The Hero's Apprentice

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Ch. 24 The Fogdocroaken

The moment Walter realized he was in a prison yard and had sharp shooters pointing their rifles at him and ordering him to put his hands up he did so. When it was clear that Rye was injured and Walter had a sword he was asked to drop his weapon. Walter grinned and activated Bers’ gleam spell. It did the trick. Both snipers and Rye were blinded by the light from his sword and Walter ran through the first door he saw. Walter knew he only had a few seconds before they found him so he worked fast. He used his gourd and prepared to summon Cro. Wherever Cro was he needed him here to declare a winner. After that it didn’t matter, put him Cro and Rye in jail. They’d escape, the duel would be over and Walter could go to Drey finally. Walter wrote the runes with the water and prepared to summon Cro. Cro might resist though, so Walter wasn’t sure what that would do. If this failed he’d just travel back to Ando, replenish and think up something. The forest had said it had a plan. Walter needed that plan. Walter then realized that he had just sent Cro and Drey to his room and they had left soon after. Cro would go to the castle. Walter couldn’t miss Cros’ scent. It was the only one besides Ryes’ that he knew. Walter disappeared just in time before the guards would’ve spotted him.

Rye was taken to the medical wing and treated for gun shot wounds. Rye had been gone some months and many of the prisoners didn’t know him cause they were new like he had once been. The guards also didn’t know it was him, just a man who needed to be treated so he wouldn’t bleed to death. Rye had lost his hat and staff when Walter bound him to the ground back in Ando so he only had his gourd, knife and spellbook. Ryes’ English was good enough that he was able to lie his way back to health and leave the prison without a worry. Rye knew it was pointless to go back to Ando. Walter was obviously there and was getting Cro. Rye needed to retreat for the present. He’d stay in Walters’ world and find some way to get a new staff and a way to get Walter that would be more deadly than a useless gun that had given him a permanent limp and shoulder ache. It seemed Rye would get to use one of those devices that destroyed cities after all.

Cro and Drey were a top the castle and Drey knew it would probably be a long time before she saw Walter again. When Walter appeared behind them a moment later as they were opening the trap door and called her name. Drey turned around and screamed his name and they ran into each others’ arms.

“Walter are you alright?”

“Rye is hurt bad. If Cro hears my report and deems me the winner, the duel should be over.”

“Thank goodness.”

Cro listened to Walters’ Andoish and he and Drey realized he had been away for a longer time than they felt it had been. Cro affirmed that two attempts to kill Rye was more than enough to declare victory and declared Walter the winner. Drey held Walter a long time after that. Then Walter told her he had to visit her one last time.

“You mean?”

“I have to get to Gant and slay the beast in the marsh.”

Drey and Cro looked at each other and realized that Walter might as well have not showed up.

“I’m going with you.” Drey said.

“The other Drey is there, I wouldn’t advise it.” Walter replied

“You mean you’re going back to. Drey stopped herself.”

“There’s nothing after that Drey right?”

“Yes. You’ve experienced all of my past except that.” Drey looked scared.

“Don’t scare me Drey, I’m coming back.”

“I don’t remember if you succeeded or not.”

“Oh! Well what does the history say happened?”

“There are several versions of the tale of the Fogdocroaken.”

“The what?”

Cro and Drey told Walter the same rumors he already had heard from Ber. Walter hushed them and said he needed to get to Gant and slay it.

“How will we get Walter to Gant three years ago?”

Dreys’ question to Cro was a hard one. Walter had no object in Gant to drag him back except Dreys’ ring and that one was being used already to bring Walter to his wedding night.

“We must go to Gant.” Cro said. “Getting to Gant is half the problem solved.”

Walter found the forest told him to do the same and that there’d be a way somehow someway. Walter spent a week replenishing and training with a sword with the knights at the castle. He had the basics already but still needed the reflexes to become faster and instinctive. Cro also spent a lot of time with Walter brushing up his spells in his spell book. Some spells had worked, others had been spontaneous and they couldn’t afford to have luck over skill. Walter especially had to improve his Andoish because his spells had English helping and getting in the way of the spells. Walter did it and also saw King Yur and Queen Lain for the second time.

They weren’t told of Dreys’ marriage. Just that Rye had gone while they were away and they weren’t sure what had happened to him. Walter hid at the academy for those few days and then prepared to set off for Gant. Drey managed to convince her parents to allow her and Cro to go to Gant to see Ber an old acquaintance of Cros’ King Yur and Queen Lain were hesitant, but also realized that Drey must’ve been bored while they were gone and they had had quite enough traveling for the present. King Yur had the academy wizards close by while Cro and Drey were away. Walter was waiting for them in the royal carriage that was taking them to Gant. The captain and knights were with Drey so the king and queen saw no harm in a quick visit. They had also done well of not revealing Walters’ status as Dreys’ husband. The entire trip to Gant. Walter and Drey enjoyed being together. Cro enjoyed the fact that Rye was defeated as far as the duel was concerned. It would leave him scorned and he’d only grow weaker with time. Cro also relayed how he and Drey had been to Walters’ room. When Walter revealed he had been in the bathroom, they were stunned. Walter didn’t mention the other Walter because it would ruin the memory of his wedding night with Drey.

When they were halfway to Gant. Walter told Cro and Drey to head back. Cro

understood why but Drey didn’t. Walter explained that he wouldn’t be in Gant except in the sense that he was going back to the night he had vanished in front of Drey. Drey understood and just wished she could switch places with the other Drey. Cro felt bad not seeing Ber but leaving Drey alone was out of the question. Besides, Ber had left to slay the Fogdocroaken back when the rumor had first reached Ando. Cro was relieved to know now that Walter had been his so called student who had prophesied Drey would wed in three years. He had turned out to be correct about that part of his prediction. Now he just had to see if the other part were true.

The legend of the Fogdocroaken had many tales and versions of each tale. Ber had the answers, cause Cro knew he had reached Gant by traveling through the forest of Ando, past the mountains and back into the deeper portion that was a part of Gants domain. Even though the path to Ando was around a mountain. Ber had sent word to Cro that he would never return until the three years were up. Cro took it to mean that the Fogdocroaken was wounded, but not defeated. The rumor that the beast was wounded but not dead had many warriors and mages vying for Dreys’ hand in marriage. Prince Herum was like his father and settled for weekly treks into the forest to go a little deeper, but never quite deep enough to even see the creature. King Fry assumed the prophet had perished in the forest, and that once the three years were up, Drey would marry Herum and his current project of slowly inching towards the menace and so called treasure would eventually be won by a test of slow and steady progress. There were only three months till exactly three years since the barefooted set back had told Fry Drey was to marry the one who slew the Fodgocroaken. Ber had named the creature back in his youth when he came out of the forest half dead and spoke of what he saw. But only a few dared to address the creature by the name. It neither inspired fear or wonder.

Walter was given coin and rations by the captain who offered to go with Walter. Walter refused stating that Drey was the one who needed protecting. Walter needed to listen to the mountain and forest if he was to enter without being branded an intruder. The captain understood and told Walter to hurry cause he only had three months before Drey was expected to be married. Walter told the captain maybe he should just run off with Drey if that happened. The captain chuckled and stated that he’d just be trading one problem for another. If he left with Drey, Ando would have no heir, and Gant would end up with everything. Walter wouldn’t have it, the forest must remain. King Fry would cut down every tree, and strip the land of everything. Walter was doing this to eliminate a land dispute, and who Dreys’ husband was. If he died doing this, the Fogdocroaken would eventually cause trouble, and so would Rye. Walter had to see the young Drey one last time though. Walter listened as he walked to Gant.

The mountain and sky were louder than the scant plants so Walter learned from them. They talked about rain and wind, fog, and dust storms. These were spells Cro could use but Walter had yet to know. This was how Cro became invisible, and winded him. The rocks were strong and more so if they were big. And grow they did from pebbles to mountains, and then back to pebbles again. Walter would try these spells in the marsh. The forest was powerful with the water and soft earth. But the mountains employed wind and hard earth. From the mountain came metal and rock. The powerful materials that could make man cut down the forests and reshape the rivers. But the forest and mountain shared the rain and they were brothers. They respected and helped one another. Plants found their way up the mountain, and rocks found their ways to the rivers. Trading with each other so that both were always busy and talking to each other. Their bond was strong, and Walter did his best to befriend the mountain and assure it he would be here for it if something ever threatened it. The mountain knew the forest harbored a vile being against its’ will. The mountain had kept its distance and ignored the forest that cried out for help. Perhaps that’s why it had become wild and hesitant to completely dispose of the creature, as if to tell the mountain that it should be afraid too. Walter sensed this tension and told them both that he was going to help. And he’d appreciate their assistance in any way they could offer. The forest loved Walter and vowed it would. The mountain was silent and then said it would think about it. Walter sighed. Even mountains that inspired explorers and were stood upon by heroes, conquerors, and champions had things it was afraid of.

Ber sensed the forest wizard mostly because the mountain and forest had told him a few nights before. Ber had dreaded and looked forward to this day. Ber was old, but if Cro was still training and breathing then Ber was going to prove himself today. Walter was surprised to see Ber clad in armor and waiting for him outside the town gate when he exited his ride.

“Let’s go.”

“To the marsh?”

“Yes, let’s finished what we started.”

“We?”

“I’ll explain.”

Walter asked permission of the marsh on behalf of him and Ber. The moist forest asked his intent and Walter said the creatures name. The forest sniffed and looked over Ber and Walter for a while before saying.

“Enter, finish.”

Ber told Walter to be on guard because they would probably kill more on the way then the one creature that was in the center. Walter asked Ber to tell him what they were fighting. Ber began when he left Ando in search of the mysterious wizard Cro admired. He had heard he had been in the forest and Ber went deeper and deeper each time until Ber knew the whole forest. Ber slew many creatures in those days and was a town hero unlike Cro. Cro said his master would come and he had to be ready so he didn’t miss it. Ber got tired of waiting with him and went into the deep parts of the forest while Cro waited outside the forest near the village. Ber and Cro had the same goal, which was to train more with him. Ber slew nastier and bigger creatures thinking perhaps this legendary and powerful wizard could only be found by the most serious of students. Cro had made it sound like he was a hard teacher but worth it so Ber kept pushing himself. His magic improved, but so did his fighting skills. Ber set traps, learned to fight long and short range. He gained the forests favor because he purged it. But when he entered the marsh portion, he almost died. In the darkness, Ber got lost and couldn’t find his way home. When night came the creatures tried to kill Ber in his fearful state. Ber fought his way through and then all the predators fled as if they were about to be devoured. Some of them were by a massive being. Something that ate constantly, and with no regard for what it was. A monster that eats monsters. It would’ve eaten Ber had someone not heard him in the darkness and come for him. When morning came Ber ran as far from where the incident had occurred that he wound up in Gant. And since then he had feared what had become of his rescuer and forged weapons in hopes that some warrior would slay the beast and bring word of its death so Ber could return to Ando and tell Cro his master was in the forest. Ber knew that the creature had devoured hundreds of Gants knights and mages. Many came to Ber saying they would kill it. None had ever come back except those who vowed never to try again.

When Walter suggested slaying it, Ber had been doubtful as always. But Walter had said he wouldn’t die and had the look Cro had when he said his master would come back. Ber wanted to believe one last time. And now he had heard for two years and nine months about the barefooted green clad prophet who had told King Fry that Ando had a champion that was going to slay the creature and take Dreys’ hand in marriage as his reward.

“I finally understood, you came here for Drey.”

“She’s my wife.”

Ber turned and looked at Walter who swung his now instructive arm at large spider that lost two legs in the attempt and died by Walters blade when it tried to flee.

“I thought you had to kill the Fogdocroaken first?”

“I married Drey before I made the promise?”

“And I wager I’m the only one who knows this?”

“Yes, here in Gant anyway, Cro knows and Drey does too.”

“What do you mean Drey?”

“I was here in Gant a week ago when I first met you. It’s been two years and nine months since I left correct?”

“Yea, why?”

“I intend to go back to this place two years and nine months back to the day I set off so I can keep my promise and kill this thing.”

“Then why are we in here with only three months till Herum marries Drey?”

“The forest said to come here. So tell me, why are you here?”

“The forest said I was to aid the green hero of Ando in slaying the Fogdocroaken.”

“Doesn’t really matter if we kill it now or earlier I suppose.” Walter remarked

The duo kept walking deeper into the marsh. They were surprised by how few creatures they encountered. Giant insects and the undead mostly. Where were all the large monsters? Walter theorized the Fogdocroaken had eaten them all. Ber hypothesized that the creature had finally died of old age. They soon found that Ber was only half correct. In the center of the marsh was a large pool of dark murky water. And in the middle lay a massive frog skeleton. And within the skeleton a massive pile of bones, trinkets, gold, weapons, and remains of all the creature had eaten that didn’t digest in its time.

“The hero did it.” Ber said with relief.

“I don’t think so.” Walter said

“What do you mean? This is indeed the creature I saw, and it has been dead for quite some time.”

The Fogdocroaken was indeed dead, and its carcass had some rotten flesh about it that was infested with maggots and flies. It had been wounded it would seem. So much so that it had bled and breathed its last, and died in its slimy home, where the forest could finally rid itself of it forever. It had done a pretty good job from what Walter could sense.

“Who killed it?’ Walter asked.

“Who cares?” Ber pointed out.

“I have to know or we have to lie or make it look like we did.” Walter interjected.

Ber admitted he was disappointed to not know if his rescuer had survived, but if the creature was dead than someone had killed it. Walter finally enlightened Ber.”

“I need you to send me back three years.”

“What?”

“I or you haven’t killed it yet. One or both of us has to kill it in the past so it’ll end up like this.”

“Nonsense! Let’s go spread the word and just say you’ve already married Drey, and the mystery goes unsolved, it happens sometimes. You never learn what happened.”

“The forests instructions were clear.”

Ber went pale and remembered the two words they had both sensed from the forest. Enter they had, finished they had not, technically. Someone had, but the forest had specified they were to do it.

“We may need Cro on this one.” Walter turned from the gravesite and started heading back to Gant.

Ber sighed and grabbed Walters’ shoulder.

“You need a rune circle.”

“I need one to Gant three years back.”

“More like a few decades.”

“What?”

“I made one to save time entering and leaving the marsh. I never came back after the creature attacked me. I had forgotten about it.”

“How far is it?”

“We passed it on our way here. If we head back I’ll find it and it’s brother circle lies outside the forest near town.”

Walter was impressed. Ber and Cro traveled between short distances with their circles. Walters’ were similar except they only went to one where and when. And his half baked spells didn’t always take him to the exact moment. But if they modified the circles, they could have one go to now and the other to the time it had first been made. Ber found it and slashed away the overgrowth and rewrote the runes. He told Walter it would lead to the other circle at the edge of the marsh, but that one was to remain untouched so it would only go to the past, and that it would only work once because it was probably just about out of Bers’ magic. Walter understood. Only one of them could go. And that one would be the one that slew the Fogdocroaken.

“You’ll tell the town the creature is dead?”

“Better. I’ll tell them you killed it.”

“We don’t know that for sure yet.”

“Don’t be a liar then.”

“Rewrite the other circle while I’m gone in case I need to come back.”

“You mean so you aren’t stuck forty years before Drey is born.”

“Wish you were coming.”

“If you see the younger me, tell him to go with you.”

“He might die.”

“And you’ll probably die if you go in alone.”

“Fine.”

“Get going and good luck.”

Walter entered the circle and Ber had to pull out his spellbook since he hadn’t done this spell in a long time, and certainly not to send someone else back to his worst memory. Ber did a decent spell, and Walter found himself at the edge of the forest. Surprisingly, Drey was running towards him. He had come just two hundred feet shy of where he had vanished when he left Gant three years ago. Walter waited for Drey to come who touched his face and asked if he knew who she was.

“Wrong Walter Drey.” Walter said.

“You just left. And then I saw you appear over here so I came.”

“I have to go forty years back now to kill the Fogdocroaken.”

Drey slapped Walter on the face. Walter then realized this was the Drey who had forbidden him to enter the marsh.

“I don’t care which Walter you are. You go into the marsh and I’m going with you.”

“Last time and then it’s all over.” Walter knew that line was pointless cause he had said that already.

“You came back just now, what did you do?”

Walter told as much as he felt and Drey was shocked that he had been with the other Drey for a week. She seemed mad about it so Walter emphasized how she had been left behind when he came back to Gant and Ber had just sent him here. She simmered down when she found out that the other Drey was getting jilted now and she was with Walter.

“I’m going with you, and unless you don’t want to marry me in three years you’re going to do it.”

Walter wanted to tie her to a tree and go to the marsh that instant. But instead he grabbed Drey by the hand and started into the marsh. He hoped Drey would get scared and let go and then he could continue on and argue that he had tried to take her but she had been unfaithful to her claim to wanting to go with him. Instead of that, Drey was smiling the whole time and every time Walter looked back to check on her and the surrounding environment that was getting darker and less friendly. He found that Drey smiled back at him.

“This is crazy.” Walter smirked.

“So is your way of showing love. I want more of it. You’ll protect me no matter what.”

“Even after I’m dead.”

“Don’t start! I already know what you were thinking. You expect every time this is your last moment with me, I can see it now. No man loves someone that much unless they know they are about to be separated. You’ve loved me how long now?”

“A month and a half.”

“And it’s only been two days for me and already I know you love me more than a century of time would ever permit anyone else.”

“There was a lot of time that went by before that month and a half.”

“And now you’re telling me I have to wait three years for you. Sorry, but I know better. Being with you in this marsh will mean more than any future you could ever promise. You need to love me now and not keep promising to love me later.”

“If I hadn’t left and did what I did. You and Cro would be dead three years from now.” That frightened Drey.

“And now I’m in a situation where if I lose you, I’ll never meet you. I don’t want that.”

“Well I don’t want you to keep disappearing, I don’t see the difference between being dead and being far away.”

“People don’t come back to life.”

“And people aren’t supposed to be able to visit yesterday and tomorrow and yet you claim precisely that.”

“You want proof? You’ll see in three years, or I can show you now.”

“I already believe you, you vanish, and your Andoish is better. And you said I’ll learn your language someday.” Walter realized the list of future prospects went on forever and he stopped their run through the marsh.”

“Are you saying we’re all gonna end up dead anyway?”

“I’m saying what you said, I don’t care if I die as long as I get to be with you just for the time we’re here in this forest.” It began raining as Drey finished that sentence.

Walter tried to find a place of shelter from the rain but there was none so he told Drey to lie down and she wouldn’t. Walter had to grab her hands and forced her to fall back as he leaned on her. Drey hit the soft tall grass Walter was aiming for her to fall on. Walter positioned himself above her and the rain fell on his tunic and entire body. Drey was dry in his rain shadow.

“You’re protecting me from something like rain?”

“If the situation requires it.”

Drey smiled and grabbed Walters face and kissed him with all her might. Then rolled over to take his place. She was now sheltering him and he looked at her.

“I miss this game.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m here and we’ll play it until it’s over or one of us is unable to continue.”

Walter removed his tunic and shrouded them both with it. Drey and he were soaked but so close together it wouldn’t make a difference. It rained only a few minutes. But Drey wished it would rain forever so she never had to leave Walter and even if they got pneumonia, Walter would hold her just as tight and not even death would be able to pull her soul from her body.

It was hard walking in the marsh all wet so Walter carried Drey so she didn’t get stuck in the mud. Drey held Walters’ oak staff as they journeyed and soon Walter found the Fogdocroakens’ grave again. Same as it would be in three years only the rain had washed the flies and maggots away, but they’d be back soon Walter knew. It was a treasure trove for the small creatures at least. And ironic that a massive creature that had eaten so much was doomed to die by being eaten by the smallest of creatures.

“It’s already dead.” Drey was relieved.

“Dead now, but that’s because I have to kill it forty years yesterday.”

“No! It’s dead, you can marry me, and Ando will get the forest and the treasure.”

“I’m taking you home Drey. And when I get back I wont willingly time travel ever again.”

“That promise can’t be kept because you don’t know if you’ll need to travel again.”

“True, but it should prove to you that I always keep my word. And that I’m trying to get back to you each time a quest pops up.”

“I wish it was alive. At least that way you could kill it and it would really be my wedding day tomorrow.”

“Three years is nothing, and you’ll use that time to learn English and prepare me to do all this for you.”

“I can’t believe this has been dead this long and no knight or mage has told my father or King Fry.”

“That’s easy. No one found it, or they got scared and left before they could discover this. I only found it cause Ber knows the marsh well, and I walked here with him before I took you in. I already knew it was dead.”

“You were going into the marsh to be with me, now you can go and do your vow for real.”

“Shall I take you back to Ando?”

“My parents are in Gant, they’ll take me home. And I’ll tell them I saw you off into the marsh and that you said to send a party after a week to get the treasure and drag the corpse out of the marsh.”

“If I kill it, I’ll hide proof of it where you can find it.”

“Where?”

“You know Ber.”

“The armory storeowner? Yes.”

“Tell him the green hero will meet him in Ando in three years and that there’s a rune circle in the forest that protects the heart of the Fogdocroaken that is dead and that he is to go there after confirming the creature is dead and tell the story in detail this time.”

“So Ber will tell that the creature is dead in three years?”

“Yes. If I kill it.”

Drey held to Walter and Walter decided he’d try and use Bers’ rune circle again and somehow get it to work this time. Drey started walking back the rest of the way when Walter found it. Like Ber he had to remove growth and write the runes. Walter asked the mountain for help in doing the spell because he didn’t know how to connect himself to forty years ago.

The mountain told him to pick up a nearby rock. Walter found it, a rock cracked and large enough to be used as a brick. It had certainly fallen from the mountain a long time ago and had finally reached the bottom of the marsh. It brimmed with magic, but the source Walter didn’t know. But maybe just maybe it had been imbued in the past by some wizard. That would explain how it got to the marsh, only one way to learn. Walter brought the rock into the rune circle, chanted and found he was in Ando. Walter looked below him and there was a rune circle. But it was in the Ando forest in Bers’ writing. Ber had a third circle? One on Andos’ side, one halfway into the marsh, and another right outside Gant. Walter had to assume Ber had forgotten about that too. Walter heard a rustling deeper in the forest and saw a bit further in was a young man with a bow, a hand ax, and a large shield. Bers’ armor looked like that, but slightly modified because he had grown wider and bulkier in his age.

Walter knew the general direction to the Fogdocroakens’ lair soon to be grave he hoped, so he made sure to stay out of Bers’ sight, and found that Ber was actually doing him the favor of killing some very nasty creatures the entire way. Walter walked over many fresh corpses as he made his way into the forest. Walter had an awful time avoiding puddles of blood and guts with his bare feet. This must’ve been why Drey had gotten him boots for the wedding. Walter realized it was getting dark and thought it best to turn back. Ber had said the creature only came out at night. But this Ber didn’t know that yet, he was walking to his death. Walter had to stop it. Unless Ber died because he interfered with what was about to happen? Walter was done with these arguments though. This was the present, the past and future could be sorted out later. Who wants to be careful the rest of their life? They’d be waiting forever for fun that could be had now. Drey had just made that point in this swamp. Well actually forty years from now, but Walter was sick of remembering dates and events in chronological order at this point.

Walter had to start slaying creatures too because as they got closer to the center it got darker, and creatures used the darkness to prey. These were nasty ones. Bat creatures both small and large, Walter had to use magic on those cause he didn’t have a bow like Ber. Giant scorpions that his sword couldn’t quite penetrate. Walter found they hated fire though. Walter especially hated the ogre that took several stabs to kill. It was slow but smashed trees trying to reach Walter. After Walter gave him three flesh wounds it skulked away and luckily many creatures fled from Walter after seeing he had taken out one of their strongest and they could be next. Walter realized that he was running out of daylight and would be completely blind if he didn’t pick up a large dead tree branch and light the end of it. It got really dark after he did that and Walter realized he’d have to hold just the staff or the sword. Walter choose the sword cause anything in the distance would give him time to reach for his flute Ber had enchanted.

Walter couldn’t see Ber and was worried Ber would get in trouble in the dark. Then Walter noticed a change in the air. The stench of rotten flesh. The croak of a frog being blasted by speakers the size of a dresser. It was here. The Fogdocroaken was out on a feeding frenzy. And Walter guessed by its breath that it preferred fresh meat and hadn’t the time or patience for personal hygiene. Walter felt fear go down his whole body like when you watched a really scary movie. Walter realized that he really might die unless he ran now or went at this thing while he was still at a distance. Walter looked at his bracelet realizing it’d be in this garbage disposals body if he didn’t make it. Worse, Ber and he would be a part of that massive heap that was obviously deader than this creature had been forty years from now.

Walter thought about all the people who had fled from this thing. Yea they lived, but this thing did to. And it ate greedily. It claimed more than necessary for survival. An abomination that even now terrified other dark forces because even they new excess and lack both led to death quickly. This creature lacked a predator, and that was why Walter had to go. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t want to face Drey anyway. He had promised to prove he wanted Drey. This was the separation event. Any guy who walked away didn’t deserve Drey or any woman. Cowards did nothing, and that was something Walter had hated about life to begin with. It was worth it. This was better than the desk job, better than anything before. Walters’ last thought was how he wouldn’t be holding Drey in this cursed place in under half a century unless he got rid of this thing that would ruin the memory by swallowing him. Walter swore he’d torch and stab the thing a thousand times if that even happened.

Walter raised his sword over his head and put his now brightly burning piece of dead wood in front. Walter tried to follow the croaks, but found it echoed too much. But then he felt quaking. This thing wasn’t just big, it was heavy. Obviously because it had so much weight being added by eating then by hunting. It only hunted if it had to. Walter couldn’t find it so he tried to find things fleeing and went in the reverse direction. He found Ber with his ears being attacked by some lamia. Walter sheathed his sword. Pulled out his wand and incanted a fire spell. The lamia and a few trees caught fire and Ber finished the job. In the heat of the moment Walter had tripped, fallen on his face, and his torch had fallen into a puddle and gone out. Ber shouted hello and Walter answered.

“I’m fine.”

“Who are you?”

“I was sent to find you. Are you Ber of Ando?”

“Yes. And you are.”

“One of Cros students. Do you have any injuries?”

“No! See if you can find your staff. I lost mine in a fight with a vampire yesterday.”

Walter realized his staff wasn’t strapped on his back anymore. He pulled out his sword and flute and his sword began to glow. When Walter put the flute away the sword went dark. Walter pulled his flute out again and the sword glowed again. Cool, thought Walter. His flute was like a battery that enhanced whatever he held in his other hand.

Ber was about to head towards Walter when he saw Walter was looking behind him at the tree tall barn sized mass. It croaked and a large tongue protruded and grabbed Ber.

“Help.” Ber yelped trying to cut at the tongue with his ax.

Walter aimed for the eyes, but the creature didn’t mind being blind while it swallowed. Ber was being pulled in and Walter had only one trick left. He flung is glowing sword as hard as he could and the ice spell activated. It out paced Ber and entered the amphibians stomach. The creature started to choke cause all it’s digestive system was being turned to ice. Ber finally managed to sever the tongue that was pulling him. The tip remained attached to his legs. It had so much mucous and slime it was impossible to get off. Walter picked up Bers’ ax and cut off a slimy front leg. This creature couldn’t eat if it couldn’t move. Walter tried cutting the hulk but the creatures’ inflated body didn’t allow the ax a clear hit. In that moment the fire in the trees that had lit up the battlefield died out. It was all dark except a faint glow in the beasts stomach. Walter needed his sword if he was going to penetrate and do internal damage. Almost as if hearing him, the enormous toad coughed out the shining blade. Walter remembered the sword would always try to get back to him. He reached for it and plunged it with both hands into the balloon bellied monster. The air it released was so foul Ber vomited. Walter pulled the sword out and stuck his hand into the opening and shouted for a flame spell. It scorched the creatures bowels and it started to hobble away.

Walter cut the massive lump of flesh that was like rubber cement and plato around Bers’ legs. He returned Bers’ ax to him and pulled out his flute and the sword lit up the area enough that they could see each other, the Fogdocroaken was just out of range of the gleam. Ber took out his bow and fired some arrows into the stinking blob as it was an impossible to miss target even in the dark. The creature traveled much slower after that. Bers’ arrows were laced with many of Andos choice spells. They would infect, age, and even dissolve the creature until it got the arrows out. That was unlikely.

“I need to find my staff.” Walter suddenly remembered.

“In the morning.” Ber muttered. “That thing is the least of our problems.”

“Vampire?”

“Yes, and even if you do find your staff, the creature will just regenerate once you inflict pain.”

“Where is it?”

“While it’s more dangerous than the croaker, he has no interest getting eaten repeatedly. In fact the croaker is the only thing he fears.”

“And now that he’s butchered, he’ll be on the prowl even more?”

“Sadly, I should’ve told you.”

Walter was embarrassed. He had made things worse now. But how was he supposed to know? Vampires were just people with fangs as far as he knew. They had as much truth to them as they did fiction.

“Thanks for saving my life.” Walter felt a little better after Ber said that.

“Let’s get out of here.”

“Good idea.”

The trip back to Gant was dark and long. Ber and Walter never sensed anything and no creatures went near them because they had just slain the second most dangerous creature in the marsh. The good news was Ber and Walter had killed a local menace. The bad news was they had now created a void that would be filled by another creature that was the one thing the Fogdocroaken had tried eating and failed at. When they finally got some daylight, they sprinted because once they got through the trees they’d be safe in the sun. Walter reached it first due to having lighter gear than Ber. But Walter also spyed a dark human figure that had been following them. He prepared to fight and Ber turned around and saw it too. The creature retreated as the sun came down on Walter.

“He’ll find us.” Ber announced.

“You mean he’ll attack the village?” Walter nervously said.

“Yes, but only you. You escaped into the sun. He’ll take it as a challenge and will bide his time till he can claim you.”

“What about you?”

“He already tried. My armor was too thick and if I ever do face him again he knows I’ll be ready with better stuff and a spear that I’ll craft into my staff as well.”

“I’d like to go get my staff if that’s fine?’

“It’s too late. He’ll find it, and either destroy it or find a way to use it.” Walter didn’t like the sound of that.

“Then I rest and go to face him.”

“Are you out of your mind? We’re lucky to be alive, and I have no idea where we are.”

“The kingdom of Gant, but that’s unimportant. I vowed to find you and slay the creature. I’m not going back to Cro until that thing is gone and the forest is safe again.”

“Please wait.”

Ber said he’d craft a new staff for him and that they could figure things out. Ber then realized that Walter had said earlier he was Cros’ student. Impossible cause Ber and Cro were looking for a master. How could this kid his age already have a master, let alone Cro.

“Your masters name is Cro or is the Cro in Ando who is currently your and my age approximately?”

“I wont lie. Cro will train me in forty years. You, well I wont say what happens to you Ber. But either way I need to get back in that forest and kill our grotesque stalker.”

“You’ll have to get past me before I let you back in there.”

“If you insist.”

Walter kept his distance so Ber couldn’t use his ax. Ber armed his bow and Walter realized this was trouble. He pulled out his flute and sword and aimed the sword at Ber. It spewed out frost and Ber dropped his bow, then to his knees shivering.

“Th.. that’s an am…azing swo..rd.”

“I got it here in Gant.”

“They have magic swords?” My bow was my own work, I practiced magic at the academy and loved the story of the green hero who fought the forest vines and Krell when he took up the responsibility after he left. My ax and shield have no such abilities.”

“Then you’ll let me go back in?”

“You seem able even without your staff. But please let me craft you one before you. No charge, the least I can do for you saving me in there.”

“Hardly, you severed the tongue, so it can’t eat now, and even if it could regenerate it’ll have plenty of other problems thanks to you.”

“The creature will die in a few days I’m sure. But the forest will now be even more dangerous. The big creatures wont get eaten now, the vampire will come back night after night to feed on them. The small creatures he’ll either not bother with or they’ll flee out of that swamp and come here.”

“Then we should warn the village.”

“And get something to eat. I’ve been in that marsh for too long and didn’t bring any food with me. I’d never eat anything in there, even if I had to starve to death.”

“Wish our shadow would starve to death.” That made Walter even more hungry.

Gant was a small fishing village at present with a few choice merchants. The castle was small and the people were stunned by the two men. One dressed like a warrior and the other like a peasant. It was partially due to the fact that they were covered in mud and stank from their little encounter in the marsh. They were stopped on their way to the market by the guards who asked their names, occupation, and where they came from.

“Ber of Ando, and this is my apprentice who is learning the ways of fighting.”

Walter didn’t mind, he’d like to say wizard but without his staff, he actually could pass for a poor soldier.

“What brings you to Gant?”

“We encountered a beast in the forest. A black shadow, it..” Walter continued.

“We come to warn you that the forest is dangerous and we recommend that all who value their lives stay clear of it until an army or group of wizards can be sent to dispose of all that is evil therein.”

Ber supposed that was enough to say. Besides he didn’t want anyone going in there with the vampire now more motivated than ever because his competition was now as good as dead. Chances were he was finishing him off as they spoke.

“This is urgent.” The knights told each other.

They would set defenses around the village and tell the king that the forest was not a safe hunting area. The fishing would have to suffice. Walter had no idea who was the king in Gant then, but Walter also noticed that the road he and Drey had taken to Gant wasn’t built yet, so he added one last thing.

“Ando lies around these mountains about a five day journey. Do not travel through the forest. Use the mountain pass. It is uphill at times, but better to sweat than to bleed your last.”

Ber was surprised at how good Walter was at giving people orders. It was like he knew who was gutless and who would pick a fight. Or maybe he was looking for a fight. Otherwise he wouldn’t be so thick headed as to go kill a vampire as he was clad. The knights had listened to every word and then invited them to come with them to their outpost. There they could eat, wash their clothes, and rest. Walter and Ber didn’t object. Afterwards Ber found a choice spear he bought off one of the knights and began to work on it. Walter wanted to help try and enchant it but Ber said he was out of practice and this was a good place to start. Walter pulled out the flute Ber would enchant in his old age and tried playing it. Walter didn’t go beyond using three notes to avoid the fact that he hadn’t practiced with it.

As Walter played he realized he was feeling better. Ber felt it too. So the flute really was like a magic battery. It strengthened the player. But Walter needed to test the limits. Walter played fast and the breeze picked up. Slow and the ground shook. Walter stopped and put it away. The whole village thought a giant was coming. But after nothing happened for an hour they all went back to their daily routine.

“I’ve never seen an enchanted instrument.” Ber said jealous now that this wizard was going to have three magical tools at his disposal.”

“I’m still learning, and I’m sure we’ll both be much better as years go by. Since you’re busy with the spear, let me see if I can’t enchant your shield and ax.”

Ber didn’t like people handling his stuff, but if this wizard could make his weapons half as amazing as the sword and flute he figured it was worth it. Truth was Walter knew that daily practice was the key to the mystic art. If you got lazy or forgetful, the spell showed that. Everyday Walter read his spell book and looked and scribbled down ideas and suggestion in the blank pages. He realized he still had yet to fill an entire blank page. An entry a day would be fine, but once in a while something new had to be tried. But carefully and always with the ability to wear off so the user would have to redo the spell at some point. Permanent magic had been forbidden by Cro. If a spell had an infinite power source, then it would or might not ever be reversed. Walter also realized that Ryes’ binding was starting to wear off as was his own. The duel was over so no need to waste magic on something that wasn’t needed then.

Walter made the shield able to catch on fire in the front. He explained it would frighten enemies, and make enemies panic if they managed to take it from him. Ber was excited when Walter told him his ax would expel a lighting bolt if its new name were shouted when it was pointed at a target. Walter named it Zix to mimic the sound it would make when it burned the air. But also said it would be draining so he recommended three times and then he’d have to retreat if whatever he fought wasn’t dead after that and a hack job. The other enchantment made it so the ax would only work for Ber and anyone he inscribed on the handle. Ber was glad, if this was stolen Ber would never forgive himself. Walter was satisfied with those simple upgrades and told Ber he was free to add his own in the future. Walter returned Bers’ weapon and Ber handed Walter a metal tipped staff. Ber said this could be thrown with the same abilities as one of his arrows. It would also have a locater so Walter could always find it. Something his two previous staffs did not have.

“Just say any of your favorite words and the staff will call out.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m not as good as you, sorry I could only do two spells.”

“You’ve saved me the trouble of going into battle less prepared. I would like to add one new spell if I may with your help.”

Ber got excited, a spell using the magic of two wizards. Ber wished he had stayed with Cro and waited, at least they could’ve done this everyday as they waited. Walter explained that he wanted to try and create a spell that would take him to anywhere he had been before. Ber was amused, a staff that enabled travel. It would certainly be a costly spell. But the wielder could escape danger and travel great distances quickly. Truth was Walter was tired of being summoned and traveling to places without the complete assurance that there was a way home or a rune circle he could use. This staff was the first real time machine. It wouldn’t grab just anyone, and wouldn’t just send you anywhere. If there were no specifics, it wouldn’t work at all. And even when it did, it would have a timer like all spells that would terminate the visit so the user could never stay in one place too long except by never using the staff. A perfect safeguard against all the nasty business Ryes’ first summoning spell and all the clumsy work Walter had done, and that Cro had done in the spur of the moment. Not to mention Bers rune circle that had sent him back three years instead of forty. That was because the final rune had been on the opposite side of the rock Walter found in the forest. Either he or Ber had kicked it out of the rune circle he had made using stones when the overgrowth proved too thick in some places. These accidents and set backs would finally be set right. And Walter could go back to Drey permanently forty years from now, and never have to go backwards or forwards anymore. Keeping things the way they should be was hard. Always someone throwing it out of balance, and someone had to go and put it back, only for it to keep happening. Walter was determined to catch at least a month, no a few years of break time before he had to do this again.

Ber and Walter wrote the spell around the entire staff. It was a long one, but it had all the protections and rules written clearly on the staff. Anyone who found it who spoke Andoish would understand. Walter realized he knew of only three people who had traveled through time. Himself and Rye back with the vines, and Cro with him to the night he left to train with Cro. Drey, Cro and Rye had also traveled to his home, but Walter knew that the river between places was a little different then the river between events. Walter made sure that the staff would reject Rye and anyone even like him. Bad intention would make the staff attack the wielder by sending him and not the staff to the worst place Walter could think of. And they’d be stuck there without a way back for all eternity, unless they managed to pull off what Ber and he had just done. And that was unlikely. With the time spear completed Walter thanked Ber and the knights for all they had done and he told the staff to take him to the place and time he had been right before meeting young Ber. It worked flawlessly. But it took one second for the situation to change.

Walter was in the rune circle he had tried to use to go back forty years, and Drey was in the distance making her way back through the forest she felt quite safe in cause nothing had attacked them, and the Fodgocroaken was nothing more than an eye sore and a nasty pile of stinking garbage. Walter realized that the vampire if he was still around would sense him, or worse sense Drey. Walter found out quickly that the vampire was near, and he had probably known the moment they had entered. So the entire time with Drey had been as close to death as he possibly could’ve been. Walter would never feel safe anytime anywhere now.

Walter had two choices. Not go to Drey and pray the vampire didn’t attack her and went for him. Or go to Drey and risk her getting hurt or killed. Either way Walter needed to choose now or the vampire would. Dumb question Walter realized. Drey had entered the forest and was about to leave. Ber had said he never let his prey escape, just waited for a chance. So Walter sprinted as fast as he could. Walter had the time spear ready and would ram the creature right through his heart. Walter then realized that everything he knew about vampires might be useless. This was no Count Dracula who seduced women and wore a cap and stylish clothes. This was a blood thirsty carnivore that couldn’t get a girl excited unless she was a masochist or an occultist. This was no boyfriend addicted to a girls blood and would only drink a little. He’d slit her throat, and drink every drop. The only thing worse than this creature was a rapist, because he might do what the vampire did afterwards. Walter felt so clueless. Why hadn’t he realized that a giant frog couldn’t possibly be the thing that terrorized knights and mages. It was this creature. It was smart, it had human intelligence and could plan and have tactics. It could decide to attack in his territory or come to a village and scare the hell out of everyone. Universal Pictures had done an excellent job of comically cooling down the reality that this thing was the supreme work of evil. It could have minions, it could revive, and it always took more than one person to kill it. Walter realized he was truly scared this time. This creature made Rye look like Chucky. Who if you’d watched the movies you’d realize it was a wizard who was bested by things liked a locked closet or a cage. Which was precisely the kind of place Rye was in right now, and had apparently taken five months to get out of.

So Walters’ ultimate goal was about to be attacked by yet another threat. Walter knew it couldn’t get worse than this so it was time to die trying or grab victory, supreme victory from killing what Ber had said he couldn’t but had managed to scare off. Well Ber, I’m glad I met you, but you taught me one thing. Finish what you started. Ber had waited forty years to complete this quest. And Walter was here to make sure Ber and Gant would finally know that the shadow of the marsh was dead, and Walter would either succeed, or Drey was gonna have to figure out some way to evade this monster forever.

Walter was halfway to Drey when he saw his stalker coming for her. He was in rags, dirtier than dirty, and had the blood stained eyes and claws that some accounts had claimed. He reminded Walter of the undead in the marsh but he wasn’t missing limbs, and his flesh wasn’t rotted, just pale and shriveled. When he fed though he probably gained strength. He seemed familiar but Walter wasn’t sure and assumed he was possibly a villager who had been bitten. Or he was an original vampire, which was what Ber had thought. He looked at Walter and smiled. Walter knew that look, I’m gonna eat your woman and then you. But you’ll have to watch it happen cause I can run faster than you. Walter knew he was no speed runner so he got ready to throw his spear once the vampire had his back to him and wasn’t looking. Walter threw his spear and the vampire managed to not die by slowing down when he was within striking distance of Drey. It landed in front of him and he looked back at Walter who was now switching to sword and flute mode. Walter didn’t like what he saw next. The vampire pulled Walters’ time spear out of the earth and prepared to stab Drey who was screaming for Walter. Walter slowed down. The vampire grinned and Drey was confused as to why Walter was giving up. Walter grinned back at the vampire who realized something was up. Walter pointed to the spear and the vampire looked at the writing on it. The vampire knew Andoish and read every rune on the staff until the last line finally showed up.

“Have fun in hell Rye.” Walter said

The vampire could not believe it. Walter knew who he was. And worse, had a weapon that was now going to send him to the worst place he the current holder had been. How did he know? The answer was obvious. He had limped while he ran, and Walter knew his smile and eyes like no other.

“And where is hell?” Rye said.

“Go and find out. I’ll see you in a decade at minimum.”

Rye vanished and the time spear fell in front of Drey who was in shock. Walter strapped the spear to his back and asked Drey if she was hurt. Drey started to cry and clung to Walter who realized that this was her first time almost dying. It got easier each time, but you still thought about everything and said your regrets and remembered your happiest memories.

“We should be dead.”

“Will you at least stay in Ando three years before you come with me into a dangerous place again.”

“Walter, I can’t do this.”

Walter was scared now. Drey was having second thoughts. Rye may not have killed her but he almost had just like with the gun down the road. She was scared, aware of the danger, and now it wasn’t just a story, it was reality, and reality is the least safe place sometimes.

“I’ll take you home then. You decide in three years if you want to help the me who arrives or if you want to marry Herum. I understand completely. But if you meant what you said, my promise remains. I will kill that creature whether or not you marry me in three years.”

“What did I say?”

“That you didn’t care if you died, that it was worth every moment. I know it is for me. But I don’t know that you do, so I protect you so you don’t need to decide. You can decide now, or you can wait until you know a lot more and then make a wise decision, or a wiser one if you think of it. It’s up to you Drey. But I want you alive, even if I can’t be with you. So I’ll take you to Ando. Cro will protect you, I know he will. As for me, I’ve got a vampire to slay and unless he sets some trap. I’m finishing him now and forever.”

Walter carried Drey out of the marsh and then all the way to Gant. When the town saw him return they asked if he had slain the beast. Walter told them he had found a large frog creature that had been killed years ago by Ber and that the shadow had left the forest and he was going to pursue it and kill it so it never came back. Ber affirmed Walters’ story and the town was relived that at least for now the forest was devoid of evil and any monster that was beyond the skill of the knights and mages. King Fry and Herum decided it was an impossible quest to pursue because chasing a vampire for three years just seemed crazy. The prophecy was ignored since there were three years for it to occur. And Fry hoped the wizard who was leaving never returned with the creatures’ heart or head. Walter told the whole village to report the shadow if it ever found its way back into Gant, the marsh, or Ando. And affirmed that he had had much success with Bers’ weapons and would use them proudly now to go finish the job.

Ber was kept busy making weapons because all his fine wares were selling out faster than he could make them. Many apprentices came to him trying to learn the ways of fighting and mystic combined. Ber eventually did visit Cro and tell him what had happened all those years ago and what had happened there. Cro was amazed and sad, because he had hoped he would find their master before Ber. Ber had had his own adventure with his master Walter. Who had even given his name to Ber, Ber wouldn’t admit it. But Cro knew he had.

Drey was silent all the way home with her parents. Walter had prepared a note for Cros’ eyes only as it was marked as such. The king and queen swore to Walter that no one would read it, and Walter pretended to seal it just to be safe. Saying anyone who opened it before Cro touched it would age fifty years. No one did touch it. Cro read the letter signed by Walter and Cro almost had a heart attack because the note was from his master who had been in Gant and the note also burst into flames to make sure only those Cro trusted ever heard what he knew. Walter made sure Drey got all the way to Ando before preparing to use the time spear again to go and finish off Rye. He could go to Drey now, but enough was enough, and Rye was a vampire. How had that happened?

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