The Challenge: Part Four
Flame thought he was onto something, and Corran sure hoped so. They had decided to call it a night, finally, and began to set up camp. Flame ordered Torch and Corran to go get some firewood, and they grudgingly obeyed. Once out of earshot, they complained loudly.
“Why couldn’t he come and help too?” Corran asked Torch.
Torch sighed as he picked up a rather large log and answered, “You know Flame... he’ll rant on when we get back about needing to study the map farther so he can get us back on the trail.”
The red Kougra laughed a little bit at this; that was certainly Flame’s way.
Soon enough, they decided that they had enough firewood and headed back to camp. Sure enough, when Corran and Torch returned Flame was squinting in the moonlight at the map. Just as they walked up to him, he jumped up from the ground in an exuberant fashion, squealing in delight.
This startled Torch so much that he dropped all of his firewood.
“Sweet Fyora, Flame, you need to stop screaming like that!” he said indignantly.
Corran stifled a chuckle.
Flame didn’t seem to hear. “I think I’ve got it!” he explained. “In the morning we can start up early. I’m pretty sure we can make it to the Werelupe Woods and back in time... if we don’t get eaten, of course...” he ended rather sheepishly.
Nonetheless, they were glad to hear some good news for once. Corran breathed a lot easier knowing that they weren’t as lost as they had been.
Sure enough, the next morning they found themselves back on the main road. Since it was the second day of their journey, they had only five more days until they were due back at the castle. Hopefully they would reach the Woods by the next day, spend another day in the Woods, then have the last two days to get back to the castle. Even if they had to spend two days in the Woods, they would probably still be able to make it back in time.
“We should be in the Woods by nightfall,” said Flame, eyes still glued to the map, “We can just camp there. Tomorrow morning we can start looking for that gold dagger. Hopefully we’ll be out of there quickly.”
Both Corran and Torch nodded in agreement. It seemed that with every step he took closer to their destination, more and more stories of the Woods echoed in his ears. According to his father, the Werelupes weren’t exactly violent creatures, but they were very territorial. Also, it was rumored that they had little self control when the full moon was up. This disturbed Corran particularly greatly, for there was a full moon to come that very night.
Later in the afternoon, Torch broke the odd silence that had overcome the group. “Am I the only one who’s wondering why we haven’t met more of Torak’s obstacles?”
Flame nodded, eyes still not moving from the map. “Torak’s one to work people to death. I can’t understand why he’s only sent one attack against us.”
“He might be thinking that the Woods alone will be enough of a challenge,” suggested Corran. The other two merely shrugged.
Against his will, Corran was again troubled. Had something happened to the group who had been following them? The dreams were still coming when he went to sleep at night. Unwillingly, he heard the voice of Bella the light faerie creep into his thoughts.
“A darkness, spreading...”
He shook his head to clear those thoughts, which held a little too much paranoia than he was really comfortable with.
He could not deny it though; every time he turned his back, he felt oddly like he was being watched. Even in the daylight hours, he seemed to hear the voices whispering on the wind...
“Power like you could never imagine...”
“All we ask is for one thing in return...”
Eventually he would shake off the voices, believing himself to be hearing things, but it was becoming harder to do so.
Flame had gotten his wish. Just as the sun began to set, they arrived in the eerie Werelupe Woods. It didn’t take them long to make camp, and soon a small pot of stew was simmering over the fire. Corran took a deep breath of the sweet smelling food, and conversation struck up again.
“I think we should sleep in shifts,” said Flame. “It wouldn’t be safe for us all to sleep at once.”
Torch let out an attempt at a snort that sounded more like a yelp. “Fine, but you’re going first. The last time we slept in shifts, I got clubbed over the head and dragged into an invisible cave.”
Flame let out a much more convincing snort. “That probably wouldn’t have happened if you’d been watching. With your fear of the dark, you probably had that blanket over your head, closing your eyes.”
Corran wouldn’t have been surprised if that were the truth, seeing as Torch was now blushing scarlet.
“That wouldn’t have been a problem if you’d have lit a lamp on the porch like I suggested,” chimed the Shoyru defiantly.
“If we’d lit a lamp, they’d have seen you hulking by the pen.”
“Well, they saw me anyway, so why would that matter? Besides, if a lamp had been lit, I might have seen my attacker before he could club me.”
Flame let out a slight chuckle. “And then what would you do? You didn’t even have your sword with you?”
“Well, if his fear of flying was anything like yours, I could just grab him by the scruff of the neck and force him to surrender.”
The way Corran figured it, if dirty looks could throw daggers, Torch would be long gone. Flame opened his mouth to reply, but Corran intervened, “Now, children, stop bickering and play nicely.” Torch stuck his tongue out at Corran, but Flame fell into a dignified silence.
Corran reached over to spoon some of the stew out of the pot, but froze when he heard a noise. Flame also appeared to have heard it, as he was suddenly tense. Torch was humming a merry tune, the only one who had not heard.
“Shut up, Torch!” whispered Flame.
The orange Shoyru gave him a confused look, then he too froze as the sound spread through the trees again. “Another obstacle, do you think?” he said very quietly.
The other two shrugged, looking around for the source of the noise. It sounded like it came from the trees behind them, but Corran could not be sure. For the first time, he wished for acute hearing like an Aisha had. He clutched the sword that hung on his belt so tightly that his hands began to ache. Each breath seemed to come with difficultly, as if that part of his brain had shut down. He felt the spiky feeling of adrenaline surging through him, making him edgy, and his eyes darted every which way.
Flame and Torch also were clutching their swords, preparing for the attack.
It came very quickly, but it was not the two figures that had jumped out of the path a few days ago. Instead, there were ten black clad figures that jumped from the trees. Corran jumped to his feet at once, parrying a blow that was aimed at his head. The force of the blow surprised him; it was much harder than the disguised other two had had days ago. Was this not one of Torak’s obstacles then?
Definitely not. He winced as the silver blade grazed his arm, leaving a painful, though not very deep, cut. He noticed vaguely that the ten black figures were not even going for Torch or Flame. All ten seemed bent on getting to him. Flame and Torch together held a little more than half of them off of him, but he was forced to fight four at once.
Up, down, left, fall, roll, up, swing... the same motions he continued over and over to avoid being hit. Aside from the first who had aimed at his head, they seemed to be going for his legs or arms instead of any place that would be fatal. They didn’t seem to be as merciful toward Flame and Torch, who were constantly blocking blows to the head.
Even though there were ten of the dark figures, and only three Squires, the ten others retreated back into the trees after a time. Corran breathed harshly, clutching a stitch in his side, then fell to the ground. The attack had been so unexpected that it had stripped the Kougra of all energy, and his legs would no longer support his weight. Torch and Flame were also sitting on the ground, nursing small injuries.
Noticing the cut on Corran’s arm, Flame tossed him a bandage. Wincing slightly, Corran wrapped the bandage around the wound to stop the bleeding.
“Are you guys okay?” he asked his friends when he finished.
They both nodded, then answered one at a time. “One of them clubbed me in the head with the hilt of his sword,” said Flame, “but no cuts. Just a pretty big bruise.”
Torch snorted. “Now you know how it feels. I got a nasty cut,” he added to Corran, pointing at a searing wound that ran up his left cheek. Corran winced again.
“That’s going to leave a scar,” he said to the orange Shoyru. Torch only shrugged in reply.
“What do you think that was all about?” asked Flame a moment later.
Again, Torch shrugged. “Not one of Torak’s obstacles. He only wanted to give us a challenge, not put our lives in jeopardy.”
The other two nodded in agreement. “What do you suppose they wanted?” Corran asked the other two.
This time Flame shrugged, and it was Torch who answered. “I know I’m gonna sound paranoid, but... Scorch, they didn’t seem to want to kill you. They didn’t care about Flame and me; they weren’t as careful. But with you...”
He didn’t continue, but he didn’t have to. Corran had the same suspicions; someone was after him. Once more he seemed to hear voices floating on the air...
They still agreed to keep guard in shifts, but they never managed to fall asleep.
The faerie was furious. She grabbed the bandit by the collar of his cloak. She was so tall she lifted him off of the ground.
“You what?” she snarled. “You ran away! Didn’t I make it clear what would happen if you did not bring the squire back with you?” she shook the bandit in anger.
“Now, now, Trestina,” said a deep voice from behind her, and a hand gently touched her shoulder. “Let our friend down.”
Trestina glared one last time at the bandit, then dropped him painfully onto the hard stone floor. She then turned to face the one who had told her to put him down. It was a tall Gelert, wearing a long hooded cloak. He was another of The Three.
“We still need our friends here,” he said, smiling evilly at the figure panting on the ground, “to acquire your squire.”
She crossed her arms indignantly. “Easy for you to say; you already have your warrior.”
She then helped the bandit from the ground. “I am counting on you to bring the squire to me.” Once again she let him drop. “You have three days.”
To be continued...