We travelled for three days without further incident. At that pace, it was going to take between eight to nine more days to reach Tardon’s border.
We were taking the path along the outside of the Boundary Forest. It was empty of almost all travelers because most people were too scared to travel along the Boundary Forest.
I completely understood why people would avoid it. As we travelled near it, I could feel an unsettling aura coming from the place. It had magic in there that felt strong and discordant. On top of it, Artemis said that the black trees that looked dead were not a pleasant sight to behold. Even my companions, who couldn’t sense magic, thought it was an unnerving place.
Arion recounted the known history of the Boundary Forest, which basically was that it bordered the south end of the known world. It had always stood there, and those who tried to learn more either ended up missing or mad, but only when they went into the forest for several days. When word spread of those incidents, most people began avoiding it as much as possible.
Most people preferred to head on other routes that didn’t even take people near the Boundary Forest. They preferred to stay in the normal, safer forests of Ranvier, where the trees looked normal and didn’t give off an ominous feeling.
We were not most people though, and, in order to ensure we avoided detection and the demon, we were travelling along the edge of the kingdom. We decided it was our best option for going undetected.
It was dark when we finished settling down for the day. I was preparing to go to sleep when I noticed something was off. There were all the sudden a lot of people in the area. I could sense a large group nearby.
I got up and announced my discovery to those travelling with me. They immediately asked questions, none of which I could answer other than I felt people coming towards us, and it was a large group.
They luckily soon stopped asking questions, but instead quickly grabbed all of our belongings.
“Are we going with our plan?” Artemis questioned.
“There has to be at least fifty in this group,” I commented. “I wouldn’t want to fight all of them.”
Arion then nodded in agreement. Without needing to talk about it more, we all ran off in the direction of the Boundary Forest.
We decided, since the only time the forest seemed to mess with people was when they went deep into it, that if a group was coming that we weren’t sure we could avoid that we would hide in the forest until they were gone. No one had been brave enough to enter the forest in about a century, so we could probably step in for a little then leave once they were gone. There had been instances like that recorded in Arion’s history texts, so we believed it could work.
So, we set off quickly towards the forest. It took us ten minutes to reach it from where we were at, but we made it before the group heading towards us caught up with us.
I was a little surprised to see that Arion, Artemis, and Shade stopped a few feet inside the forest.
“Shouldn’t we go for cover?” I asked them.
After a fairly long pause, Artemis was the first to nod and agree with me. She then told Shade that it was okay to follow her and went deeper in.
Arion didn’t move right away, but instead asked, “If we stay close to the edge, do you think that we can find out who these people are and why they seem to be following us?”
Artemis stopped moving as we thought through what Arion told us.
After thinking it through, I nodded and told him, “Probably, but I would say I should do it. My senses are better at night, I can blend in fairly well in the dark, I am faster than you and most creatures, and they are more likely to be after you than me in the first place. So I think you should hide a little further in the forest and let me do the eavesdropping.”
“I don’t really like that idea,” Artemis commented. “What if they find you?”
“We don’t need to like it,” I told her as I started pushing Arion further into the forest. “We need to do it. Plus, most are going to humans, and they have terrible night senses.”
“True, but is there a better option before we decide on this?” Artemis questioned.
“Well, I’m not thinking of a better one,” Arion informed us as he finally started moving without me pushing him.
“Alright then,” Artemis replied with a different tone of voice than I was used to hearing from her. “Just don’t do anything stupid.”
I didn’t really reply. I just found a thick tree to hide behind as Arion, Artemis, and Shade went in a bit further.
I only had to wait a few minutes for the group to reach the forest’s edge. They were all armed and carried themselves like soldiers. By judging where we were at and the way they were holding themselves, I guessed they were the Ranvier Monarchical Guard, or Royal Guard as they were more commonly referred. They answered to the royal family only, which was Tark in their minds. I had a feeling that he sent them after us.
The man in the front motioned for the soldiers to stop moving. The men obeyed immediately.
The one who seemed to be in charge then asked someone nearby him, “The fugitive went into the forest, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” someone replied. “The magical tracker we got says that he’s going in, but he’s not too far yet.”
I could feel the magic of the tracker and could sense that it was a pretty well made one. The person who made it would have to be good at magic to do it. I was guessing that the tracker had at most another week that it would work, which meant at least a week before we could be free from the guards following us.
“If they are near the border, could we quickly go in, take them out, and leave again?” the leader questioned. I wasn’t expecting that. I began to think that they might be bolder than I thought originally.
“I would suggest that only men who volunteer to go in do,” another guard asked. “It would do almost no good to have a bunch of soldiers waiting for something to kill them in an instant.”
“Fair point,” the man murmured.
The man then faced the group of soldiers and announced, “The traitor we are pursuing has fled into the forest. Now, I won’t force anyone in, but would there be anyone willing to enter in order to capture them?”
There were only eight people in total who were willing to enter the forest. I wasn’t sure if I was expecting more or if I was expecting less.
“Alright,” the leader called out. “There are only two or three people here. We are ordered to kill on sight. So, the eight of us will go in and the rest of you can stay out here. If anyone tries coming out who isn’t us, finish them.”
The leader then started to round up the eight to go inside. I moved back a little into the forest as they did so. As I did so, I decided to handle them while they were barely entering. I was thinking it would discourage them and the others from entering.
I quietly got out my bow and waited until the guards entered the forest.
A few minutes later, the guards entered the forest. They knew Arion was further along in it, but they didn’t have a way to tell that I was nearby. Their senses were so terrible at night that I wondered why they even bothered doing anything at night.
When the first guard got fairly close to me, I fired an arrow through the upper right arm. Since he was so close, the arrow just went right through and disappeared into the trees behind him. He cried out in pain.
I knew it won’t kill him if he got it treated. For some reason, I didn’t want to get someone killed if they were just doing their job trying to track down what they thought was a criminal.
It worked out though as the arrow had the desired effect. The guards gathered around him and tried to figure out what caused it while helping their friend. Some thought it was the forest.
I silently moved to another place between the trees. Once I reached a good, close but hidden position, I aimed and shot another arrow straight through another soldier’s hand. He cried out in pain. There was more frantic helping and questioning on what they should do.
The head guard was starting to tell everyone to keep a level head in the forest, but I then shot an arrow straight through his leg.
“Get out of here,” he then growled in pain. The guards needed no more encouragement, and they started to hurry out. With almost half of them injured within minutes of entering the forest, they weren’t willing to stick around.
Once they were all out, I started trying to find the rest of my group. I then noticed that they were travelling towards me.
I reached them first. Arion had his sword out and almost used it on me, but then noticed who it was. He then sighed before asking what happened.
“A small amount of the guards were thinking about actually entering the forest, so I injured a few of them without them seeing me,” I answered. “They probably will now all be convinced the place is cursed now.”
“That was rather clever,” Artemis stated.
“Now, we are all alone in the cursed place,” Arion grumbled.
“And we might have to stay here,” I told them.
“What?” they asked.
I told them about the tracker and how they would probably be able to track us for another week.
After a moment of silence, Arion stated, “So our options are to go outside and take our chances against fifty highly trained guards or keep moving on the edge of the cursed forest until we lose them.”
I nodded in agreement.
“Well the forest isn’t as bad as it looks yet,” Artemis informed us. Shade barked forest, which made me think that he was agreeing that we should stay in the forest.
“I think we should try the forest,” I mentioned. “I can keep us close to the edge, and we can always take our chances with the guards if it gets too dangerous in here.”
“I don’t want to fight fifty fighting experts, so let’s stick with the forest,” Arion agreed.
The four of us then made our way through the trees that were surprisingly alive, although they felt like they should have died years ago. There appeared to be nothing off except for the strange feeling in the air. It was a few hours until we made camp for the night, and the guard followed us the whole way on the outside of the forest, too afraid to go in but not wanting to give up on their job yet.
We travelled three days through the Boundary Forest with no incidents. During that time, I used my senses to keep a sharp lookout of the Royal Guard. They were staying on the edge of the forest keeping perfect pace with us. As I suspected, they were either waiting to see if we were finished off by the forest or to get us once we left. They would continue to as long as they had their magical tracker to know where we were at. I wasn’t sure if I liked that or not.
In the actual forest, the only thing that we experienced was strange dreams. Artemis woke up from her trance and announced that she actually had a dream for once, more like a nightmare with what she talked about. It was about monsters in the forest killing all of us. Arion reported having similar dreams.
Meanwhile, I didn’t have the same dream that they did. I did have a mildly upsetting dream where my eyes kept bleeding intensely no matter what I did, but that was different than monsters attacking us. I didn’t tell Arion and Artemis exactly what I dreamt, just that I didn’t have the same dreams that they did.
We tried to not think much about it. We decided if bad dreams were all the forest had to throw at us, we could handle it. It didn’t make it easy to relax, but it kept us wary of possible troubles.
We didn’t have anything happen until one day my travelling companions just stopped walking. Artemis actually tripped but caught herself on one of the nearby trees. Shade growled, and Arion drew out his weapon.
“What’s going on?” I asked them.
“We’re preparing for an attack!” Arion shouted at me. “What do you think we’re doing?”
“Well, to me it appears that you are freaking out over nothing,” I snapped.
“What?” Artemis asked in a shaky voice. “You don’t see them?”
“Obviously not!” I yelled. “Who are they?”
All the sudden, I heard a man yell, “For the good of the town!” It was followed by a whole bunch of yells and shouts.
“Who just said that?” I shouted. “There’s no one there.”
“The people who—” Arion started. Then there was silence and him, Artemis, and Shade looked around frantically.
“They were just here,” Artemis murmured after a moment. “Is it possible they weren’t even here? Were they even real?”
“I would guess they weren’t,” I told them as I continued to walk along. “Probably just an illusion.”
Arion paused before murmuring, “I did read that there were theories that dark elves, since they saw differently, wouldn’t be able to be affected by visual illusion magic. Some evidence supported the case and others not, but it would make sense in this scenario. Those types of spells are usually broken when someone acknowledges their nonexistence with absolute confidence like Raven did in the end. The only thing that I can think of that might support that theory is if the illusion had been something that at least one of us has a connection to.”
Artemis messed with her hair as she responded, “I had a connection.”
“What?” I asked.
“They looked and sounded like a town that chased me off because I was a vampire,” she clarified. “It was over a century ago, so they are all dead. It just threw me off seeing them again.”
“Well, that is the type of connection that illusion magic would take,” Arion commented.
“Why put a whole bunch of dangerous things in the woods to keep people out if you can just drive people insane or hurt them with illusions?” I stated. “It seems that could account for the magic this forest puts off. It puts off magic meant to mess with the mind through dreams, illusions, and probably other tricks.”
“That actually feels like good news,” Artemis stated. “We have to deal with seeing things for a few days. That’s much better than the rumors of dragons being in the forest and other dangerous beasts.”
“Illusions might be more dangerous than we think,” Arion stated.
“But we have Raven, who isn’t affected by visual illusions to help us with this,” she replied, wrapping her arm around my shoulders.
“What are you doing that for?” I asked her.
“It’s to show affection,” she told me.
“You do have a good point there,” Arion murmured. “I think I rather deal with illusions that Raven can easily take care of for us, instead of a whole group of people trying to kill us that are very real.”
In the end, we just kept moving forward. It was strange for me knowing that there were illusions out there that I could never hope to deceive me.
Later that day, I was searching for food. I went a little far away from the others because they, without meaning to, easily scared off what I was hunting.
I was surprised with how fewer creatures were in the Boundary Forest. There were at most half as many as I usually found in the forests. I tried not to dwell on that fact and instead focus on getting food.
I was aiming an arrow at a rabbit when I heard what sounded like someone walking up behind me. I knew there was no one there, so I ignored it and shot the rabbit. It was a clean kill.
I was picking up the rabbit when I heard someone behind me and recognized the voice of an assassin that I killed. He was talking business just like right before I shot an arrow through his heart. He was arranging to kill a whole family for a man, and I stopped him. I had found out that he had already killed eighteen people for hire before I put him out of business.
He continued to talk and follow me, until I said, “I know you aren’t real. You’re just an illusion.” Then there was nothing. No sound of someone following me, or the voice of someone I had killed in the past.
I walked away from the spot, wondering why I heard that voice in particular. Usually illusions tried to prey on things that bothered you or were problems faced you had. I didn’t see why the illusion was someone I killed then.
In the end, I decided that I would probably not know why the forest was showing me the particular illusions that it did, so I elected to ignore them. I wasn’t going to drive myself crazy wondering about things that weren’t real.
The next day I noticed that Artemis, Shade, and Arion seemed to be more on edge than before the illusions. They definitely reacted more to their surroundings. They jumped at the slightest sounds. It was a little annoying about how much I felt like they were reacting, but I didn’t say or do anything about it. I just went about business as usual, including constantly checking in with the Royal Guard that was keeping pace with us at an annoyingly perfect level.
Around midmorning, we were walking when all the sudden a man screamed. Artemis, Shade, and Arion stopped moving forward and even stumbled back a few steps.
Arion covered his eyes with his hand and murmured, “Raven, nothing is in front of us right?”
“Absolutely nothing,” I answered. “Whatever you think you see, isn’t real.”
There was a pause before Artemis quietly whispered, “They’re gone.”
Arion slowly lowered his hands and then let out a sigh. He then moved forward. I followed after him with Artemis and Shade.
“Should I ask what just happened or not?” I asked them.
There was a pause before Arion said, “I just saw Tark standing over Zurex’s body right after he was killed. That’s it.”
“Sounds unpleasant,” I commented as I walked next to him. Artemis caught up to us and gave what I believed she referred to as a comforting pat on Arion’s shoulder and one of those shoulder hugs. They didn’t talk though. They didn’t talk for a while after that.
The day dragged on and we kept experiencing new illusions. Artemis reacted the most to illusions of people coming to attack her. There were five of them throughout the day.
Arion kept having different illusions with Tark and Zurex, either Zurex was dead or Tark was attacking him. He experienced three more of them.
Then there were a couple more illusions. One when we all the sudden were walking through a bunch of dead bodies. The way they were described made me think they were a group of kidnappers that I dwelt with. Then there was one where someone was following us, which was possibly someone else that I killed.
To all the illusions, I simply told them they weren’t real as I knew they were, and they dissipated. It was rather easy for me.
Later that night, I was taking the last watch of the night when unexpectedly Artemis woke up screaming. Shade jolted awake, and Arion sat up quickly. He was already awake after waking up a few minutes before, but he was a lot more alert all the sudden.
“What happened?” Arion demanded.
There was a slight pause before Artemis just murmured, “I had a bad dream. Sorry for waking everyone up.”
“You only woke up Shade,” I informed her.
“Arion was awake?” Artemis questioned. “Doesn’t that like never happen at this time of night?”
“It does when I can’t sleep due to the dreams I experience,” Arion grumbled.
“So you’re experiencing it too,” Artemis then commented.
Arion nodded as he sat up and leaned against a tree. There was silence for a minute as they took in what was happening. Meanwhile, I sat there thinking it was too early for interactions with other creatures.
After a few minutes, I couldn’t take it anymore, so I told them, “Either do something or go back to sleep. But no more of this staring ahead at nothing, it makes me uneasy.”
There was a short pause before Artemis let out a little giggle and stated, “I didn’t know that annoyed you so much.”
“Just assume that everything annoys him,” Arion quickly replied.
I nodded in response to this, finding it an accurate statement.
After a moment, Arion quietly stated, “Artemis, you don’t need to answer if you don’t want to, but are all these people who attack you people who drove you out because you’re a vampire?”
“Yeah,” she answered. “How did you tell?”
“You tried to act confident about going into Destrian’s village like you could do it no problem,” Arion stated. “But you did involuntary actions whenever the ban on vampires was mentioned such as avoiding eye contact, stiffening your shoulders, grab for Shade, and a few other things. It made me think you had to deal with the ban before. The forest basically confirmed it. But it also has shown a separate group each time which indicates it happened multiple times.”
“Not much seems to get past you,” Artemis replied.
“Only one massive traitor has,” Arion then stated. “I’m not really that observant.”
“Some people are just good at hiding,” she said. Shade barked in agreement and mentioned they had the same problem.
“Yeah, you’re right Shade,” Artemis murmured as he petted his head. “We had some people pretty good at tricking us too.”
“Do we know anything about your past?” Arion asked her.
“Absolutely nothing,” I answered for her.
“You’re even worse, Raven,” he replied.
“That’s because I don’t want you to know anything about my past,” I bluntly stated. “It’s off limits to everyone.”
“Does anyone know your past?” Artemis asked.
“That information is also off limits,” I informed them.
“Of course, I didn’t expect you to tell us anyone,” Arion commented as he folded his arms.
“He’s not like the rest of us who will tell if asked, I guess,” Artemis stated.
Arion nodded and there was another silence for a moment.
“Well, I guess we should talk about something, so we don’t annoy Raven even more,” Arion stated. “Would it be weird if I asked you what it was like becoming a vampire?”
“No, but I would like to know why you asked,” Artemis stated.
“Ignorance is a destructive thing,” he answered. “I like to learn about others and their walks of life, so that I can try to be less ignorant and do what is best for them. I haven’t really been able to ask about vampires that much yet. There aren’t that many, and they tend to avoid people. Can’t say I blame them. We haven’t been kind to them.”
“Some people are, but some aren’t,” Artemis agreed. Shade started to lick her hand, and she petted him in his favorite place.
“Well, being a vampire has been interesting to say the least,” she started to explain. “It was very different from my old life.
“At first, I was an ordinary human. I had absolutely no magic whatsoever. I was born into one of Ranvier’s families that holds a council seat. I was the oldest, so I was in line to take a seat on the Ranvier Council. Trained my whole youth for it. Life was good. I had a nice family, and I enjoyed life.
“It changed rather quickly. I was ambushed on my way home one day. It was in the middle of the day, so we weren’t expecting any vampires to attack. He killed my guard and almost killed me. I had a good right hook and managed to find a very sharp piece of wood though.”
“How did you do that?” I asked her.
“A lone vampire shouldn’t attack a group in the woods,” Artemis told me.
“Did he not realize that people could grab a piece of wood basically anywhere in the woods and use it as a weapon?” Arion asked, probably thinking the vampire was as stupid as I thought he was.
“I wasn’t going to complain because I survived that day,” Artemis informed us.
“Good point,” Arion stated.
“Well, I killed him, but he managed to bite me,” Artemis stated. “So started my few hundred years as a vampire.”
“Wait, why do vampires only last a few hundred years?” I asked. “I thought they didn’t age.”
Artemis shrugged, asked Shade if he knew, then shrugged again when Shade made a move as if shaking his head.
“It’s because no magic lasts forever,” Arion stated. “If a vampire avoids getting killed, they last until their magic runs out. They have a fair amount of magic allowing them to last three hundred to four hundred and fifty years, but it runs out. Some vampires manage to extend it by increasing their magic, but, in the end, magic runs out eventually. They are the longest living creatures in this world other than Night and Day though, so it is fairly impressive.”
“Do you have a whole library memorized?” I questioned.
“Basically,” Arion answered.
“Well, thank you,” Artemis told him. “It’s rather helpful.”
Arion brushed off the compliment and gestured for Artemis to continue her story.
“Well, that’s when my life changed,” Artemis told us. “I was no longer going to be on the Ranvier Council, since vampires were banned from it. My younger brother took it. I wasn’t really upset about it. He did a good job.
“My parents tried to marry me off, but no one wanted a vampire for a wife. I would say that was the hardest thing for me. I always wanted a family, but I would never be able to have one.
“I tried to find something to do with my life and eventually ended up working for your great-grandfather.”
Arion then told her, “I assume you mean my great-grandfather and not Raven’s or Shade’s.”
Artemis let out a laugh at that comment and confirmed that she meant Arion.
“Plus, there would be no way she could tell who my great-grandfather is,” I told him. “You have no idea who my family is.”
“That’s true,” Artemis stated. “I could have met one of your ancestors and not know it. But I highly doubt that happened.
“Anyway, I worked for Arion’s great-grandfather. He was alright. He was very paranoid and untrusting though. Because of that, me and several others were spies for him. He didn’t trust anyone so he saw no difference between me and anyone else. I spied for him for quite a few years, and I got good at learning how to find information. Only got in trouble a few times, but I managed to get out of it every time. It was alright.
“Then he passed away of old age, and Arion’s grandfather didn’t see a need for the spies anymore. He got us jobs. I was a sheriff for a group of small towns near Nextar. I enjoyed that job a lot more than spying. I might be good at spying, but I liked being a sheriff more.
“It lasted for a few years. Then some vampire attacks started happening in the area. We were trying to stop them, but people were unwilling to work with me, since I was also a vampire. When a little girl was killed, the villagers kicked out all vampires, including me.”
She paused for a moment. I had a feeling I shouldn’t say anything, so I didn’t. The silence seemed heavy, and it made me uncomfortable.
“It was then a never-ending cycle,” Artemis told them. “I find a place but eventually no one wants vampires there, or if I hid what I was somehow found out. I was chased out quite a few times, I don’t know how much for the last bit.
“I started working for the Society of the Concealed Sun at some point. I just passed along information to help them take out corrupt people and criminals people were struggling with. I felt like it was the one thing I was doing that was making a difference.
“Things were better when Arion passed the laws. There were still those who didn’t like vampires, but they couldn’t do anything without ending up in jail. I felt safe then.”
There was a little bit of quiet before Arion grumbled, “Then disaster struck again because I lost the throne to Tark.”
Artemis nodded and whispered, “I was in hiding when you escaped. I had nothing but Shade. And it’s not like I could go to another territory because basically all of them hated vampires. So, I simply look for being able to live peacefully and enjoy it when it comes.”
She then grabbed our shoulders and pulled us into her side hug thing and said, “But I have been able to travel with you, so it’s been great.”
Arion awkwardly hugged her back, and I told her, “You actually should consider yourself unfortunate to be travelling with me.”
“You have no say in that matter,” Artemis told me. To which, Arion and Shade both agreed.
When Artemis let go, Arion told her, “You make a lot more sense to me now. Thank you for that. I do hope one day to help you find a place that you don’t have to be afraid of being rejected again.”
Artemis paused for a moment before saying, “Yeah, I hope for that too.”
“Wouldn’t we need to get rid of all the people for that to happen?” I questioned.
Artemis laughed a little before telling me, “No, it’s more like getting people to not rise up angry mobs against other creatures.”
“Then the rest is just being confident with who and what you are,” Arion commented.
There was a little pause of silence. I wondered why that one was there. But then Artemis murmured almost silently, “I never thought of it that way before.”
There was a little bit of quiet before Arion then stated, “So the forest is having Artemis and I see people who wronged us in the past, and it is trying to show Raven people he killed, even if it isn’t successful at all.”
“Sounds accurate,” I stated.
“Any ideas why it would show you that?” Artemis asked me.
“None at all,” I answered. I thought about it, but, in order for it to mean something, it would mean that I would have to have a problem I didn’t know about. I didn’t like that thought, so I didn’t dwell on it.
“And that doesn’t bother you?” Arion asked me.
“It probably does, but I don’t listen to my thoughts and feelings,” I told him. “They are too annoying.”
“Is there anything you actually like to listen to?” he questioned.
“The wind blowing through the trees, the river as it runs along, some animals but not all, and the sound of someone singing my favorite song with their voice perfectly in pitch,” I told them. Once I told them that, I wondered if I should have included the last item because I didn’t want them to ask me about my favorite song. I just didn’t like to share that type of information with others.
“Okay then,” Artemis stated. “At least there is something you like to listen to.”
They continued to talk then as we prepared for the day ahead of us. It was a little strange not having Arion tired and out of it in the morning, but that was easily dealt with.
We finished making our way through the forest. Strangely that part was more bearable for everyone. After that talk Artemis and Arion had, where they shared their past experiences and feelings, they were a lot more relaxed in the forest. I liked it for the simple reason that I didn’t have to deal with them being on edge. I just had to calmly tell the illusions they weren’t real instead.
The Royal Guard was slowly beginning to fall behind us, showing that their object was losing effect. It was a relief to get them off our trail.
Within a few days, we were making our way to Tardon’s border. It was still going to be a relief to get out of the forest and Ranvier. I simply hoped that less people would try to kill us then. I wasn’t going to get my hopes up too high though, so I would not be disappointed if there was.