick's blade.
Ferrick attacked with abandon, putting all his strength in each blow. The monster parried as best as it could, catching the ends of Ferrick's attacks in its arms and legs, until a fluke caused the monster to grip the blade in a paw.
It pulled on the sword and Ferrick lurched forward as he kept a firm hold on the hilt.
"Another arrow!" He yelled as he tried to pry the blade from the monster's grasp.
Briston withdrew another arrow and readied it shakily. He swallowed another large lump in his throat before launching the arrow at the monster. This one buried itself in the monster's neck.
It was enough of a distraction for the monster, who dropped the sword and reach for the object. A heavy stream of blood poured from the wound in its neck, drippling down its chest. The liquid shown in the moonlight, and a sense of triumph caught Ferrick in the chest as he swung again at the monster.
Distracted, the beast was unable to dodge the blade as it dug itself in its side. It screeched, bending over as more blood poured from its body.
Ferrick ripped the sword from the folds of the monster's torso and brought it over his head, readying himself for a death blow, imagining the monster's head bouncing off the rocks and roots that had knocked Arturia out.
Clutching its side with one arm, the monster flung the other one at Ferrick blindly. It hit him in the chest, sending the air out of Ferrick as he was flung backwards.
The creature leapt away from the three, scurrying off into the forest. It blended in with the shadows and within seconds, Briston and Ferrick heard no sound of its wheezing.
It had left Arturia alone, luckily.
As Briston dropped his bow and hurried to Arturia's side, Ferrick stood from where he fell, swearing.
Briston saw the woman's chest rise and fall, but there was a substantial amount of blood coming from the top of her body. He slid his hands underneath and lifted her, seeing a cut at the back of her head. He ripped a piece of cloth from her dress, careful not to touch her soft skin, and covered the wound with the piece.
Ferrick came to the two, brewing in silence. His eyes kept darting in the direction the beast had disappeared, staring at the blood trial it left behind.
"We need to regroup," Briston muttered as he lifted Arturia into his arms. His eyes didn't stray too far from her, especially when her shirt slipped to reveal more soft skin. Red blush spread up his neck and face as he swallowed and looked away.
Ferrick caught Briston's expression and snorted.
"We need to regroup to take care of her, Ferrick," Briston restated. "We can't do this without her."
"Just because she has magic?"
"No." Briston looked in the direction that Ferrick was watching and grimaced. "Because the monster knows her."
The first rays of the morning were peaking over the tree tops when Briston and Ferrick made it out of the forest. Arturia, now in Ferrick's arms, had yet to wake up and her head was bandaged clumsily with different strands of cloth.
Ferrick caught Briston's gaze every few yards, but ignored his friend. The woman didn't weigh much and while she was unconscious, her closeness put Ferrick on edge. Since the moment he met Arturia, a sense of caution kept him from his curiosity of her.
A woman who hid behind a hood, with magic that Ferrick had never seen, and a connection the menace that haunted the forest for the last several years.
Growing up in the village nearest to the Therilean forest, Ferrick learned quickly of dangers of magic and the creatures that lurked in the ancient grounds. Even though his father had reassured him that trusting Arturia would not stir him wrong, there still seemed to be an unavoidable understanding that the strange woman was hiding secrets from him.
Now that they encountered the monster, Ferrick was starting to see why.
The last thing he thought he would be doing was fighting a monster. Instead, he wished that he was at Hyshara's capital, Shirelon. For years Ferrick honed his warrior abilities, hoping that one day he would wear an armor suited for only the king's most supreme guard.
It was an extravagant dream, of course, but as the only man prepared enough for combat in the village of Krele, he was the first one suggested by his father to fight the beast with Arturia.
Luckily, Ferrick had yet to die. Maybe this was a test to prove his worth. Maybe the king would hear about their victory once he slayed the beast.
"Do you think the beast will come out during the day?" Briston asked as they walked through the last few trees of the forest, entering the outskirts, just a few miles away from Krele.
"I hope not," Ferrick muttered. He himself was unsure, especially after seeing how hell-bent the creature was to possess the sorceress. His eyes focused on the woman, watching as she swayed with each step Ferrick made.
Briston led him to a spot several yards away from the tree line where there was a lack of grass and pulled his pack from over his head. There he began to set up camp.
Ferrick sat down on a boulder just a few feet from where Briston dropped his things. Arturia was still in his arms.
Her hood had slid off through the night, revealing more of her face. Her hair, a platinum hue of blonde, stuck up in several different places, and some parts of her head was darkened with blood. What struck horror in Ferrick was not her wounds, but her ears.
"Holy shit," he breathed and brought a finger to graze the tip of her left ear.
"What, is she okay?" Briston hurried to him, but froze at the sight of Arturia's ears, which grew to a point at the ends.
"An elf?" Ferrick growled and pulled the hood back over her head, covering up her identity. "What the hell is an elf doing in Hyshara?"
"I don't know..." Briston said. "All of this is really confusing."
"The beast, now an elf?" Ferrick mulled. "What next, a dragon?"
Ferrick laid Arturia on the ground by, propping her head up by his pack, then hurried to help Briston. They both fell into silence as they gathered wood from the fields outside of the forest, keeping their thoughts to themselves about the matter, until their campfire was prepared.
The fire started rather slowly due to the wind, which picked up as the sun came halfway to the middle of the sky.
Ferrick set out to hunt for a meal, while Briston stayed to clean the Arturia's wounds. There were several, not just on her head, but on her back, arms, and torso.
He made sure to work around her clothes, keeping her privacy sacred, especially after the slip of her dress earlier that morning. The entire time, his cheeks were stained red with embarrassment. He also avoided touching her ears. As the day wore on, they began to twitch and rotate, flicking each time his hand neared the tips.
Eventually Briston settled into leaning against a rock and holding her in his lap. The wound on her head was clean and bandaged clumsily, but enough to protect against the elements.
Ferrick came back with a rabbit hanging over his shoulder and a somewhat permanent scowl on his face.
"We left her staff in there," he muttered as he dropped the rabbit by the fire. "Weren't you supposed to get it?"
Briston paled. "Yes, but the beast was about to kill you. I had to distract it."
"And you left the staff." Ferrick bristled. "You know that piece of stick could've probably taken it down more than any arrow or sword could."
"I suppose." Briston looked down at the woman. "But only because of her. I'm sure if we used it, we'd be useless."
"We can't go back in there without her."
"I suppose," Ferrick said as he set himself to skin the rabbit, angling his sword rather clumsily to slice off the flesh. "We'll see."
Silence fell between the two friends again as Ferrick cooked. The smell wafted around the area and their stomachs growled. Arturia turned in her sleep, facing into Briston's crotch.
He started, readjusting the sleeping woman to face away, as heat once again rushed up the sides of his face.
"It's just a woman, Briston," Ferrick said. "And she's asleep."
"Ma and Da always taught me to be courteous, even if it's unknown to the woman," Briston retorted. "And wouldn't she be a she-elf?"
"Whatever." Ferrick dropped himself by Briston and dug into his rabbit's leg, handing the other one to his friend.
They chewed their meat in silence, one watching the woman while the other watched the flames of their campfire dance.
"You've got wounds too," Briston said. "Don't you?"
"Yes, but I'd rather the beast touch me than you." Ferrick retorted. "With your grimy male hands."
Briston glanced at his large hands and frowned. "Would you rather the wound fester?"
"I suppose," Ferrick said again. "We'll see."
"She's rather pretty, isn't she?" Briston asked after another mouthful of meat. "If she was a local farmer's daughter, I would ask for her hand."
"She's not." Ferrick said. "I would stop fantasizing if I were you."
"What's the harm?"
"The harm is that being let down will become harder the more you imagine it." Ferrick crossed his arms behind his head, inclining against the boulder, closed his eyes, and sighed through his nose. "For your own safety, don't bother with her."
"What would you know?" Briston snorted. "You've never been in love."
"I wouldn't call this love either. And I would know a lot. I'm not ignorant to the world."
"Are you saying I am?"
"I'm not saying anything really."
"Whatever," Briston grumbled and crossed his arms. "You're just pestering me because you're bored."
"If you believe that honesty is pestering, then I have some news for you, Briston," Ferrick retorted, but smiled.
Briston stopped replying and sulked, studying the woman, her ears, the fire, and the forest to the right of them. Shadows danced with the sun rays through the canopies of the trees, giving light to the creatures scurrying across the forest floor.
Yet there was no sight of the beast, to his relief. Briston wondered what Arturia had to do with the beast. In fact, he wondered what the beast was exactly. It was not like anything he ever experienced, and it could talk – and heal at an unthinkable rate.
The monster was the most magical thing Briston had ever seen – and the most terrifying.
As the sun began to approach the tree lines of the Therilean forest, the woman began to stir in his lap. She groaned, hissing at the pain she finally felt as she gained consciousness, and began to roll off of his lap onto the hard, dirt ground.
Briston grabbed for her, up-righting her as her eyes flung open and her arms struck out. He hissed as she hit his face, wincing at the blow, before she settled down and looked around.
"Where are we?" She asked. "Where is he?"
"Who?" Ferrick questioned. "Calm down. We're safe outside of the forest."
Briston let go of her as she scooted away from the two, narrowing her eyes.
"We escaped?" Arturia breathed and wrapped her arms around herself. "Thank the gods."
"Yes, Briston threw pointed sticks to distracted the creature until I stabbed it in the side," Ferrick said. "We left your staff behind though. Courtesy of Briston."
"I shot arrows," Briston explained in depth with a huff. "We were in such a hurry after the monster limped off that we forgot the staff."
"Who is 'he'?" Ferrick inserted before Arturia could reply.
She felt around her head, feeling for the gash, and closed her eyes for a moment, taking in deep breathes and praising their safety. Then Arturia froze, feeling her ears move freely and uncovered. "I..."
"We know," Ferrick mumbled and rolled his eyes. "We saw them earlier."
"But don't worry," Briston said. "We're not going to tell anyone."
"Ah..." Arturia dropped her hands from her head and averted her eyes.
It served her right, she supposed, since she hid her identity rather poorly and didn't bother with introductions to the situation.
Now, two humans sat before her waiting for answers.
Answers Arturia was not ready to give and knew would send the two humans running.