Chapter 16: Beyond the Veil
Three days of hard trekking and three nights of sleeping on the cold earth trussed up like a pig waiting for the roasting spit, but it was worth all the hardship. I stood at the top of the rocky snow covered ridge overlooking the source of tinkling bells and shimmering green and copper magical resonances that burned night and day in my senses. The verdant valley of Summer Grove nested below us; its beauty, even from the snow covered precipice, was breathtaking. I no longer had to focus on the resonance in order to see or hear it; in such close proximity to the source, it practically swamped my senses. Behind me I could hear the boss bandit cursing as Argo struggled under his load on the steep slope.
“Try walking Boss,” Toad suggested.
“Worthless beast,” the boss roared as he tumbled ungracefully from the saddle.
I sighed as I tore my senses from the wondrous valley below and turned my attention to my captors. While the boss, assisted by Toad, tried to get his footing on the steep slope, I took charge of Argo. My horse thrust his nose eagerly into my side as my hand captured his reins. He missed me, and detested having to ferry the corpulent bandit across the rugged wilds of Everlast. I sighed as I stroked his neck, “soon,” I whispered for only my mount to hear.
When my captors claimed the summit, their disagreeable attitudes changed as I watched child-like awe play over the faces of both men. For a moment it was easy to forget that these men had stormed my camp, stolen my belongings, and hijacked my life … for a moment I saw them as fellow adventurers stunned into silence by the sight of a wondrous green valley hidden in the icy heart of the Windspires. But then it ended.
“You’ve brought us this far whenchling, now lead us to this dragon.”
I sighed; there truly was no cure of avarice. “As you wish.”
“Now that’s more like it,” the boss hummed, “keep up that attitude, and I might decide to keep you around … like I did with Toad here.” He nodded to his scrawny companion, “I’m not so bad to work for, am I Toad?”
“No Boss,” Toad answered obediently, “better to work for you than be sold as a slave.” Then he added in a more enthusiastic tone, “can we keep her Boss, she can cook better than me and she’s pretty to look at too.”
“Maybe, we’ll see,” he answered. “I’m going to need someone to look after that miserable beast if I plan to keep it; you’re not so good with horses. If I decide to keep the horse, then I’ll keep the girl too. In the mean time …”
I blocked out the rest of their conversation, it was unsettling to be discussed as if I was nothing more than an object. Instead I focused on discerning the trail that would take us to the valley floor. As I picked the almost invisible path down the mountain side, the forest around me began changing. The lower down we moved, the snow became less and less. The temperature warmed to the point where I removed my woolen cape and slung it over Argo’s saddle. Birds sang it the trees. Squirrels and chipmunks foraged among the leaf litter. A great stag leapt out onto the path before me and then, just as suddenly as it appeared, it dashed away into the trees.
As the stag fled, I felt something whiz past my ear. One of my arrows thudded into a log near the edge of the path some twenty paces ahead of me. The Boss was a disaster with a bow; I was lucky the shaft hadn’t found its resting place between my shoulder blades instead of in the rotten log.
“I’m a fair hunter you know,” I said over my shoulder as I continued to walk. “If I had my … I mean, if you would be so kind as to loan me your new bow, I might be able to bring down some game.”
“I could do with some fresh venison or some rabbit, Boss,” Toad chimed in eagerly, “barley and root stew is getting old.”
“I thought you liked the wenchling’s cooking.”
“I do Boss, it’s the best barley and root stew I’ve ever tasted,” he back stepped, “but meat would be nice for a change.”
“Very well,” the Boss sighed. Moments later, Toad pressed the bow and one arrow into my free hand. “No tricks or I’ll gut you …”
“… Like a river trout and feed my entrails to the crows,” I finished the threat for him.
We continued down the path and it wasn’t long before a hunting opportunity presented itself. I knocked my only arrow and drew down on a young buck still in his summer velvet. He was a fine animal and would make an even finer meal. I held my breath took aim and prepared to release my arrow.
“Hold your shot Companion,” Uriel purred into my thoughts.
In the split second that I hesitated the buck noticed me and took flight, bounding off through the trees snorting and wheezing an alarm as he went. The rich scent of deer musk tickled my nose; any of his kind for a league would be alerted to us now. I lowered the bow in defeat.
“Nice going Uriel,” I hissed back in reply.
“I have my reasons.”
“I thought you said you were a fair hunter,” the Boss humped, “why didn’t you take the shot.”
“The amulet,” Uriel urged, “say it is a hunter’s talisman.”
My mind reeled as I tried to come up with an answer. When I opened my mouth, even I was surprised by what came out. “I have but one arrow and I didn’t want to miss … and without the dragon scale amulet … well, I didn’t want to take the chance. The amulet is lucky, you see.”
“Lucky,” the Boss raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“Not long after my father gave it to me, I was out hunting. With no more family, I was forced to make my own way in the world. To that end, I needed fresh game to eat, but also some to sell in the market,” I began my tale. “From my hiding place in some brush, I watched three young bucks come into the clearing in front of me. They began to graze, standing perfectly side by side. I drew my bow, took aim at the buck nearest me and let loose the arrow. An instant later all three deer lay dead in the clearing. I’d killed all three with a single shot … the arrow went through and through the first two and was lodged in the third deer’s side, piercing its heart.” I took note of the impressed look on Toad’s face and smiled inwardly. “Ever since then,” I began my closing, “I’ve never hunted without the amulet … and I’ve never missed my prey.”
There was silence as I finished my story. Toad looked as the Boss like an expectant puppy, waiting for his master’s approval; if the man had a tail it would have wagged. The Boss, on the other hand, seemed skeptical as he weighed the merit of my words against the prospect of letting the precious dragon scale amulet slip from his possession.
“Please Boss,” Toad whined.
The Boss sighed as he removed the amulet from about his neck and passed it to Toad, regret danced in his eyes. “I expect it back as soon as you bag some game.”
Toad eagerly pressed the amulet into my hand. “Of course,” I replied as I slipped the leather cord about my neck. It felt good to have the amulet back where it belonged. “My success is guaranteed.”
We continued along the trail; Argo walked at my elbow while The Boss and Toad followed several paces behind us. Glancing back over my shoulder, I noticed that The Boss walked with his sword drawn. I could only assume that it was meant to be a reminder of my current “place” as his captive.
“Never mind them,” Uriel encouraged, “just keep moving.”
“There won’t be game about for a league,” I insisted, “that startled buck will have seen to that.”
There was silence in reply and I sighed, but continued to scanning the woods for game as I went. As expected, I saw nothing worthy of shooting at; just the occasional squirrel foraging in the branches or chipmunk scuttling about in the leaf litter. I would have to kill at least two dozen of the scrawny creatures to make enough stew to feed my gluttonous captors. I groaned in disgust.
Progress down the forested slop was slow. The steepness of the descent forced the trail to double back on itself in a series of switchbacks. As late afternoon arrived, we were only about half way down the slope. Under other circumstances this would have been cause for my distress, but presently I had my bow, horse, and dragon amulet back in my possession … even if only temporarily so. To further bolster my mood, a translucent aurora like curtain of green and copper energy danced before me; only a stone’s through away. The wall of light draped itself across the trail ahead of us, extending in a line off into the distance on either side of the trail, and rising up past the tree tops to vanish in the sky somewhere beyond sight. My captors were obviously oblivious to the wall of magical energy, as they made no comment about it; instead they were engaged in conversation about whether beer or ale went better with venison.
“Just keep walking Companion,” Uriel purred, “your liberation is at hand.”
Unsure what exactly the cat dragon meant by his enigmatic statement, I trudged on. As I walked, I took notice of a red bellied pine wren darting in and out among the giant trees of the forest. The pine wren flew right through the curtain of light as if it didn’t exist, and seemed none the worse for wear when it lighted on a tree branch beyond the veil. Similarly I noticed a chipmunk playing near the base of a tree at the edge of the veil; in his cavorting he passed back and forth through the green and copper curtain without notice of it and with no apparent ill effects. In spite of witnessing Unity’s creatures passing without consequence or harm through the energy curtain, I balked when I stood a mere arm’s span before the wall. The hairs on my arm stood on end as wave after wave of invisible lighting coursed over my skin. The sensation wasn’t painful, but it was unnerving. Argo, who stood beside me, seemed unaffected by the wall of magical energy.
Behind me, my captors’ footsteps stopped abruptly, as did their conversation; perhaps they thought I’d spotted game and so hoped their silence would improve my chances of bringing it down … if only they knew the truth. Slowly I extended my hand until my fingers touched the shimmering wall; a jolt of power raced up my arm. Instead of feeling pain or discomfort, the surge made my nose itch and I giggled.
“Stop playing Companion,” Uriel chided, “step through the resonance wall … then we can be on our way.”
“What of the others,” I muttered, imaging the Boss and Toad behind me.
“Step through and see.”
I took one final deep breath and, with Argo following at my elbow, I walked through the resonance curtain. As I crossed the threshold, the jolt of power that had raced up my arm when I touched the curtain’s surface now raced through my entire body. I could feel it, all at once and everywhere; in every muscle fiber, in every bone, in every strand of hair on my head. And yet, as unnerving as it was, it was also exhilarating at the same time. And it was also fleeting; as soon as by body was through the veil, the surge of magical energy retreated leaving me panting, but otherwise unharmed.
“I can’t wait to tell Balthazar about that,” I stammered as I tried to rein in my senses.
I hadn’t gone more than a few steps beyond the green and copper curtain when a commotion erupted behind me. When I turned to find the source, the Boss was shouting angrily at me as Toad hauled himself up from the ground.
“Something’s in the way Boss,” Toad insisted as he rubbed his forehead. Undoubtedly he had walked, unknowing, into the magical wall.
“What trickery is this,” the Boss barked before launching himself in my direction. He too ran face first into the barrier. Green and copper light flared where he made contact with the magical wall before the resonance energy repelled the bandit, depositing him on his haunches in the dirt.
“Get back here,” the Boss growled, “don’t make me come after you!”
“Can they pass through,” I asked Uriel as he came from behind a nearby tree and rubbed affectionately against my leg.
“No,” he replied before jumping into my arms. “The barrier protects Summer Grove from outsiders … unless, of course, you have an affinity for magic.”
“I’ll gut you whelp,” the Boss growled again as he shook his sword menacingly at me. “When I’m done with you, you’ll beg for death!”
“I don’t think so,” I answered with a smug smile.
In a last ditch effort to get at me, he hurled his sword at me. The weapon passed effortlessly through the veil, tumbling end over end until it landed in the dirt and leaves a few feet to my left. I picked up the weapon by its leather wrapped hilt and was instantly impressed by its weight. I smiled at the boss as I walked back towards him with the sword in hand.
“What are you up to Companion,” Uriel roared in my mind, but I did not answer him.
When I was just half an arm’s length from the wall of light, I stopped and fixed my gaze on the boss bandit.
“Now that’s more like it,” a satisfied smile curled his lips as he spoke.
Instead of stepping back through the barrier of light, I thrust the blade of the sword into the hard packed dirt of the trail. The weapon stood before him like a sign post, just out of reach beyond the wall of green and copper light.
“I thought you might want your sword back … I understand they’re rather expensive.”
I said nothing more to him before turning around and resuming my journey to the valley bellow.
He yelled every filthy insult imaginable at me as I took up Argo’s reins and hoisted myself into the saddle. When Uriel leapt into my arms and disappeared into his travel basket, he swore to track me down and deliver an agonizing death. Finally he cursed my soul to Chaos as I nudged my horse forward into a trot. He continued to spew rage and profanity until I passed from earshot and then only the peace and serenity of Summer Grove filled my hearing.