Chapter Five: A Little Haste is Recommended
The news had come as a surprise to everyone. It’s not every day you get told you’re the descendants of four noble heroes.
Jamal (whilst being shocked by this revelation) was visibly trying to hold back his excitement.
June and Otis, on the other hand, gave a halfhearted shrug, neither of them knowing quite what it was supposed to mean to them.
V, however, questioned the reliability of the Great Sage. To her, it felt more like a burden placed upon them.
The Great Sage continued to spout out tales of the Great Four, good vs. evil, light vs. dark and a bunch of other stuff the descendants simply nodded along to.
“You are the ones to bring an end to this madness,” she said grandly, leading the surrounding crowd to cheer like they were witnessing a real-life pantomime.
The four guessed they didn’t really have much of a say in the matter, as turning down this quest would probably receive a very different reaction from the crowd. With that in mind, the four all agreed rather loudly to the Sage’s quest, trying to cover up their own issues with the situation.
“You must make haste then, my fine four. Those shades can move fast and I doubt it’ll be long until more appear to cause more havoc. I wish you the best of luck on your journey” she said, moving to the side so that the four could leave.
They didn’t, however, their feet stayed glued to the ground as they all collectively tried to catch up with what had been thrown at them.
V was the first to speak, like always.
“Aren’t you coming with us?” she said and, guessing by the Sages dumbfounded expression, she hadn’t been expecting that question to come up.
“Because I can’t,” she blurted.
“That’s not answering my question properly,” V pushed on, not paying attention to Jamal who was nudging her, trying his best to get her to stop.
“As I said before, this requires haste. The last thing you need is to be dragging around a hundred-year-old woman. Now, are you done with the questions?” replied the Sage sternly.
V responded with an affirmative nod, she supposed that made sense.
The now “Great” Four made their way out of Bellkeep, winding through the streets side by side, cheered on by the citizens as they disappeared through the town gates and over the vast horizon. They all waved and put on their best smiles as they went over it, or at least Jamal did. He was used to this kind of performance.
The four followed the path ahead of them, green fields stretching around them for miles. The further they got, the more distant the cheers grew until there was nothing but the breeze and occasional chatter of birds flying overhead. The quietness was sobering, giving them time to digest what they’d just endured. This was the kind of thing they’d heard in stories. The chosen one, or in this case chosen ones, sent on a quest to stop a great evil. Although those stories would usually begin on a lighter note, the slaughter of innocents wasn’t exactly the typical start to the hero’s journey. Though the heroes were irregular too, the four looked like bootleg copies of what they’d heard of in the stories. The Daring Knight. The Righteous Rogue. The Wise Wizard and, last but not least, The Truehearted Cleric. These descriptions didn’t quite relate to the four who now held the legendary title.
“So, us, hey? The Great Four, who could’ve guessed,” said Jamal, sounding giddy as he practically skipped over his own words.
“I get they’re important, but who are they exactly? Are they like the Thunderous Three or something?” asked Otis, unsure of what exactly he’d just been roped into. Not that he minded too much. All the applauding made him feel important.
“Nah, the Thunderous Three don’t even compare. The Great Four, they’re way better!” Jamal replied.
“But how?” Otis asked, puzzled by Jamal’s enthusiasm toward them. He’d never heard of this legendary group before, although perhaps they were more of a trend up north.
“Well, isn’t it obvious? There’s four of them, duh,” said Jamal, chuckling at Otis’s inability to work out the basic equation.
Otis just smiled lightly. He shouldn’t have expected anything other than the overly simplistic answer Jamal gave, especially considering his other displays of intellectual prowess up to that point.
This was where V chimed in. She could never sit back if a debate was at hand.
“I don’t know, if you ask me, the Great Four are overrated, it’s pretty much just the same story over and over again,” she said, earning a disgusted look from Jamal.
“You didn’t just say that,” he said, clearly offended by her comment, making the interjection successful in V’s eyes.
“I’d like to agree but maybe we shouldn’t start slagging them off, we’re not the incarnations of the Thunderous Three,” said Otis lightly, though he felt it would be more of a fitting title with how distant June seemed, she hadn’t said a word since they’d set off from Bellkeep.
The four walked for a while longer and soon the sky above grew darker, the washed-out blue being drenched in a vivid red light as the sun started to set. Soon they’d lose the guiding light of the sun, soon they’d see nothing but shadow, and those weren’t ideal conditions to travel under. So they picked up the pace. Striding along the path, they managed to keep up with each other for the most part. Although, Jamal kept back, potentially being the effects of the injuries, or perhaps all the freebies he’d got in the bar. The green hills around them faded away as an ever denser number of trees took up the surrounding foreground, soon they found themselves at a crossroads, face to face with a forest with two paths that went either left or right around it.
They stopped for a moment to consider the best route, which Jamal was very thankful for as it gave him time to catch his breath.
“I believe going through Wellbridge is the swiftest option,” said June, being the first she’d spoken in the past two hours. She stood to the right of the path, waiting patiently for the others to join her, which Jamal and Otis both did.
V, however, stood still, looking toward the lofty trees that the path was doing its darndest to make them avoid.
These trees lined the edge of the lost woods, a stretch of forestry that covered almost the entirety of the centre of Cinder. Many towns dotted the surrounding area of the woods, Ashwald to the south-east, being the closest to them at that moment, a town Otis had little desire in returning to. Along the path around were several others, Deeprock, a town that resided entirely in a cave complex, a majestic place to visit. When it wasn’t filled with tourists. Wellbridge, a town whose most interesting feature was the bridge it got its name from. As well as many others. But obviously, the most important was Glasshall, their destination, which stood just north of their location. Going through the lost woods was, in fact, the fastest route, V knew that, all of them did.
“We’re not going through the woods, they’re called the lost woods for a reason. People get lost in there,” said Jamal, feeling the need to give the additional clarification.
“The Sage also said that we’d need to make haste. This is our best option if we want to get this done with,” explained V.
“But also like, save the realm and stuff too, right?” said Otis, receiving a half-arsed shrug from V as a reply.
The four would continue this debate amongst themselves, spanning for the next few minutes, with each passing second only adding to the volume of the debate. Whilst they bickered, they were unaware that the trees and flora around the path they’d just walked down were moving slightly. This wasn’t simply wind brushing past branches and shrubbery, this was something drenched in shadow, and behind it were even more of its siblings, all readying themselves to attack its unsuspecting victims.
“Listen, I don’t care how much faster it is through those woods, I’m not taking a step into them no matter what,” argued Jamal, his bravery really shining through in his high-pitched tone. One that would only get higher when a shade jumped out onto the path behind them. The appearance of one managed to be enough to unite the four as they huddled together, holding their various weapons forward gingerly.
“Listen, there’s only one of them, if we work together we can beat it easily,” said V, approaching the shade, confidently playing with her daggers like she was going to cook it up once she was done.
The heavy footsteps behind her did not display as much confidence, however, as Jamal (despite his prior words) ran straight into the woods.
V rolled her eyes. They must’ve lowered their standards for what it takes to earn the royal insignia these days. “Still, only one, guys, with or without him we’re fine,” she said, unaware that she’d just jinxed them.
Several other Shades jumped into view, each one dropping V’s confidence a little more. “Me and my big mouth,” she muttered.
“I can do this, third time’s the charm right?” exclaimed Otis, his words being a form of reassurance to himself, rather than something directed toward the other two who he’d pushed aside. He aimed his wand and repeated the incantation from before, and (much to his delight) a similar light was produced.
V and June stood back a little, not wanting to risk it in case it went off in his face or took a detour toward them.
It did neither though, the light shot out like a bad firework, fizzing out before it even hit the floor. It seemed Otis’s lucky streak had ended, and the shade didn’t seem willing to let him have another go, and neither did V, as she ran up grabbing his arm and tugging him back toward the woods, adopting the strategy Jamal had beforehand. Even June wasn’t against it, as she followed very quickly behind them into the woods along with shades who were tight on their heels.
Heavy breaths and the sounds of fast-paced footsteps rang in between the maze of trees. V, Otis and June were all running for their lives, narrowly dodging incoming swipes as the shades tried to catch them. None of them could see Jamal. The head start had clearly been an asset for him, one that the others were jealous of, as they didn’t have the pleasure of being out of harm’s way. Racing between trees was only getting harder as well. Now, not only were they racing the shades, but they were racing the sun itself, which was only providing the minimum of light they needed to spot when they were on a collision course with a tree or rock. Luckily for them, however, this is where the lost woods worked in their favour. The deeper they got, the more convoluted and tighter the pathways, allowing for them to weed off the slower shades.
Eventually, they were left with one stubborn shade, one which just so happened to be the biggest and most monstrous of the pack too. The three couldn’t shake it no matter what they did, if they winded between trees it would simply break through them if they were thin enough. No, they needed another tactic. Otherwise, this thing would be the end of them.
The chase continued as the three desperately scanned for anything to aid them, all whilst trying to not fall victim to the gigantic shade and its serrated claws. Time was running out and the air in their lungs along with it, they couldn’t keep this up. Not that they’d be able to run for much longer if they wanted to anyway. As they pushed through some shrubbery, June had to clutch onto Otis who almost ran off the edge of a small ravine. They’d run out of ground and there was no way they were going to be able to jump over it, not in the state they were in. They could hear it thundering toward them, and as they turned, they could see the trees in the distance parting.
It seemed to be that they only had two choices, fight or flight, not that either of those seemed to have exceptional outcomes. They prepared themselves despite the dire circumstances, moving back slightly with their weapons raised for one last hurrah.
June started a small, quiet prayer. Holding something that sat under the neck of her robe, Otis imagined they were prayer beads of some kind.
V let out her own kind of prayer, though the contents were a little more colourful than June’s. “I swear if I see that coward knight again, I’m gonna choke him with that fucking cape of his,” she said to herself, and from the sound of her voice, Otis knew she meant it too.
Otis took one more step back, assuming he should probably have some form of last words too, something epic, something cool, something worthy of a chosen one, not that his run as one had been particularly long. He finally came up with something that would be suitable, taking a deep breath before reciting it.
“And to all those who-”
He wouldn’t finish it however, he took one step too many backwards (overestimating the amount of space he had) and slipped off, falling down to the dark depths below.
Both V and June stopped their prayers and turned to try to catch him. But they were too late, he was gone. Now all they could do was watch as he was swallowed up by the darkness that sat at the bottom of the ravine. June’s mouth was agape, shocked at how suddenly they’d lost him and so did V’s, at least for a while anyway, before one of her eyebrows perked up.
“Might be a little morbid but there’s supposed to be a crunch,” she said, turning to June who sat confused by how quickly her mood had changed, especially when the beast’s earth-shaking footsteps were still growing louder by the second.
“What do you mea-” June’s question was cut short as V pushed her shoulder, tipping her over the edge to follow Otis.
V stood up and turned back to the row of trees as the shade came bursting through. She stretched out her arms and fell back, giving the beast two polite gestures as she plummeted down below. She hoped she was right. Otherwise, this was going to be a rough landing.