Magic On “The Forest Path”

Magic On "The Forest Path"

Part 1

A boy walked through the forest. He was only 17 years old, the youngest Eeshkadu ever to become a sentinel. It was a great honor and a heavy burden. If he failed in his duties, it would prevent anyone like him from ever becoming a sentinel. — How can I fail, — thought the boy proudly. — The chances of my finding anything on my patrol are small, and I walk with Kadüve’s blessing. — The boy continued, casually avoiding fallen twigs and leaves. The boy passed through the forest just as he was trained; he made no noise or trail by which he could be followed or detected.

The boy continued through the forest until he reached a clearing where a family of deer, including one rather large buck, grazed on the thick vegetation of the forest floor. On the far side of the clearing, he noticed a young woman dart behind a tree. — Well, well, a hunter. — The boy crouched down, as he continued to watch the woman slowly creep around the tree, preparing to draw her bow. — You’re a peculiar one. . . hunting so close to the city, — the boy thought to himself. He considered stopping the hunter and saving the deer, but something prompted him to watch instead. So he sat and focused on the hunter. Her black hair contrasted starkly with her unusually white skin. Her technique with a bow was not perfect, but neither was it bad. The woman released her arrow, striking a doe as it moved into her view. The deer scattered; the large buck running into the forest just a few feet from the boy.

The boy pressed his palm to the ground beneath him before whispering, “mätawna de Kad’roë.” The skin on the boy’s hand began to turn a dark brown as he held his eyes closed. He saw the world around him in black and white, every sound illuminated a new object. He saw the doe running away from the clearing, her heartbeat skipping and struggling to pump blood through her wounded body. The boy could sense the arrow as it scraped against the doe's heart. The doe slowed to a strained walk as her heart began to fade. Then she stopped altogether, illuminating the forest floor for a brief moment as she fell.

The boy opened his eyes and lifted his darkened hand from the ground, as he did its color slowly returned to normal. He felt the fatigue from the magic he had used begin to set in. It was a simple spell so the drain would be minimal.

Disappointment swept across the boy’s face as the hunter celebrated her kill while she tracked it through the forest. — The death of an animal is nothing to celebrate, — he thought. Then he began to hear what she was saying to herself.

“No potatoes and bread for dinner tonight! We’re having a real meal.” The girl’s voice was indeed in the mood of a celebration, but not over the kill. It was a celebration over the meal it would provide.

“Perhaps the village elders would be lenient with this one. Her intentions seemed noble enough.” The boy’s voice was a whisper, barely audible over the hunter’s footsteps. Although he could not have said what it was, the boy could sense there was something special about this hunter.

As the girl left the clearing, the boy followed. — It is a shame that deer will go to waste, — the boy thought, knowing it was his duty to arrest her and bring her before the elders for trial.

The hunter’s demeanor changed when she reached the deer. She was no longer celebrating; she was calm and reverent. She carefully knelt by the deer and began to pray. The boy was shocked; he could not hear what the hunter was saying, yet he knew to whom she prayed. The boy could feel the presence of the god of earth, assuring him that the deer had been his gift to her.

The boy ducked behind a tree, bewildered. He had never heard of a city dweller receiving Kadüve’s blessing.

She was finished praying now. The boy knew he should not address her, but his curiosity was overwhelming. “It is good that you honor Kadüve in your kill. I would have been obligated to arrest you for poaching otherwise.” He would have tried to stop himself, but the words had escaped his mouth before he could register what he was saying.

“Who are you? Show yourself.” The hunter’s voice was shaky. He had startled her.

— Now I have to introduce myself, — the boy thought, ashamed yet excited that he would meet the hunter.

“I am Ban, sentinel for the Shaforesi, the clan that protects this forest.” Some blood was visible on her wrists from cleaning the doe. In her right hand was a small dagger. It would pose no threat to the boy, but a fight would benefit no one. “You have nothing to fear from me; you have shown respect to Kadüve. However, these forests are not safe for pretty young girls like yourself just to wander through alone, but I suppose you already knew that. I could walk with you to the edge of the forest. . . If you’d like.”

— Pretty young girls? — Bahn thought. He hadn't meant to sound condescending. This girl was no older than he was, and it wasn't like non-pretty girls were any safer. However, she held a nice figure. Her face was smooth and confident; her eyes were brown like most city dwellers, but something about them felt different. The hunter was studying him, deciding if she should relax in Ban’s presence.

"Do you mind if I take from that doe what you cannot carry?” The girl’s posture seemed to relax slightly, and the look of anxiety cleared from her face. She felt the pouches of meat by her sides before replying.

“Take what you want; I have what I need. I know the way back to the city; the journey is easy enough.” The hunter was nervous, stumbling over her words as she talked.

— Am I really that intimidating? — Bahn honestly did not know the answer. This girl was impossible to read; the way she acted was utterly foreign to him. He continued to study her as he walked toward the deer.

“Won’t you at least tell me your name?” called Bahn as the hunter began to walk away from him. Bahn lifted his head towards the girl, and for a moment their eyes met.

The hunter’s cheeks turned red as she looked away. “My name is Ayela.” Her voice now was different than before. It was quiet, almost shy.

“A pleasure to meet you, Ayela. I do hope we meet again.” Bahn stood, holding his fist over his chest before nodding his head at Ayela. “May the forest protect you on your journey.” It was a standard parting gesture among the Shaforesi, but Bahn wondered if Ayela would take it as something more.

Ayela blushed again and quickly turned away before she walked into the forest, back toward the city.

Once she was gone, Bahn rose to his feet; he had never intended to take any of the doe, he merely wanted the hunter to relax. The rest of the day passed without event as Bahn continued through the forest, his mind continually returning to Ayela. He wondered how often she had been to the mountain forest without getting caught, then marveled at her seeming ability to avoid the other sentinels. Bahn still could not shake the feeling that there was something special about Ayela, that he was somehow meant to find her amidst the sea of trees. It was nearing sunset, and Bahn had begun to travel back to the village. His first shift was over, and he had not failed his duties.

The village was calm and quiet, just as it always was. The straw and wooden buildings blended into the wall of trees behind them. Bahn could see several other sentinels returning from their patrols, all of them tired from a day of walking through the forest. Bahn walked between the village buildings, in an attempt not to be noticed by the other sentinels. He wished to avoid their weary eyes. He was the youngest sentinel; he also carried a higher capacity for magic than most sentinels in the village. However, unlike any sentinel before him, Bahn also shared a small connection to dark magic. This fact made the older sentinels and seekers nervous. They feared that Ban’s strength would overtake him and that he would become a servant of darkness.

Ban eventually reached his home, a small hut at the northern edge of the village. He could smell the sweet aroma of a fresh meal emanating from the house.

“Welcome home, Ban.” The smooth voice of his mother was a gift to Ban’s tired ears. He smiled and sat down at the dinner table. Bahn closed his eyes and took in the smell of the soup still simmering in the large iron pot in the center of the table. “How was your first day as a Sentinel?” Ban’s mother stood next to him. Her long light brown hair draped in a braid over her left shoulder. Bahn recalled how, in his childhood, he would stare into his mother’s deep blue eyes, getting lost in the sea of emotions that flowed behind them.

“It went well.” Bahn could barely hear his own thoughts over the rumbling of his stomach. He opened his eyes and noticed his father across from him. His father was looking over a scroll laid out on the table. Bahn was almost identical to his father in appearance. They shared the same bright green eyes, black hair, and dark skin. This was natural, as both of them were Eeshkadu, earth elementals, whereas Ban’s mother was an Eeshma, a water elemental.

Ban’s father lifted his head toward Ban. “Did anything happen on your patrol today?” His father was distracted; it was unclear whether or not he was even listening for the answer.

“It was uneventful.” Bahn decided not to tell his parents about the girl in the forest; they would question him as to why he did not arrest her. Bahn felt he might not be capable of explaining his reasoning, as he could barely understood it.

“That’s good news, I suppose. However, it means you will not be as prepared for tomorrow’s patrol.” His father’s voice was that of concern. This frightened Ban, as he had never before seen his father visibly worried about anything.

“Why? Where are they sending me?” Bahn was afraid of the answer, but he was also anxious for the chance to prove his strength and self-control to the elders.

“The elders have arranged a test for you. They are giving you a week of patrols in the northernmost part of the forest, beyond Mount Magmore.” His father rolled up the scroll he had been reading and handed it to Ban. “These are your orders; You are to patrol the northern edge of our territory. Signs of dark magic have been seen by seekers in the area, and we fear dark magi may be to blame.”

Ban’s mother filled a bowl of soup for each of them and sat at the table. The three of them joined hands and bowed their heads. “Oh, great Kadüve. We thank Thee. By your grace, the earth brought forth its fruit. By your grace, the stag gave its life for us, for this meal. With your blessing, we partake of thy gifts. That they may strengthen us and fill us with courage for our trials to come.“ There was a long pause after Ban’s mother finished the prayer, only to be broken moments later by her voice. “Ban. We have trained you your whole life to resist the darkness. However, you have never been in a situation to test your resilience before now.” Ban’s mother grabbed hold of his hand and squeezed. “We are understandably nervous Ban. If you give into the power. . .” His mother stopped, unable to finish her sentence.

Ban thought for a moment, pushing a floating carrot around on the surface of his soup, before replying. “I have shared a week connection with the darkness ever since I was born. I feel it every time I use magic.” His words were as much for the comfort of his parents as they were for himself. While it was true that he had always felt the darkness within him, Bahn had never encountered a situation that tested his resolve against it. All of his magical training had been in how to access magic without touching that side of him. It was a serious impediment; Bahn could only access a small portion of his potential power without risk of corruption. “I know the chant of light, you made me memorize it. If the temptation comes, I will use it to clear my mind.”

“You must remember not to fear the darkness Ban.” Ban’s father scooped a spoonful of soup from the bowl in front of him, allowing it to cool while he spoke. “The elders fear the darkness, it is what will make them vulnerable, should they ever be tempted. Instead, you must respect the power of the dark god, and deny any power he offers you.”

“I will father, just as you have told me many times before.” It was a sentiment Bahn had heard countless times from his father. Yet no matter how many times he heard it, the concept of not fearing the darkness was far easier said than done.

The next few minutes went by in silence as they finished their meals. Each of them felt the tension and anxiety that would make sleep impossible.

Ban woke to the bright rays of sunrise flooding his room. He was disappointed; he felt as though he had only just fallen asleep. — I have to prove myself without sleep? — Ban was possibly more nervous now than when he had gone to sleep.

Ban grudgingly clothed himself in his traveling clothes. He took extra care not to forget his thick leather armor for this patrol; the northern forest was densely populated by beasts of prey, and he needed the additional protection.

Ban walked out of his room into the living area. His usual breakfast of warm bread and honey sat on the table. He ate quickly, then headed outside. His mother and father would be in the garden, and he wanted to say farewell before heading to the elders for the usual parting ceremony. Bahn was surprised when he opened the door to find his mother and father on the other side.

“We were just coming in to wake you.” His mother’s voice was calm and even and seemed to pacify the storm of dread, worry, and anxiety that swam through Ban’s mind. “We are coming to the parting ceremony with you. Your father and I want to see you off.” He was glad that his parents would accompany him. Bahn would be gone for an entire week. This patrol would be the longest time he had ever spent away from home.

The three of them walked in silence to the north side of the village, where three of the four village elders and a woman Bahn did not recognize stood waiting.Judging by her armor, the woman was a seeker, an elite of the Shaforesi Guard. The elders were in their usual ceremonial robes of bright green and blue; their faces were covered by their hoods, leaving only their eyes exposed.

The elder in the center nodded his head toward Ban. “Elder Koma refused to attend this ceremony. He believes it blasphemy to allow one with a connection to the darkness into the ranks of the sentinels.” His voice was deep and rough; it carried a tone of irritation that Bahn assumed was directed at the absent elder.

The elder on the right stepped toward Bahn “It is our duty to send you into the northern forest on your next patrol. However, you must know that this is also a test of your strength and will. Toraw is a seeker of the fourth rank.” The elder motioned to the woman whose eyes fell judgingly on Ban. “She is assigned with observing your patrol. Should you fail and give into the darkness, she will arrest you and return you here for trial. Toraw was chosen because even if you gave yourself fully to the darkness, you would pose no threat to her.” Bahn shifted nervously as he eyed the woman, her expression unsettled him. For a moment Bahn began to question his own strength, but the thought was interrupted by the third elder's voice.

“We do not expect you to succeed in resisting the darkness, but should you return victorious we will raise you to Sentinel of the Second Rank.” The third elder’s voice was high and rough. The first time Bahn had heard it, had had nearly burst into laughter. “Do you accept the patrol, or will you give up on this foolish notion of joining the guard.” The second elder leaned toward the one standing in the center. He whispered something that caused the center elder to grunt in brief laughter.

The small promotion was meaningless to Bahn as he did not care about rank. However, the mockery by the elders brought fire to his eyes. He had known they did not believe in him, but hearing it just made him angry. Bahn made up his mind; he would prove to these fossils that he was stronger than they thought; he would pass their test without breaking a sweat.

“I do.” Ban’s voice was that of confidence, inspired by anger and the desire to prove the elders wrong. “I will return in one week with an even stronger resolve against the darkness than I already possess.” Bahn fell to one knee and awaited the blessing of the elders.

For a long moment, nothing happened. . . — Well? — thought Ban. Then the elder in the center placed his hand on Ban’s shoulder.

“Ban. Eeshkadu. Sentinel of the Shaforesi. We, the elders of Kadüve assign you to search the northern forest. To keep safe the lands where Kadüve, God of Earth resides. We bestow upon you Kadüve’s blessing that you may return to us, your people. We bless you that you will be safe and successful in your task. Go now, and return in your allotted time.”

Ban knew the elders did not believe the words they spoke, but he felt the grace of Kadüve fall upon him; Bahn knew he left with Kadüve’s blessing. He stood, placed his fist on his chest and bowed toward the elders. He then turned and did the same to his parents, who returned the gesture saying the parting words, “May the forest protect you on your journey.”

To be continued. . .

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