Sword & Sorcery Volume 1 – Chapter 3

“Oi! Rookie! Take this barrel to the men at the camp fire!” Yelled a large, semi-fat man across the camp.

“R-right!” yelled Thakeo back, nearly out of breath.

“Once you are done with that, grab the buckets and wash them in the river.” Yelled the fat man next and pointed towards a stack of buckets standing next to the tent.

“I got it!” Replied Thakeo next as he lifted up the small barrel full of an unknown liquid.

Thakeo was not sure just what sort of liquid it was but it was likely some sort of booze as these poachers seemed to be drinking like a hole in the ground. They could even give Thragoth a run for his money, not that dwarves ran that much, if they could avoid it.

However this line of thought was not really something he should be thinking about now, not given his current situation, as he should be out hunting for magic beasts, not slaving away in a poacher camp.

Of cause, the day had not started like this but had started like he had originally planned but had quickly taken a turn for the worse. Thakeo felt sad and afraid just by thinking about it.

Thakeo started his journey before the sun was even up yet the birds was already signing vividly as if to welcome the new day. Of cause, Thakeo did not notice this was he walked down the narrow woodland trail as he spent more time yawning than admiring the beautiful view.

One thing was the lack of proper sleep but also because this was way earlier than he would normally get up. Even Koh, the beast girl, was still asleep when he woke up. He had wanted to discuss his plan with her but in the end, had decided to delay that.

The person who he was sure could help had already been informed via a letter he had sent in turn with the farmer who had brought him to the town and should be in that capable persons hands within a day or two and that should fix the issue with Koh.

Thinking about possible issues, then Thakeo knew that he might also face such when venturing into the wild but as for the nature of those issues, he could not even guess so he head instead prepared the basic equipment and gear that he might need.

However it had not been until he had reached his first rest stop around noon that he made an inventory check by placing everything on the ground at his make shift camp, just to be sure he had everything he might need.

On the ground before him, from the left to the right: A rather generic short sword, a crossbow, a bag of rope in case it was needed and finally he had a heavy duty net with metal fittings which could be used for traps.

Each of these items had been fitted with Trahgoth’s little magnotronicons or whatever he had called them and thus, each of them could be summoned using his new bracelets, which he was currently wearing.

However the downside was that each item had to be placed within a prearranged magic circle which Kelrick had prepared for him, however those were made of paper and while thy would work then once it rained they would be useless so they had to be placed within a dry area.

Another issue was also the range of the bracelets which no one really tell as it was more or less a new magic invention, even if they had just combined existing magic and he would still need to test it out more once he had found a place to put the items.

Of cause those were not the only items he had brought along but the rest were not really items which he wanted to summon. Those items had also been placed on the ground and included bottles with a smelly liquid called a stink bomb and other small bombs which produced a bright light and loud noise.

Both of them should be useful in scaring away most magic beasts should any of them prove a threat or get in the way. These were normally children’s toys used for big celebrations however Thakeo had modified them while back at school so they were even more potent than normal.

He had done so before even being given this silly task but since they were ready it might prove useful to try them out while he was here.

However the most important thing he had brought with him was the hand held crossbow, but not a normal crossbow as this one had been specially designed to fire bolts equipped with sealing crystals. This was to help him actually capture the magic beast as well.

While it should be Nr. 2 in the equipment line and even had a magno-thingy equipped then it was too expensive to risk damaging it so Thakeo had instead decided to carry it with him.

Normally once might try to tame the beast without sealing it first but doing so was reckless especially without experience so it was considered normal for rookies such as himself to first capture the beast and then try and tame it under more secure conditions or so he had read in a book during one of his many detentions.

The bolts themselves was just normal wood but instead of metal head it had been fitted with premade sealing crystals which would activate upon hitting a target and thus seal everything within itself.

The crystals themselves came in many different varieties and shapes depending on their need. Some advanced crystals even had special features to help determine what was sealed inside or even show the contents magic alignment by changing color to fit that magic element.

One of the most interesting scripts which could be added to a sealing crystal was without a doubt the ‘fire and forget” spell wherein the crystal would seek a target of its and try to hit it without the trapper needing to do anything.

While Thakeo would have loved to have had such a feature then the sad state of his finances after the purchase of the bracelets was in a dire situation. As such, Thakeo only had half a dozen or so bolts and each of the crystals was clear as water and roughly cut but they should do the trick none the less, if he could that was.

“I wonder if I can actually hit anything with this?” Mumbled Thakeo as he checked the aim of the crossbow by pointing it at a nearby tree before tying it to a small rope he had hanging from his belt.

The belt itself was also something new as Thakeo had decided not to wear his school uniform while journeying into the forest as while it was a traveling outfit then that did not mean it was designed or meant for the areas Thakeo would have to go so he had left it with his aunt instead.

Of cause, the main reason being that if it got ruined he would have to pay for it himself and that was something he did not want to do if he could avoid it given his recent monetary setbacks.

Instead, Thakeo’s current garments consisted of a pair of run down leather boots, a simple but sturdy shirt and pants and to finish the set, he had selected to wear a worn yet warm traveler’s coat, meant for rough conditions in the wild.

Now, the final piece of gear, if one could call it that, was the necklace his father had sent him. Thakeo looked at it, still unsure if it would really work the way Kelrick had described but the only way to find out was to test it out in the wild. Thus, Thakeo wore the necklace around his neck, hidden under his garments.

Having performed the final ‘field check’ Thakeo packed the items away and took one last look at the map to check his location and the route he had to take.

He was still not far from town if he wanted to turn back but the hard part was ahead as the area where the beasts could be found was several hours away and it was not like he could just follow the road all the way.

Judging by the map and route it would likely take him another hour or two to get to the spot he had marked on his map. While it certainly did suck to be sleeping outside but time was against him as well so he did not have any other choice.

“Once I get there I have… It gives me… 3 days? No, 3 and a half day to find that silly beast.” Mumbled Thakeo to himself.

It should hopefully be enough time to complete his assignment and if he did not, he would be a laughing stock at school, again, and suffer severe detentions, again.

There was of cause, still the matter with angry elves, twitchy dwarfs and whatnot making a mess of the country side if everything he had been told was true. This was a bit much potential trouble he could run into but it was not like he had any other choice and thus proceeded down the dusty road.

– ₪ –

The sun was high in the sky and the heat could be felt across his entire body. It was well past noon and Thakeo was drenched in sweat, even if he had already removed his coat the heat was still getting to him.

“Unbearable…”Mumbled Thakeo and sighed as he wiped his forehead.

The only good thing about this heat was that it meant that the evening would at least be warm however the downside was that it could also start raining but at this stage, Thakeo would not mind a bit of that.

However, barely had he thought that before he nearly rammed into a branch.

“For the love of… This forest is full of trees!” Growled Thakeo, unaware of how stupid his comment was.

The forest was by nature, full of trees but the level of denseness he had found on the way to the clearing was beyond anything he had experienced before.

“Arrggh! Why me?” Cried Thakeo out aloud as he nearly lost his balance walking through the woods.

For nearly every step he had to either move to the side, dodge or jump over various bushes, branches and tall grass he came across. The denseness of the woods truly made this a wild forest unspoiled by human hands, as well as any other race for that matter.

Of cause, Thakeo would not have minded a road or trail he could have used have used instead of walking through the wilderness but fate wanted otherwise.

“Ah! The sword!” Mumbled Thakeo suddenly himself.

Thus would have been a good chance to summon his short sword but he had not setup the magic circles just yet and the sword was in his bag so he could easily fish it out from there and thus, did so.

A minute later, Thakeo was happily swing his short sword back and forth, cutting down the branches and tall grass which was in the way and thus making an easier path for him to follow as he could now see where he was stepping.

“Hah! So much easier! I can do this! Gyaaah!” Said Thakeo in triumph however barely had he said that before he lost his footing and fell on his rear end.

Looking down at his feet, Thakeo quickly noticed that they were covered in water. As he got back up he also noticed that the grass here was slightly different, stronger and more rough than regular grass.

“By the gods… One more step and I would have gotten wet feet.” Said Thakeo with a sigh as he pulled himself away from the creek.

Strangely enough the creek was not marked on the map and thus, he was either lost or he had found one of the countless runoff locations for water streaming down from the mountains.

However, if it was a runoff creek then it was strange that there was still so much water in it. What was strange was that it was late summer so why was there still so much in the creek and it just kept coming but there was no snow or sources of water that could produce so much water. Maybe it was an underground spring?

Thakeo was not sure what was the cause however it did provide him with a simply way to locate the main river. All he had to was to follow the creek and it should meet up with the river at some point, thus reducing his chances from getting lost.

“Okay… let’s follow the creek!” Said Thakeo with a smile and started walking again.

It did not take long before the water flow began to increase as the creek met with another and soon thereafter a third and the creek had now become a small river in its own.

Soon thereafter the creek finally met up with the main river which was flowing southwards, the same direction he was going, but just in case, Thakeo decided to confer with his map one more time.

“Hmm… It does seem to be the right away. But… Hmm…” Mumbled Thakeo to himself but suddenly a feeling that something was not quite right around the area but he could not put a word on just what it was.

Maybe it was his mind playing tricks on him but it was not like he could really do anything about it even if something was to happen, well he could use one of his father’s advice which stated that; if in trouble, haul ass as fast you can.

It might sound cowardly but Thakeo could not help but respect he few words of wisdom his father had given him, even if they were utterly stupid the majority of the time. Thakeo shook his head and hid the map once more and started to walk again.

“Ah well, we will see what happeeens! Guh!” Mumbled Thakeo, however midsentence he stumbled across something and feel face first into the mucky ground, covering himself in dirt.

“Why… Me…” Mumbled Thakeo as he raised his dirt covered head.

Slowly he sat up and removed the dirt from his face before turning around to see what had tripped him up, however what filled him was not anger but more that of surprise.

Laying on the ground next to the river was a large wooden branch however that was not surprising it was more way the branch looked.

Thakeo kneeled down and took a closer look at the branch. It was as thick as the lower arm of a man at one and slightly slimmer at the other end. It looked like a primitive club used by bandits but that was not the interesting part.

No, that was the fact that this piece of wood was old, very old and had long since lost any remains of bark but instead had a nearly white color but the most important part was that it also had a distinct metallic odor.

“Could this really be?” Mumbled Thakeo to himself, surprised by about his luck in a bad luck situation.

The determine whatever or not he was right, he picked up the branch, which was quite heavy and decided to try and lick and while it seemed plain dumb to do so for none magic folk, it was in fact not unheard of for mages to taste wood and other such natural materials as it would reveal a lot about the material.

Of cause, most mages did not need to do so but he did not have an alchemy kit with him, nor time to test it out even if he did.

As his tongue touched the heavy branch his mouth was instantly filled with a taste similar to iron which in turn had a taste similar to blood.

“Hah! Would you look at that! Who would have thought that I would find Ironwood all the way out here?” Said Thakeo to himself and laughed softly.

He did not do so because Ironwood was all that rare or hard to obtain. No, it was the process of getting rid of the bark and drying the wood as it was very hard and time consuming to do. Thus, to find such a large piece already stripped of bark would be worth a good amount of coin.

It would not be enough to cover the expenses he had had for this trip but it would go a long way and he could always use it as a club if needed. As such, Thakeo decided to add the branch to the items he could summon but he would do that later as this was hardly the place to do so.

Thakeo sat down on a nearby stone and looked at the map once again in order to get a better look at his barring’s. It was not that he was lost but he did not know his exact location due to the lack of detail on the map but he just wanted

He was currently around 1½ Vei (note) away from the town, or half a Vei south of the cross itself and was within the area where magic animals and beasts should appear.

It was still a long way of the elven territories south of town but given the fact that they may be hostile it was better to stay away from there. Hunting magic beasts was hard enough without a bunch of elves firing arrows at him, not that he had anything against elves or any other race for that matter.

Besides them there was also the poachers which he did not want to run into either as they were rarely the most lovable people in the world, not that he had ever met any but in general their reputation made them sound more like bandits and robbers than normal farmers and merchants which he was used to dealing with.

Thakeo began to draw several circles on the map where he knew there was good chances to find a magic beast or at least find traces of them. They were all relatively close to his current location so a nearby area might be a good location for a camp.

As Thakeo was sitting there, he suddenly jumped up and turned around, looking into the forest ready to fight as he felt that someone or something was looking at him yet he saw nothing there.

“My imagination maybe?” Mumbled Thakeo to himself.

It was the same weird feeling which he had felt before, yet he could still not describe it. It was not premonition as no such skill exists. The closest thing he could compare it with was when one of the teachers who was about to send him to detention but he highly doubted that his teachers would follow him out here.

However, it still left a big of a weird feeling and it did not sit right with him and as such, he thought about looking for another location as this one just didn’t feel right.

“Well, were the river flows the fish flies or whatever the saying is.” Mumbled Thakeo and packed away the map one more time before he continued following the river.

An hour or so alter, Thakeo, had found a suitable area to setup a camp, even if it was still in the middle of the afternoon, then his purpose the first day was not to hunt but only setup the camp itself and prepare for the next day.

The location he had found was a bend where the river turned in a 90 degree turn for a short while before heading southwards again. It was also surrounded by large rocks and trees which gave some shelter against the elements so this was as good a location as any for a camp.

He had already made a primitive tent from branches of wood and stone, prepared a camp fire and even setup the various summoning circles and added the Ironwood Branch to the collection.

“Hmm, let’s test this out. Appear! Nr. 1!” Said Thakeo and soon thereafter he stood with the short sword in his hand.

It seemed to work fine but he could not be sure what the range of the bracelets were but it was not something which he could test out in full. Instead then he could test it out as he walked around tomorrow. If none of the items could not be summoned at a certain point, then he would know the rough range of the bracelets.

“Well, in any case, dinner comes first.” Mumbled Thakeo as his current priority was that of dinner.

Thus, Thakeo began to search through his backpack for some gear and quickly found what he was looking for, a bundle of thin wire with associated jagged metal bits. By combining these with a branch from a nearby tree, he now had a makeshift fishing pole.

Soon thereafter, Thakeo was sitting on a large rock, next to the river, trying to catch something but so far he had not had any luck. There should be fish here as far as he knew but it might be a futile effort but at least it was peaceful.

The only thing which could be heard was the running water in the river, which was actually more like a wide creek, running from the mountains in the north, down south, passing through several small lakes.

The river water was of cause drinkable and also supplied not only the town but also many other small communities as well as the many animals who lived in the area.

Still, the clear water did remind Thakeo of the workers he had seen in town the day before, the ones who had walked around doing simple jobs, being seemingly absent minded. These were the people which Thragoth had referred to as being ‘shined’.

The reason the water reminded him of them was due to the blue watery glow which emanated from their eyes, signifying they had been shined.

It was also referred to as the ‘divine blizz’ or ‘heavenly tears’ depending on whom one asked but despite of these names they were not even close to being of a benign nature as the sole purpose of that stuff was to make a person’s mind a complete haze and susceptible to outside influence, removing any form of individuality.

Of cause, simply putting something in such a state would not do much good if anyone could command them and thus, blood of the ‘owner’ was usually added to the mixture to make them obey that bloodline only.

Some lords used shining as an alternative to corporal punishment of criminals, letting them work as mindless slaves instead until their bodies broke down at which stage they were simply cast aside. Some countries such as the Aukhewaeseon Alliance would even use such against children, regardless of whatever or not they had done anything, simply because they could.

Of cause, the ingredients for the potion, regardless of its origin, was very hard and at times, expensive, to obtain and also the potion itself took a long time to make. Combined these two factors was what prevented the mass production of this drug.

However, as Hasti had mentioned then it was highly illegal within the Empire to perform such an act as robbing people of their free will, regardless of their crime, as it was considered beyond redemption so if someone was using it would be a serious crime but first one had to find the culprit and proof as well.

If one could get a hold of a potion of the mix, one could potentially discover which ingredients were used to make it and use that to find someone who had bought a lot of that but a potential criminal would not be foolish enough to be caught so easily.

The delivery of the drug also had to come into consideration as some made a liquid version and others used a powder version and both could easily be mixed with food and drink as well which was needed as the potion supposedly had a foul taste and smell, depending on the ingredients used and this was accumulative, meaning that the more you added to food or drinks, the more prominent these two factors became.

Sadly then Thakeo did not have that much knowledge about this sort of stuff beyond what was commonly known but he did know that since it was a poison, people could easily die from having too much, or the effect break earlier if they had too little so it had to be managed carefully.

“Oh? That might be a way to do it…” Mumbled Thakeo who suddenly thought of something, however before he could ponder further on the subject, something pulled the line of his fishing rod.

“Woah! This is a big one!” Said Thakeo with a smile as he quickly got on his feet for the struggle against the fish in a ‘mighty’ struggle for dear life.

As Thakeo was sitting near the camp eating the fish he had caught earlier, he suddenly felt the same feeling he had felt earlier, that he was being watched. He turned his head and looked around but as the dark of night had settled, his vision was severely limited.

Instead, he focused his hearing for quite a while but only the wind blowing gently in the trees and the cracking of the camp fire could be heard.

Thakeo shook his head as he wondered if he was going paranoid. He still had a lot of stuff to do before he could turn in for the day. Maybe the stress was getting to him? After all, it was the first time he had been serious about doing a school assignment and combined with all the stuff in town, anyone could get worked up.

“By the gods… This is too much.” Mumbled Thakeo and laid down in the grass with his arms behinds his head, starring up at the evening sky.

Thakeo smiled softly as looking at the starry sky had always helped him relax no matter what had happened. Especially the twin moons helped his mood become better.

Their names, Aaldir and Ovania, hinted towards an old legend regarding the ancient nomadic mages of eons ago. It was a tale of twins, the first mages in history who harnessed the power of magic and used it in their daily lives.

Thakeo could not remember the whole tale as it was a children’s story but he did remember that in the end, one of the twins was punished by the gods due to abusing magic. The other twin, using magic with wisdom decided to join their sibling in receiving the punishment. As such, the gods punished the twins to watch over the world for all eternity in the night sky or something along those lines.

It was also said that this this was where the dark and light magic’s originated as they were not part of the natural bonds such as the elemental magic which was dominant now a days.

In a way one could say that the two moons represented good and evil and the struggle between the two in the daily lives of all living creatures. It might be true as good could not exist without evil, nor evil without good.

Whatever or not it was true or just some old grumpy mages who had made up the story, no one could know now a days.

“Hmm… Maybe I should read that story again one day.” Mumbled Thakeo as he yawned due to the long walk and lack of sleep from the day before was setting in. Slowly, he got up and walked over to the shelter and went to sleep.

– ₪ –

The following morning, Thakeo, sore across his body due to not being used to sleeping outside, set out as the morning mist was still clutching the ground, making it slightly more difficult to traverse the terrain but as he was an hour or two away from the nearest location on his map it should have cleared by then.

As Thakeo walked down the narrow forest trail he had the same feeling of being watched like he did the day before but even if he looked around he could not find the source of this glare. However where as he felt anxious before, now he was just annoyed as it was messing up his rhythm.

With these thoughts going through his head, Thakeo finally arrived at the first clearing one the map. It was supposedly a small clearing in the middle of the forest which was home to several rare animals.

However, as Thakeo proceeded towards the clearing the only thing he found there was a vast empty field of tree stumps, broken branches and tools which had been left behind.

In fact, the entire area was more or less destroyed, leaving no areas left for the animals. As for the size of the area, it was much larger than the lumber mill itself and it seemed like it had happened recently.

However, as Thakeo looked around he found no traces of the trees which had been chopped down nor any signs of any wagons being in the area as there was no tracks and certainly no roads this far into the forest and the people who did this certainly would not have the ability

It was yet another mystery in a long list of things which was weird or just felt wrong ever since he arrived at this town. Whatever the cause, the current area was useless due to the deforesting.

Thakeo sighed and looked at the map once more, scratching out the local area as he would not need to come this way again. With that, he packed the map away once more and proceeded towards the second location to try his luck there.

Spending the next few hours walking through the wilderness, Thakeo, slowly became tired of this silly outing of his, not just mentally but also physically. However according to his map the next location should be nearby, just beyond the current ridge he was climbing so he might be able to get a break soon.

Gasping for air, as he climbed the last part up the hill which was nearly as steep as a cliff and when he reached the top, he immediately sat down.

As such, Thakeo had finally realized just how out of shape he was. Of cause spending most the days in a class room without doing anything physical would do that. As such, Thakeo silently decided to exercise more when he got back.

Looking out over the area, Thakeo realized that the current clearing was in fact more than just a small plateau or a very large hill with steep sides.

Before his eyes was a vast field full of flowers and tall grass as far as the eye could see. It was quite a breathtaking view. Having recovered somewhat mentally, Thakeo got on his feet and proceeded to walk into the field, yet once again, something felt just off.

An area this vast should have a decent amount of small scale magic beasts ranging from smaller rabbit sized creatures and to the size of a small dog.

However, as he looked around, there was barely a trace of any normal animals and certainly no magic beasts as the field in front of him, causing him to get an eerie feeling to it.

As the grass moved in the wind, nothing else could be heard and only a sweet, yet bitter smell lingered in the air and while it felt familiar, Thakeo could not put a word to what is was.

As he walked into the wide meadows in order to cross it, the smell became stronger and stronger and instead of just being bitter sweet, the smell was quickly becoming overwhelmingly nauseating in its sweetness.

It did not take long for Thakeo to find the source of the smell, as well the reason why there was no animals around. The answer was right in front of him in the form of a large pit in the ground, filled to the top with animal carcasses in all shapes and sizes.

The bitter-sweet smell from before came from their current decayed state. It was now so bad that Thakeo felt like throwing up but somehow managed to constrain himself from doing so. Not even the wind would be able to get rid of the smell nor the countless files which were humming around.

Looking at the pile of dead animals, Thakeo noticed that all of the animals seemed to have been skinned and anything which was deemed useless was simply tossed aside, including the meat which could not be safely transported away.

“So, this is the work of the poachers?” Mumbled Thakeo to himself, trying not to inhale through his nose.

It certainly looked like something poachers would do but the sheer amount of dead animals in the pit as well as the large amount of flattened grass indicated that this was not just a few poachers like one might encounter.

No, this was not just a simple group of poachers but seemed more like professional hunters and a lot of them. They needed a large amount of expert hunters to cause this sort of butchery of so many animals.

Still, with some many people they would make a lot of noise which would and chase away the animals, so he could not understand why there were so many animals in the pile of bones. Could they be using some sort of lure to gather the animals but in this amount, would it even be possible to do? Different species and different sizes, it did not matter, because all of them seemed to gather around this area and were butchered.

No normal lure could even do that, and it was considered luck if it worked. If that was the case, then it was possible that they were using a magic lure but still, to do so without any regards to species was not something Thakeo had ever thought possible.

While it was a fascinating idea then given the scene before him, he really did not want to meet the people responsible for this scene as they might not be right in the head.

Of cause, this also meant that there would be no animals around, especially not magic beasts who were very sensitive to magic and thus, would rather flee then investigate unknown magic sources. This was what made them hard to catch, especially time was used a lot during these sort of hunts.

Speaking of time, Thakeo looked up at the sky. It was still before noon as far as he could guess and since he had not spent much time at this and the first area so he might be able to make it to the last location and get back to his own camp with time to spare.

Making the decision to proceed might seem silly given his luck so far but at least this way, if the last location was in same state as the first ones, he would have to find another solution to his school assignment and could use the extra time for that so he decided to press on.

However, even as he headed for the last location he still found no traces of animals, magic or otherwise. It seemed like they had simply vanished into thin air.

But how was that possible? Given the large amount of animals in the land, it was highly unlikely that the poachers had gotten them all. So how? How could they all be gone just like that? He had a ton of questions but no answers.

Thakeo continued to think this as he walked through the forest, following a trail which should take him to the last area, in hope of finding something there.

Still, it was not just the hunting itself that caused these questions. The missing people from the lumber Mill, the cut down trees at the first location and now a gang of poachers. Could all of these be connected and if so, what was the purpose of doing this? And had that anything to do with the current issues in the town itself?

It might be farfetched to think this but he could not help it as everything seemed a little too convenient to be happening at the same time but the entire ordeal did sound strangely familiar for some reason yet he could not remember where he had heard it before.

Thakeo shook his head as that was mere guess work and without the needed clues it was not like he would be able to find the answers just like that. After all, it came down to having proof just like Hasti had said.

And of cause, the constant feeling of being watched was not something he could shake either but each time he had checked, there had been nothing around him for ages.

“This forest is dead…” Mumbled Thakeo, however barely had he said that before he nearly walked into something soft which was blocking the trail, but he managed to dodge it at the last second.

“What is this?” Asked Thakeo out loud, despite no one being around to hear him.

As his fingers touched the soft, woolly object he could not help but smile due to the weird sensation. Next, he started to poke the furry object and the surface deformed but quickly regained its shape.

“What is this weird rock? Is it a rock?” Mumbled Thakeo with a smile. It might be childish but Thakeo did find great joy in the small things.

However, as he continued to poke the object harder and harder, a bright glow originated from within his shirt. Thakeo froze for a second in complete surprise before he quickly pulled out the object, which was in fact the weird necklace he had received from his father.

The central crystal was shining in a black-reddish color, but it was not an elemental color like he had been told it could detect. As such, it was clear that this artifact could be used for other types of magic as well and while he could even guess what type of magic it was, but in all the books and stories he had heard as a child then black and red was never a good combination.

While Thakeo was looking at the amulet, artifact or whatever it might be, the weird rock slowly began to move upwards, like it was a bun heating in an oven, just much taller. Slowly turning his head, Thakeo noticed that he was still rubbing the rock with his left hand, but more importantly, he realized something very important.

“Y-you are n-not a…” Stuttered Thakeo, however he did not get to complete his sentence before an ear shattering roar originated directly in front of him.

“…rock.” Said Thakeo, now covered in saliva, snot and what not, while his ears was ringing, all thanks to the giant monster which now stood before him, wielding claws the size of his chest, teeth the size his fingers, all covered in dark blue fur with a bright blue mane.

“Nice bear… Let us get along…” Mumbled Thakeo with a weird smile on his face as he slowly backed away from the monstrous bear as he was clearly too close.

The bear growled again, as if answering Thakeo’s plea with a direct challenge. Of cause it was impossible to be sure what it said if anything at all as bears did not have any language.

Even backing away at his current pace, it was likely that the bear would attack. Thus was not just a guess but a clear observation of the way the bear handled itself.

At this point it was standing on its hind legs, it usually meant that the bear was unsure what was in front of it and tried to get a better vantage point to see and smell the area around it, it was part of their nature.

However, Thakeo highly doubted that this bear had that sort of intentions as it clearly glared at him with its ears aligned backwards, which was a normal way of indicating that the bear was more likely to attack than run away, yet it only growled for now.

“Nice bear… Humans do not taste good, at least not me…” Mumbled Thakeo in a monotone voice, averting his gaze to avoid eye contact with the bear to prevent agitating it further, however he did this with an awkward smile on his face, making him look rather silly.

This was not the sort of encounter he had envisioned but now he was glad that he had stayed awake during the classes involving animals and magic beasts which, besides explain the different animals, magic beasts and their habitats, it also included details about how to avoid a confrontation and what to do should it arise.

Luckily he had prepared something just in cases such as, even if it was meant against smaller animals. Sneaking his hands inside his pockets, Thakeo slowly fished out a small glass vial filled with a translucent green liquid in his right hand and a small greyish paper ball, filled with powder.

The content in the vial was a stink bomb whereas the paper ball contained blast powder shaped to be used as smoke bomb. Combined these two items would create a stinky smell as well as a lot of noise and smoke. Hopefully that would be enough to scare the bear but he would not use it if he could avoid it.

However, the bear clearly had other intentions than just letting him go as shown when Thakeo was a bit of distance away the bear suddenly dropped to all four, positioning its legs to do a charge, but whatever or not it would be a bluff, he could not take any risks.

As the bear was about to charge, Thakeo first tossed the stink bomb directly in front of the bear where the liquid inside instantly turned into a green mist upon exposure to the air.

The intense smell instantly filled the air, causing the bear to get back on its hind legs once more, its rearing caused to the smell. Next, Thakeo threw the smoke bomb directly at the bear, striking its head which was soon covered in a white fog as the bear roared.

At this moment, Thakeo spun around and legged it as fast as he could run, no much faster than he had ever run before with the simple goal to get away.

“Okay! Never poke the bear! I get that now!” Cried Thakeo out loud as he ran through the forest.

He didn’t care about the direction, he just had to get away from the ghastly beast, scarcely noticing the two red eyes, observing him from the deep of the forest.

– ₪ –

The sun had long since passed noon and was already on the way towards setting in the distance indicating that it was already well past midday and closer to evening but at present Thakeo did not really care.

Currently, he was lying in the grass somewhere far away from his past location, gasping for air. He had no idea where he was, nor did he care as long as the bear was not nearby.

“Curse this trip!” Growled Thakeo while feeling sore across his entire body, not just due to the muscle pain but also due to the countless cuts and scratches inflicted upon him by the think underbrush and low hanging branches.

There was one particularly annoyed scratch on his cheek and while it was not bleeding it was incredibly sore, especially if sweat ran into it which had happened a lot due to the amount of running he had done.

Sadly, there seemed to be little he could do about the stinging sensation as he had not brought such medicines with him and his rating in alchemy and nature lore didn’t even allow him to see the difference between grass and dirt, at least according to his teaches so he could not simply whip some medicine up.

Thakeo sighed due to the bad luck he had experienced this day. First, there were no animals, then it was dead animals and when he finally found a living animal, it tried to eat him.

Well, he could not be sure if that was what it wanted but it was a pretty good guess that he would have ended up in the stomach of the bear if he had not run. Of cause, if he did had not prepared the bombs, he would likely not have made it as running from a bear would just trigger some sort of instinct and chase him down like prey.

Making one final sigh, Thakeo finally sat up and looked around the landscape. While he had evaded the bear, a new problem had suddenly surfaced as he had no clue what his present location was.

Currently he was sitting on a sloping hill right next to the tree line with the sun to above to his right meaning that he should currently be looking southwards or so but he could not be sure.

In cases where one was separate from friends or just lost, one could calculate the movement of shadows over a certain set of time and use that to find the direction of north and thus, find ones current location.

This was a basic survival skill however it could only be used by people who actually knew how to calculate such stuff and the needed tools but Thakeo had neither a measuring tool nor a timepiece to keep track of the movements so it was a useless idea for him to even consider.

“Guess I have to do this the old fashioned style.” Mumbled Thakeo and got on his feet.

In this case, the old fashioned style involved finding the largest tree nearby and climb up to the top to have a look. It was a simply solution but the downside was that he might not find any landmarks which could be used to find his current location but at least he should be able to get a bearing on it.

Thakeo spent the next few minutes looking for a tree which was tall to give him a sufficient vantage point to have a look at the area. Of cause a mountain would be better but the nearest one was too far away to make it there before nightfall and Thakeo really did not want to be here during the night.

He soon found a tree tall enough to provide a good view of the area as well as having branches strong enough to hold his weight as falling to his death would be a rather silly outcome for his little adventure.

“Phew! It has been a while.” Mumbled Thakeo to himself as he look towards the top of the tree.

It truly was a very tall tree and he could not recall ever having climbed one so high before but it did not stop him from climbing upwards, at times, with difficulties until he reached the top and found a good branch to sit on.

Thus, Thakeo was now sitting on a branch at the top of a tree and looking out over the area in the same manner a comical pirate from an adventure novel might do it but luckily he could not see himself from the ground.

From there, he compared the surrounding area to that of his map but he was not able to identify any landmarks and thus, could only conclude that he had somehow moved of the area depicted on the map itself, and by quite a lot as far as he could see.

If he was really as far of the map as it indicated, he was in serious trouble and it was not like he could just pick a direction and walk as that would be foolish and dangerous but it seemed that he had little choice.

Given the position of the sun he could get the rough direction for north and if he walked far enough he should come across the main road connection the town and the border posts to the east but an unknown distance and limited light remaining it was a risky choice to make.

As Thakeo was sitting atop the tree, pondering about his options, he suddenly noticed something in the distance. Towards the west or south west, amongst the big green ocean of trees, smoke rose to the sky. It was barely visible but it was there and it was not that far away as far as he could tell.

Seemingly there was someone else in this forest but given the information he had available it might be the poachers but even if he didn’t agree with their methods, at least they should be able to point him towards town, especially if he gave them a little something on the side, that is if they did not decide that he was a liability or worse, a potential income.

It might seem morally wrong to do so after the slaughter they had made but it was much better than staying in a cold forest at night with an angry bear running wild. Thus, Thakeo quickly noted down the direction of the smoke, climbed down the tree and headed towards the smoke.

It did not take long for Thakeo to move through the forest as this part of it was not as dense as the other parts he had travel through, however it also left him more exposed to being discovered but as long as he kept his wits about him and kept to the underbrush, he was sure it would be fine.

Still, Thakeo could not help but get an ominous feeling once more, but not like before, this time felt much stronger and only grew in strength. Thakeo took a look at the locator necklace or whatever it was and it did seem to show a faint glow, but once again it was a mix of colors, this time a yellow-black combination.

However as Thakeo did not yet know the full extent of necklace’s power, he could only assume that it was displayed the mixed nature, like when the bear had shown a reddish-black color, likely indicating it could have been a demon bear with a fire affinity. If that had been true, he was lucky as demon bears could become much larger than the one he had encountered.

By going on that deduction, the yellow-black color should be some sort of demon and lightning combination, if the black color was meant for demonic powers but it would still not give him a clue as to which creature it was. The colors were still very weak, so that should indicate that the beast was still a bit off but not taking any more chances, Thakeo’s topped up and readied the Crossbow and Sealing Bolts before proceeding forward.

Thus, Thakeo was now slowly moving through the underbrush, trying to navigate the woods using the necklace as a compass. It was hard at first but as his eyes got used to the darkness at the bottom of the woods, the vague glow from the necklace did became easier to spot and as he got closer to whatever it was, it grew in strength, thus making it easier to navigate as well.

Slowly Thakeo was crawling forward like another thief in the night, he suddenly heard something whine and growl from nearby and the necklace was now shining brightly. Thakeo put the necklace away inside his clothes once more and readied his crossbow, ready to fire if needed.

As he gently moved a bit closer and pushed some bushes aside he could not believe his eyes. Less than 15 meters away stood a dog like beast with white fur with a golden tint, barking and growling at a tree. Even without confirming it with magic tools, Thakeo knew that the beast in front of him was a Thunderwolf, a rather strong and rare beast which was very hard to find due to its timid nature and sharp reflexes.

As to why such a wondrous beast was not even noticing him and instead acted like a dog, he could not know but based on his experiences this day, he would likely never come across such a chance again and silently thanked the gods for this lucky encounter.

Thus, Thakeo slowly raised the cross bow, using his other hand to ensure the stability of the weapon as missing the beast now would likely cause it to run away, or worse, attack him and while the reload speed of a crossbow was fast, the wolf was likely faster.

However, Thakeo was having issues with keeping the crossbow steady as his hands was shaking while at the same time, cold sweat began to flow down his face and neck as the wolf continued to bark at the tree, jumping up and down near the tree.

“I have you… NOW!” Mumbled Thakeo and fired the crossbow just as the wolf leaped up once more.

What happened next was not something Thakeo could see as the crystal at the end of the bolt exploded in a bright light which then suddenly started to compact itself inwards with such power that Thakeo could feel the wind being sucked inside the void.

It only lasted for a split second before it was over and the Thunderwolf was nowhere to be found, instead, Thakeo could see a bright-yellow gem the size of a fist laying on the ground, and could not believe that he had actually hit it.

However, just as Thakeo was about to stand up in joyous victory, someone nearby let out a laughter.

“Right on Boss! Another perfect hit!” Said a male voice from within the trees.

Quickly retreating to cover once more, Thakeo watched as three men walked out from amongst the trees, one of whom was of abnormal build and could easily rival Hasti in size.

“It was easy. Hardly a challenge.” Said the large man, carrying something staff like on his back.

“Th-that is true! It was just barking at the tree after all.” Said the third man, a short fat of the type that seemingly would always suck up to those in power.

“Well, it’s the only beast we have seen in the past two days so I ain’t complaining about that. Get the crystal and let us get back to camp, I am starving.” Said the large man.

“Eh? Boss, y-you can really eat that horribly rancid food those ghostlike people make? It really is bland without any taste.” Said the first man who had spoken, a tall and skinny one.

“Food is food, bad or not it keeps you full.” Said the large man with a grunt. Clearly he had no taste for food or at least that was how it seemed.

“Ahh… My kingdom for a slice of roasted pork.” Mumbled the little fat man, seemingly drooling just by the thought of tasty meat.

“What? Only a slice? Why not just eat an entire pig?” Said the skinny man in jest.

“Well, if I get the chance I would.” Said the fat man with a smile and the three of them burst out laughing.

Thakeo on the other hand was not laughing, he was in fact very annoyed that he would now lose the only magic beast he had found all day to a bunch of ragtag poachers but it was not like he would stand a chance against them.

Besides them being much larger than him, they also carried a variety of weapons with them and was clearly seasoned in their job so starting a fight would be suicide and even tossing in a few smoke or stink bombs would only make them angry.

Thakeo had only one choice, well two but he had been through too much this day to leave empty handed so that left one choice which came down to age the idiom; If you can’t beat them, join them. As such, Thakeo took a deep breath and slowly stood up and walked towards the trio.

“Ex-excuse me gentlemen, may I have a word?” Asked Thakeo with his arm raised as a greeting and a smile on his lips, although a weak one.

“What the hell?” Yelled the large man and the trio immediately reach out for their weapons.

“Ple-please wait, I mean no harm.” Said Thakeo and raised both his arm as to fend off their hostility.

“Explain what you are doing here kid!” Demanded the large man to know.

“Eh? Erm… My name is Thakeo, I have spent the entire day to capture a magic beast and I believe that you just took the crystal I hit with my crossbow.” Explained Thakeo politely while showing the crossbow in his hand as well as pointing to the sealing bolts in his other hand.

“Huh? What nonsense are you jabbering about?” Asked the large man confused.

“Yea! What are you asking about?” Asked the short pig like man.

“I am saying that the crystal you just picked up, is mine. After all, I hit it.” Replied Thakeo, this time with a more serious tone of voice.

“Oh? That is quite the claim to make kid but, even if it was true, what makes you think that I care?” Asked the large man with a devious smile.

“It is quite simple. Only a mage can unseal a crystal like that and you do not look like one.” Replied Thakeo and shrugged.

“And who is to say that there is not one in our camp?” Asked the man next, still smiling.

This caused Thakeo to lower his gaze a bit as the mentioning of a camp meant that there were more of them and that these were certainly the poachers he had heard about.

“Earlier today I came across a large pile of animal remains, I assume that was your previous camp? In any case, I did not see any signs of sealing magic being used there so I can only assume that you have hunted those beasts the old fashioned way.” Explained Thakeo, using a rather wide assortment of guess and assumptions.

“And what if we did? What does it matter to you?” Asked the large man next.

“Well, do you have a permit to hunt in these lands? It is very close to elf territory and they tend not to like such savage butchery of animal.” Replied Thakeo, who did not known his current location and as such, could not know where elf territory was but they didn’t know that he didn’t. It kind of made sense yet did not.

“We have a written permit from the lord of the lands as well as the alderman and it is not like we are really butchering the animals either, after all, this land is overflowing with magic beasts.” Said the large man.

“Oh? Then how come I only saw that wolf in the crystal? I have walked quite far today but have not found a single trace of any animals, magic or otherwise and since that only started happening after you people started hunt, what do you think the lord will say to that?” Retorted Thakeo, this time smiling brightly.

“You’ve got guts kid, but what is to prevent me from just beating you up and taken the crystal anyway?” Asked the man finally.

“Nothing really. We both know that I cannot resist you however… My father is a friend of the local magistrate so if I go missing in this area full of poa… Hunters such as yourself… Who do you think they are going to question first?” Replied Thakeo, tiling his head.

“H-he is lying boss Drungal! There is no way that could be true!” Said the tall skinny man.

“Th-that is right! A kid like that should not know such important people!” Said the fat man as he joined in.

“Shut up, both of you!” Said Drungal as he looked at his two henchmen before turning his attention back to Thakeo, seemingly a bit perplexed.

“So, your name is Drungal? Good to know.” Mumbled Thakeo with a low voice.

Drungal did not respond right away but merely walked over towards the sealing crystal, which was still lying on the ground however as soon as he reached the location he stopped and smiled brightly.

“Hey kid! You claim that you hit the wolf and I say that I hit the wolf but I am sure you know only one of us could have done that, right?” Asked Drungal, still smiling.

“Well yes, but I am quite sure that I hit it first.” Replied Thakeo.

“That may be so but, come over here and take a look first.” Said Drungal.

Thakeo quickly looked at the three men in turn and could quickly deduce that a refusal would not be accepted and as such, Thakeo sighed out loud and walked over besides Drungal.

“So what is… What the hell is this?” Asked Thakeo surprised as he looked at the ground.

On the ground was not one, but 2 crystals lying on the ground. One was a large bright yellow crystal the size of a fist however right next to it was another crystal, just a pebble the size of his thumb finger. It was a blackish-grey color without any real shine to it.

“It seems that we both hit something.” Said Drungal with a smile.

“But… Who hit what?” Asked Thakeo next.

“Well that is a problem indeed but if you can prove that you hit the wolf, I will give you the crystal but if you cannot… I will have you work your ass of for an entire day, deal?” Asked Drungal as he placed his arm on Thakeo’s Shoulder.

“So, it is a case of ‘I will show mine if you show me yours’ or something like that?” Asked Thakeo, just to confirm the details to which Drungal nodded in response.

“But, we are not going to do it here. Come, let us go to our camp. By the way, you have no say in the matter.” Said Drungal and more or less dragged Thakeo along.

“Eh? What? Why Me!” Cried Thakeo desperately as they made their way back to the poacher’s camp…

– ₪ –

…And thus, Thakeo now found himself surrounded by poachers, armed to the teeth and manners worse than an entire regiment of dwarves.

“Hey! Don’t forget those buckets now.” Yelled the Large, semi-fat man once more as Thakeo returned with the barrel.

“Ri-right!” Stuttered Thakeo who could not get used to this sort of crude language these poachers was using. Of cause, he was not working for them out of the goodness of his heart but had more or less been forced to do these sort of chores for an entire day, due to him losing the ‘bet’ the day before with the Poacher Drungal.

Of cause it could hardly be called a real bet as Thakeo had hardly had any say in the matter but it did not mean he was stupid enough to go up against these poachers who were more heavily armed than most military units. Thus, he had no other choice but to follow the poachers back to their camp.

Once they had arrived, Drungal he sent his cronies away and dragged Thakeo to visit their local mage, an old man well past his prime as shown when Drungal had to shake the poor old man awake.

After that was done and a wide assortment weird looking bottles, presumably alcohol of some sort, had been ingested by the two adults, they had finally been able to have the mage test the two crystals during that evening but it had unfortunately not turned out in Thakeo’s favor as it turned out that Drungal had indeed hit the Thunderwolf first.

Thakeo was not entirely sure how the mage could see the difference but it likely came down to the magic residue a weapon often leaves behind on the outside of the crystal left behind when the sealing spell was activated upon impact.

As such, Drungal had taken the large crystal as well as the small one which might not even contain a very strong magic beast at all as not even the old mage could find much magic inside of it but he could at least confirm that there was something inside but could not determine what.

As such, Drungal had told Thakeo that he would make good of his threat and thus, Thakeo was now forced to work for the poachers for an entire day without a break as punishment even if he did nothing wrong.

At this stage, Thakeo could only think of when he was done and would be handed the tiny crystal when he was done. That was by now the only light at the end of the tunnel he had and it was a very dim light but once he was done, he would be able to end this disastrous trip and go home.

Thakeo sighed as he remembered all of that. Even if he had been allowed to sleep in a primitive tent then it had been the storage tent without anything even closely resembling a blanket to keep him warm at night.

It would not have been as bad as sleeping outside as he would at least have had a roof to shield him against wind and weather but sadly the poachers had other ideas and late in the evening and well into the night the sounds of drunken singing and banter from the lot of them had prevented him from sleeping at all and thus, he was now sleep deprived, which was impeded his work.

Not that one could really call it work as all he did was weird chores as such washing buckets or move crates and even cleaning out the leftovers from the poachers horses.

Of cause, that in turn had given him some insight into their operation and it was clearly not a small camp as there was at least 50 people at any given time, ranging from hunters and butchers to carpenters and workers.

It was quite am impressive operation which ran without fault but he had not been able to find out just why they were here but it was clear that they were hunting magic beasts on a massive scale he had never even heard about before.

A quick estimate of the amount of beasts killed by them and for how long they had been doing it could not even be made but given the facts he knew, it must have been hundreds of beasts killed based on what he had seen the past few days.

With these thoughts, Thakeo walked towards a nearby creek, carrying the large pile of buckets in his hands to join several others who were there doing similar chores.

As Thakeo began cleaning the buckets he continued to ponder over his discovers as it was not just magic beasts they were hunting and butchered but also cutting down specific trees as he had seen the day before but they were not being cut into furniture or something fancy like that.

No, the majority of the trees were cut into small pieces and put into some sort of cooking apparatus and distilled into a clear liquid, likely tree extract but as Thakeo had only seen it for a few seconds he could not see what else they were doing to it, besides putting it in barrels and there was quite a surplus of spare barrels meaning that they were not even close to being done.

Finally, they also seemed to be digging in various locations, leaving huge holes behinds, not even bothering to close them again but once again, Thakeo could not guess what they were digging for but it was clearly a major and ongoing operation they were running.

However, there was something strange going on now as all the hunters seemed to be just sitting around having fun, sleeping or whatever they wanted. It seemed like they had no work to do and it could be related to how Drungal had mentioned that all the magic beasts had more or less vanished without a reason.

This was something Thakeo had also noticed the day before, meaning that the poachers was not behind it, but if so, what was? It was a question that no one around seemed to be able to answer.

Having finally finished with the buckets, Thakeo returned to the camp with the buckets in tow but just as he passed a very large tent which could easily fit twenty people and it was the place where these men hung out after work, that much was clear.

As Thakeo was preoccupied with the tent, he did not notice the poacher leader, Drungal, walk outside and stood in front of him, before he nearly ran into him.

“Enjoying some real work eh kid?” Asked Drungal with a smile and his arms crossed.

“Eek!… Wo-work? More like slavery!” Replied Thakeo, slightly startled.

“Bwhahahaha! You can hardly call it slavery, after all, you do get paid for it.” Said Drungal and held up the little sealing crystal Thakeo had hit.

“That is mine!” Cried Thakeo, nearly dropping the buckets.

“Relax kid. I may be a scoundrel and a bully but I am a man of my word. Once you done for the day I will give it back.” Said Drungal and nodded, seemingly feeling happy about calling himself a criminal.

“It is still unfair!” Said Thakeo with a growl.

“Well, that may be so… But do you know the way back to town from here?” Asked Drungal next, bowing slightly towards Thakeo, making him more imposing than before.

“Guh!” Moaned Thakeo as he could not dispute the fact that he had no idea where he was and thus, would have to rely on these men to get back to town.

“Well, in any case. Drop those buckets by the butcher and come back here and get some breakfast. Can’t have you dropping to the ground due to lack of food.” Said Drungal.

“Thanks but I am fine…” Started Thakeo but at the same time his stomach growled loudly, causing Thakeo to blush like a girl due to embarrassment.

“Bwahahaha! Just do it kid, no one here would want to trouble someone who helps out, even if they are more or less forced to do so.” Said Drungal and slapped Thakeo on the back with such force he nearly fell to the ground.

With those words, Drungal walked inside the tent, leaving Thakeo alone again to tend to the buckets and his sore back.

“Is he bad or good?” Mumbled Thakeo to himself as he could not be sure just what motivated a man such as Drungal. The man had the sense of roughness one would normally sense from a soldier but he clearly did not seem the type.

Yet he had the retained dignity of a season veteran so maybe he had been a soldier or mercenary in the past before he switched to his current job, whatever the true details was.

This theory did intrigue Thakeo a bit but as his stomach started to growl once again, he decided to let it go and instead proceeded to return the buckets so that he could get some food, after all he had just been invited to do so.

Soon thereafter, Thakeo returned to the tent and slowly walked inside the rather noisy tent, stopping at the entrance for a quick look.

The tent was filled to the brink with men, two dozen or so, whom he could only describe as brutes and just like their boss as they had the same lax attitude yet retaining their alertness as if they were ready to fight at a moment’s notice.

“Hey Kid! Over here!” Yelled Drungal and waved his hand.

“Ah…” Mumbled Thakeo as he took a step forward but suddenly the room became quiet and everyone was looking at him with the stare of a killer, thus making Thakeo a bit uncomfortable.

“Ex-excuse me… Passing through.” Said Thakeo with a polite voice as he moved towards Drungal’s location with some hesitant steps but it did not take long before he reached the giant man.

“Take a seat kid and get some grub.” Said Drungal and more or less forced Thakeo to sit down right beside himself.

A plate was put on the table in front of Thakeo containing various vegetables, some sauce and some meat but none of it looked rather good at it looked more like some failed alchemist brew than edible food.

Of cause, he did not dare to state so out loud but could still not prevent himself from hesitantly from taking the first bit.

“What? Something not to your liking?” Asked Drungal suddenly with a strict voice.

“Eh? Ah, no, not at all!” Replied Thakeo desperately and quickly took a bite of the weird looking but was struck by a chock as soon as he tasted it.

“Th-this is… Delicious!” Proclaimed Thakeo and immediately took another bite of the weird looking food.

“Bwahahahaha! Everyone says that the first time.” Said Drungal as he and the other men laughed.

“Bu-but how? I mean it looks like…” Started Thakeo but could not finish the sentence.

“Oh we know it looks bad but the taste is divine. It’s just our cook who seem to lack any decent skills in arranging it to look nice.” Said Drungal next.

“But still… This food… is good enough… to be served in the Imperial Couth!” Said Thakeo as he stuffed his face with the delicious concoction.

“Oh? The Imperial Couth? You some sort of noble?” Asked Drungal seemingly interested.

“Hah, I wish I was a noble because it would be so much easier going to school. Seconds please!” Said Thakeo as he raised his plate above his head.

“Coming right up.” Said the waiter or the man who acted as such as he grabbed the wooden plate.

“Oh? Magic school? Which one?” Asked Drungal with a slight suspicious voice.

“Saphine Magic School.” Replied Thakeo, aware of Drungal’s gaze but it would not like he would gain anything by hiding it.

“That’s an expensive place but also one of the best. Does your parents pay for you?” Asked Drungal next.

“Haah… I wish they did…. No, I pay for myself which is why I am out here. Due to this and that I was assigned to obtain a magic beast or face detention for the rest of the year or so that bat of a vice-principle stated.” Explained Thakeo.

“Eh? Why did you not just buy a beast? If you can afford to go to school, you could just buy one.” Suggested Drungal.

“Well… That would be cheating and besides…” Said Thakeo and turned the inside of his pockets out.

“You can’t afford one? Bwahahaha! You are a strange kid but at least now I know for sure why you are here.” Said Drungal just as the waiter returned with Thakeo’s second filling.

“Well, more or less yes… So why are you guys out here? I know it’s for hunting beasts but the value in this area cannot be that much. I mean they are mostly lesser class beasts are they not?” Asked Thakeo as he started to gulp down the second plate.

“Oh? Been snooping around have you?” Replied Drungal with a smile.

“Hardly… I mean it is impossible not to see that you guys are cutting down trees and digging up roots but are not making any construction work so there must I guess a third party hired you or am I wrong?” Asked Thakeo next.

“Hah! Well that is true but to be honest then even I don’t know what they want with this stuff but I am not paid to ask questions, just get the job done, even if the one who hired me and the boys is clearly an ass.” Replied Drungal.

“Eh? Why would you accept such a suspicious job from a stranger?” Asked Thakeo surprised.

“Well, the money of cause, what else? Bwahahaha!” Replied Drungal and let out a sinister laughter.

“Is there much money in what you are doing? You and your men seem more suited for… Well, combat.” Said Thakeo who had now finished his second filling.

“Oh? You seem to be quite observant if you can even guess that. Well it is true that our normal jobs are a bit more… Violent but since that blasted treaty forbidding armed mercenaries within the empire and the alliance, people like us have had a hard time finding decent jobs.”

“Eh? Treaty? What treaty?” Asked Thakeo surprised as he had never heard about any treaty between the empire and the alliance.

“Huh? You don’t know? I thought you fancy kids were the first to learn about such court gossip.” Replied Drungal with a tease.

“What does the treaty say?” Asked Thakeo next who had a bad feeling about what was coming next, however before Drungal could respond someone interrupted them and whispered into Drungal’s ear.

“Sorry kid but I got to get back to work.” Said Drungal with a sigh as he stood up.

“Eh? Erm… No problem?” Mumbled Thakeo as he was not sure what to say.

“Here, take it kid.” Said Drungal suddenly and fished out a small sealing crystal from his pocket and put it on the table in front of Thakeo.

“Eh? Why now?” Asked Thakeo surprised as he had not expected this at all.

“Well, I was actually joking about the working thing but since you started working without whining about it I just could not bring myself to tell you. Bwahahaha!” Replied Drungal and let out a loud roar and walked away.

Thakeo looked suspiciously at the small crystal, even poked a few times to make sure it was real  yet even if he starred at it he would not be able to determine if it was real or not and Drungal did not seem like the type of person who would lie, at least not about something like this.

“An honorable thief eh?” Mumbled Thakeo to himself who had finally found out what sort of person Drungal might be.

After Drungal had left, Thakeo had gotten on his feet and returned the plate to the server, making sure to thank him for the delicious food and was now walked down the muddy road inside the camp, back to the tent he had used for the night.

Once inside, he sat down on a crate and used another one nearby as a makeshift table whereon he placed the small sealing crystal, just to take a closer look at it without any prying eyes nearby.

It was very small, the size of a pinky nail was a very black or rather, a mix of dark gray and black which made for one horribly murky color.

Sadly then he would have to wait until he got back to school to actually see what type of beast or bug or whatever it was he had hit as the teachers there were specialists in this sort of thing but as to whatever or not it would count as him having completed the school assignment, he had no idea.

“Oh well, better get going before these guys change their minds about all of this.” Mumbled Thakeo to himself and sighed as he put the crystal away inside his jacket.

Next, Thakeo proceeded to clean up the limited space he had been using, not that it seemed necessary but he had been raised to clean up after himself no matter what so that was what he did.

However, as he moved the crate he had used as a chair, he noticed that there had been edged numbers into the corner of the crate.

It was a split into 2 parts; an alphabetic series and a numeric series. This was a system used by traders in order to track their goods and ensure they got to the right place or if they did not trust their staff which was not uncommon as a lot of traders were greedy by nature.

As he looked at the other crates, each of the crates had the same alphabetic series but the numbers was different but within the same group.

As such, the alphabet series would indicate the initials of the company owning them and the numbers the box number.

“K.T.C huh?” Mumbled Thakeo as he read the letters on the box out loud.

It was not a company Thakeo had ever heard about, which was not a surprise as it was just letters and without additional information, just knowing them would be useless.

Instead, Thakeo looked at the crates again as it would normally have a company logo on it in addition to the number series but for some reason but these crates had no such thing.

Of cause, it could be possible that the poachers was just marking the crates and the man who had hired them would add the logo at their own warehouse. It would make sense to do so as it could be controlled better who saw the crates, especially for a shady deal such as this.

Of cause, it did not mean much as there was little proof of any illegal activity as no one actually owned these lands. The local lord only had jurisdiction within a certain range of the town itself but out here in the forest there were no such laws.

A sudden chill ran down Thakeo’s spine as he suddenly realized that the poachers could have kidnapped him or worse while he was here and no one would ever find out what had happened.

Thakeo shuddered but decided to ignore the crates and get back to cleaning. Quickly checking his gear and retying his boots, Thakeo was about to open the tent when someone did so just before him.

“Waaaah!” Cried Thakeo in shock.

“What? You still here kid? You better leave already.” Said a tall and rankly man, one of Drungal’s sidekicks for the day before.

“Don’t worry I was intending to so when you surprised.” Said Thakeo as he held his chest due to the shock.

“Whatever, just move it! We need them crate you were sitting on.” Said the rankly man and grabbed the nearest crate and lifted it as easily as if it was a piece of cloth.

“Eh? How come?” Asked Thakeo surprised.

“They are being picked up by a transport crew and brought to town where I assume the goods will be resold or something. Now, get lost already.” Replied the rankly man and exited the tent.

“Resold huh?” Mumbled Thakeo to himself as he looked at the crates, getting a bad feeling about what content might be inside but he should not push his luck.

Thakeo walked outside the tent once more, ready to return home, however the entire camp had suddenly become busy and teeming with life.

He watched as the poachers as well as the craftsmen was running around between each other, moving crates, barrels and sacks towards the center of the camp.

However, instead of leaving the camp, Thakeo’s curiosity once more got the better of him when seeing all these goods being moved around and quickly looked around for an opportunity to learn more which quickly appeared when he saw an older man nearly dragging a sack behind him instead of carrying it.

“Hey, you need some help with that?” Asked Thakeo and smiled as he looked at the old man.

“Oh? You offering to help an old man? How kind of you.” Replied the old man.

“No problem. Drungal did let me go but… I might as well carry this for you as I am heading in that direction so just take a sit and relax old timer.” Said Thakeo and lifted the sack however he was surprised over the weight of the sack which was heavier than he had thought it would.

How an old man such as this one was able to lift such weight, he did not know but he had to carry it now, all the way to find out what was going on as well as ask for directions out of the forest as he had no clue which way to go to get back to town.

Thus, Thakeo latterly went with the flow and followed the other men as they dragged their cargo towards the center of the camp which seemed to function as a loading area for some reason.

As to why they had not just setup a dedicated area was not something he could understand but it might come down to allow a better mobility for the camp if there were no hard structures such as ramps, towers and such.

As he approached the center of the camp, he noticed that it there were a lot more goods than he had expected these poachers to put out as there were long rows and piles of crates, barrels and crates piled up over the entire area and people moving between these left and right.

However, on party stood out more than the others but not because they were not moving but more so due to their extremely shady nature as displayed by the black robed outfits and hoods they were wearing.

This made them look more like members of an evil cult than the merchants they clearly were, but Thakeo could not understand the need for such precautions and grew more concerned about what their agenda might be.

“Hey kid? Why are you still here?” Asked Drungal from the distance.

“Eh? Oh well there was an old man who seemed troubled about this sack and… Well… Which way is the town?” Replied Thakeo as the dropped the sack with the others and walked over to Drungal.

“Bwahahaha! All you need to do is to head north until you hit the main road and then just follow that westwards until you reach town.” Explained Drungal with a smile.

“Eh? Have I really travelled that far? Hmm… Guess I ran longer than I thought I did… Blasted bear!” Said Thakeo and sighed when he remembered the dreadful memory.

“A bear? What?” Asked Drungal confused.

“Oh… I just ran into a demon bear yesterday… Then it started chasing me…” Started Thakeo to explain but was interrupted by one of the hooded characters.

“Excuse me Drungal but who is this… Wait, you? I have seen you before!” Said the hooded character as he looked at Thakeo.

“Erm… I don’t know who you are?” Asked Thakeo confused.

“The kid was out hunting magic beasts when we picked him up so don’t get your fancy pants in a twist.” Said Drungal and put his bear like arm on Thakeo’s shoulder.

“Hmpf! If not for your excellent work so far I would have you punished for using such language to me!” Said the hooded character in a manner Thakeo knew all too well but he was not able to put a face to the voice.

“Relax already. Everyone here is legit and we have a deal, speaking of which, let us finish up already. We don’t have all day.” Said Drungal who was not the least bit concerned about the hooded man’s threats.

“Whatever! I shall wish to leave this filthy forest as soon as possible.” Declared the hooded man and the two of them returned to counting the various goods in the area, noting them down in a ledger of sorts.

“Oh well… Idiots be idiots.” Mumbled Thakeo and shrugged, having decided to leave things as they were but just as he turned around and was about to leave when someone walked in front of him.

“Hey watched it!” Said Thakeo annoyed.

However, as he turned his head and was about to lecture the mercenary who had cut him off, all he found was a person dressed in ragged clothes, hoods and masks. With one glance at the person’s eyes, Thakeo could instantly guess that this was another shined person as their face was completely without any emotions what so ever.

And it was not just one, but several of them, all walking back and forth between the various piles, passing by the hooded boss character who seemed to note down the numbers on the various goods before they were loaded onto one of the wagons which was all holding in line, ready to be loaded.

“Huh… So could this have something to do with why there are no wagons in town?” Mumbled Thakeo to himself.

It was likely the case and if that hooded character was the man behind the wagons it would explain why the dwarves could not get their goods moved as every wagon was seemingly in use, but should the wagon owners really be participating in such shady business such as this? As Thakeo was thinking this, someone accidently bumped into him.

“For the love of…” Growled Thakeo as he nearly lost his balance and glared at the shined who had nearly knocked him over.

“Sorry.” Mumbled the shined with a low voice as he passed by.

“Just be care… ful…” Started Thakeo, however he suddenly realized that a shined does not have the ability to talk.

Thakeo quickly took an extra look at the person who had bumped into him. Unlike the others, this one spoke, was not dressed in full rags and as waring a scarf in bright red and white colors.

“Hey isn’t that?” Mumbled Thakeo to himself as he recognized the outfit as being the same person who had first launched a surprise dropkick on him and then assaulted him with bucket back in town.

Thakeo could not sure why that guy would be here but he did not belong here and as such, Thakeo decided to do something about that, especially since he had been assaulted by that guy, not just once but twice and that horrible experience had been made word when Dekoh had been accused for something she did not do.

“Wait a second…” Mumbled Thakeo and began to think again.

The girl, Dekoh, had been accused of breaking some silly wine bottle but just before that, Thakeo had been assaulted by the scarf guy just prior to that. Finally the direction the jumper had exited the dwarven bath had been directly into the area where they had come across Dekoh.

“I knew it! THIEF!” Yelled Thakeo out loud while at the same time pointing towards the ‘shined’ who was skulking about.

Everyone in the camp stopped working, except for the shined who continued as usual, except for the pretender who stopped up and look at Thakeo, clearly confused.

“Wh-what a… Who the hell are you?” Yelled Drungal all of sudden as he turned around and looked at where Thakeo was pointing.

“Huh? Wait? That is not one of mine!” Yelled the hooded character as he also looked at the thief’s direction.

This pattern quickly repeated itself with everyone in the area, with them either pointing or looking at the thief, leaving nowhere to hide.

An awkward silence quickly fell upon the scene as the thief looked around himself, clearly unsure what to do and Thakeo could not help but feel a little bit happy about this predicament, however it did not last long as the thief suddenly took off.

“He is running away, someone stop him!” Commanded the hooded man as he pointed his finger at the thief, clearly not intending to do anything himself to stop said thief.

Thakeo cursed out loud as the struggled to get on his feet amongst the pile of barrels he was currently rolling around in. However, the hooded man’s shouting had caused the would-be thief to become surrounded on all sides by the poachers.

“Get him!” Yelled Drungal and at once, all of the men in the area raced towards the would-be thief.

However, the thief was unusually nimble and easily managed to evaded the first attempt to grab him and then the second and third as well by simply turning his body at the last moment.

It looked more like one of those bull fights, Thakeo had heard about as a kid. It was a simple game where a man was fighting a grown bull using only a rapier and some red cloth to defeat said bull.

Such bull fights were considered a blood sport and was not practiced within the Empire and even if the bulls had been replaced with brute poachers, the movements used by the thief could not be described as anything other than impressive, especially for Thakeo who was still fumbling around with the barrels, trying to get up.

The thief clearly had training in moving his feet and body but it was not a style which Thakeo was familiar with either.

However, like all other styles of movement, if one could not see where to step, one would be unable to do so and thus, Thakeo quickly came up with a plan.

Support himself one a crate, Thakeo quickly grabbed one of the bombs in his pocket.

“Hey! Grab this!” Yelled Thakeo and threw the bomb he had just grabbed and threw it towards the thief.

The thief, unlike the mercenaries, could not evade a bomb as easily and as such, only managed to turn his head just as the bomb landed in front of him.

“Eh? What that is not…” Stuttered Thakeo confused having just tossed the bomb in his hand, realizing that something was off.

Instead of a flashy explosion and smoke the only thing which appeared was an extremely foul smell which quickly filled the area. Never before had Thakeo seen so many grown adults run for their lives in order to get away from the smell.

Thakeo quickly took a look at the content in his pocket, which was in fact the stink bombs and not the flash bangs he had originally intended to use.

In the middle of the ensuing chaos, Thakeo noticed that the thief, despite having taken the brunt of the smell, still managed to use the chaos and ran towards the edge of the camp holding his hands in front of his nose but that did not seem to affect his running speed, quite the opposite as the thief was the one who ran the fastest.

However, the chaos did not stop there. While the thief got away from the smell, the poachers were not but were literally jumping across the area, knocking over crates & barrels and whatever else was in the way as they fled from the foul smell.

“Ups…” Said Thakeo, who could not come up with anything else but that as all he could do was to look at the stampeded chaos he had created.

Soon thereafter, the smell had finally cleared and the mercenaries, poachers and other folk returned to the scene of the crime.

“Wh-what the hell was that you used kid?” Asked Drungal with a rather annoyed voice, but as he had to use a barrel to maintain a stance, his demeanor was not as scary as it could be.

“Erm… A stink bomb? I thought I used a flash bomb to blind that guy but seems I mistook the two.” Replied Thakeo while scratching his neck, a bit confused as to it happened.

“Why would you… Need something like that?” Asked Drungal next.

“Well… For magic beasts? It worked fine on a bear yesterday but… I did not think it was this effective.” Mumbled Thakeo as he looked around at the large crowd of people which was returning to work as the gas had slowly dissipated.

“Don’t you ever… Use that again… At least not on me.” Said Drungal with a sigh and sat down on the barrel.

“I won’t… But still… Why was that guy here?” Asked Thakeo to himself.

“Oh? You knew that thief?” Asked Drungal next.

“Eh? Oh no… I just ran into him when I was in town, at least I think it was the same guy.” Replied Thakeo.

“Oh? Seems that your luck is…” Began Drungal but was interrupted when a certain whining could be heard nearby.

“Oh no! My goods! My poor goods!” Whined the hooded character.

“Uwah… Someone seems to be more interested in wooden crates then the smell.” Said Thakeo.

“Hah! He can’t smell it due to his perfume. Stupid nobles.” Said Drungal but mumbled the last part.

Thakeo could not help but smile at the sentence as he could not agree more, however his joy ended sooner than he had thought.

“Th-that boy! I knew it! He must have something to do with that… that… Thief! Grab him!” Commanded the hooded character in a rather whiny tone of voice which Thakeo was sure he had heard before but now was not the time for such.

“Hey wait a second! I had nothing to do with that guy. I tried to stop him didn’t I?” Said Thakeo in his own defense.

“And you failed at that! That alone warrants suspicion!” Whined the hooded man.

“Huh? I highly doubt that the kid…” Began Drungal but the hooded man immediately started to throw a tantrum like a child.

“I will not here it! Things are coming to together nicely and now this? It is a conspiracy against me! Again and again this kid…”

“Huh? Wait… I know you from somewhere don’t I?” Asked Thakeo suddenly and immediately pictured a fancily dressed man about to hit a little girl in this mind.

“Eh? DETAIN HIM! I COMMAND YOU!” Whined the hooded character.

“Huh? Relax! As I said, the kid…” Started Drungal but was once again interrupted.

“Drungal! If you wish to see money for this shipmen you will grab that boy and find out what he knows! Hold him here until we learn the truth!” Commanded the masked man next.

Thakeo grit his teeth due to these baseless accusations and what not but he stood no chance against Drungal and his mercenaries, even if they were not bad people.

“Sorry kid, I really like you but we will have to keep you here, he is the boss after all but don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.” Said Drungal as he got on his feet and walked towards Thakeo.

“So am I, you seem like a nice guy…” Started Thakeo and took a deep breath as he stuck his left hand in his pocket.

“APPEAR! NR. 4!” Shouted Thakeo and just then, in a flash of light, his heavy duty net materialized in his hand and without delay he tossed it at Drungal like he would have a magic beast.

“What the…” Started Drungal who had noticed what Thakeo was up to but it was too late as the center of the net landed on top of him and thus the poacher had been caught in a trap.

However it did not end there as Thakeo tossed a bunch of small paper bags at the other men in the gang where they exploded in bright flashes and smoke.

“Bo-boss? Wha!” Cried one of the poachers but was quickly blinded by the flash bombs Thakeo had tossed.

Thakeo, himself, on the other was already legging it as fast as he could.

“Sorry about that!” Yelled Thakeo and waved even though no one could see him do so.

“Curse that brat!” Yelled Drungal from a far, clearly annoyed but he did not sound angry, but someone else sure did.

“10… No! I offer 100 Gold Coins to whoever brings me that brat!” Yelled the hooded man with anger so great his voice jumped several tones upwards.

“Eh? 100 gold coins?” Yelled Thakeo, surprised that his head had such a price tag on it.

Thakeo’s heart could not help but cry out in despair as he ran, but it was not because he was afraid, no he was crying because for the first time in his life, someone else was willing to spend money on his but as fate would it that was just the reward for bringing him back.

“Why Meeee? Seriously! Why???” Whined Thakeo out loud as he raced out the camp, followed by every single poacher in the camp whom were all shouting and cursing a loud, and all of whom was aiming for his head.

note “Vei” is an ancient norse unit of meassuring distance. It is equal to 11.295km (7miles) and was considered the normal distance one could walk before needing a longer break.

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