Part I: Chapter 1
The Fire Fox
“Look here!”yelled Tierce to his friends.
“You better watch it. You’ll break your neck, and then we’ll haveto carry you all the way back home,” said Valkyrie who was definitely not up tothe task.
“I’m not going tobreak my neck. I know what I’m doing.”
“I don’t know howyou are even moving after the twelve egg sandwiches you ate this morning forbreakfast,” teased Valkyrie.
“It was five, justfor the record,” Tierce puffed under his breath.
“Yeah, you betterwatch it Tierce. In fact, I am surprisedyou do not already have a pot-belly like Val’s pig Reno, and then your balancewill be all sorts out of whack,” chortled Matty, sounding a bit like thesnorting pig he was just referring to.
Tierce was withtwo of his closest friends, Valkyrie and Matthew, in the woods not far from alarge castle and the city of Mura they called home. The three had been thrown together into atightly knit bond through their school classes, especially in recent years,which was actually the reason for their visit to the woods today. To them it was a double accomplishment,because they were not only getting some homework out of the way but they werealso able to enjoy time away from the daily expectations others placed onthem. At sixteen years old, theirchildhood was quickly vanishing and passing by with greater speed everyday.
In the city ofMura, school was very structured, as was the life afterwards. Children were educated in general studiesuntil the seventh grade, at which time they had to choose a focus path. Anyone who did not complete a path or droppedout of school ended up a member of the common workforce, most typicallyresulting in employment by the local mines – a profession many youths denouncedbut later reluctantly fell into because they could not find another way to makea living.
Tierce, Val, andMatty all three chose botany in their seventh year, one of the less popularpaths, as their course of study. Thiscaused most of their classes to be scheduled together until they graduated fromschool at the age of eighteen, which was still a couple of years away yet forTierce and his friends but was looming ahead in the distance nevertheless.
Tierce was a quietboy among groups of people and felt botany would suit him more with the smallerclass sizes rather than the material, but he felt it was something he couldlearn to appreciate and excel in as he gained more knowledge. At least, that is what his parents hadsuggested when he told them he was scared to death to begin a focus path thatcould possibly determine the course of the rest of his life. Valkyrie had also chosen botany, not for theclass size but because it was her passion. She loved plants and ate up the information in her textbooks like piecesof candy. Matty just liked beingoutside, so he chose botany as well. Hewould never have chosen magic, the most popular path, where he would have beeninside a dark, smoky lab all day whispering chants and manipulatingobjects. It simply did not appeal to hissensibilities.
So as a result,they had all three began to see much more of each other and a fast friendshipwas formed. One of their favoritepastimes was exploring the Great Forest just outside of Mura’s city limits, journalingabout the local plant species and collecting samples for their botany labs, butmostly enjoying camaraderie and freedoms the vast woods afforded. On this particular day, they were doing justthat.
There was a touchof spring in the air, but winter had yet to release its tight grasp on theworld, reminding all who ventured outside that the cold season was not yet deadas it softly bit the delicate skin of ungloved hands and kissed a rosy flushinto pale cheeks. Tierce and his friends were in a small valleycovered in wild ferns, the bottom of which was home to a crystal clear streamthat snaked through the ravine and paused emptying into a short pool perfectfor swimming on hot afternoons. Ofcourse, it was too cold to swim today, but Tierce, Val, and Matty had instead beenappeasing their selves by simply climbing over the roots of old trees and scalingthe sides of the ravine in search of new plant hybrids they may have previouslymissed which would certainly give them extra credits with Professor Clove’saccelerated Rare Plants and TheirIntriguing Uses class.
But the lure of aboost in academic performance was quickly waning as they all found otheroutlets for their curiosities. Dusk wasbeginning to near and the reddening sky should have sent a warning to them thatit was about time to return home, but they were all enjoying themselves toomuch and no one as of yet was willing broach the subject.
Tierce inparticular was fixated with swinging out on a grapevine he had discoveredfurther up the creek while trailing a unique bluebell trail that he rememberedjournaling about during his ninth year of school. When the trail went cold and his hopes offinding a new variation of the unique sapphire plant, he was not disappointedwhen an ancient and gnarled grapevine had caught his eye.
He was up high onthe western slope, at times momentarily swinging out from the tree testing hisweight on the vine by holding on for a few breathless moments as he lifted hisfeet off the ground causing the overhead branches to bow beneath his experimentalpulls. It made him feel like he was fiveyears old again, when he would shadow his father, Asher, on his routinepleasure hikes with nothing ahead of them except what they allowed to occupytheir time. Nowadays, Tierce’s time washardly anything of his own with the demands of school and family hanging dailyon his shoulders.
Matty, who hadlong since given up on getting anything productive done, was on the easternslope, looking for some delicious mushrooms he could perhaps take home for hismother to fry up as a dinner treat that night. He normally would have been right up there with Tierce investigating thestrength of the grapevine, but he had an almost barbaric craving for GiantWhite Morel, native to the Great Forest, and it had been haunting him for weekssince the weather had began turning warmer. Matty was determined to find them if it was the last thing he did. So far, however, he had only been successfulin picking a few common clovers that he wove deftly in his careful hands as hissearch continued.
Still daydreamingof his father's hikes and old stories about the Great Woods, Tierce decided toshare an anecdote he had stumbled upon in his thoughts. “My dad says the best sort of grapevine isthe kind with a fork in the top. Theonly problem is usually one of the sides are no good. You could swing out only to fall back intothe tree and get the life knocked out of ya,” he hollered as he smacked hishands together to demonstrate what getting the life knocked out of you mightsound like.
“Does that onehave a fork?” asked Valkyrie.
Tierceknew the answer, but he looked up anyways still clasping the grapevine in hishands. He squinted until his eyes werenothing but slits, hoping that with every effort maybe the vine would somehowturn out to have a fork in it after all.
“No, this one isnormal,” he said, disappointment dripping from his words.
“Unlike you,”mumbled Matty as he braided together a new bunch of clover he’d picked into aquickly forming circlet.
“When my dad was akid, he found the tallest, strongest grapevine he’d ever seen right here inthese woods. And it had a fork in it toboot! The vine was so thick around, hecould hold it in both hands, and his fingers wouldn’t touch on eitherside. He told me he’s never seen anotherlike it. We’ve tried to look for it, butnever had any luck,” said Tierce.
Valkyrie and Mattynodded silently in acknowledgement of Tierce’s statement, accepting theinformation but most likely not retaining anything of what he had said. While the boys did their investigating,Valkyrie quietly observed the pool of water which was home to a wonderful arrayof aquatic life and luscious mosses that had initially caught her eye. She bent over and dipped a finger into the mirroredwater as a bright orange and white speckled fish swam up to investigate theintrusion and then quickly skipped back to the safe shadows of an algae bed onceit realized her finger was not a wriggling meal worm. She, too, would have joined Tierce on thevine but knew if anyone was going to rally this group homeward it would have tobe her.
Matty, stilllooking for mushrooms, glanced up the hill, scanning any area he may havemissed for his elusive treat. In thedistance he suddenly heard a crunching of dead underbrush, and as he looked uphe saw what he would have sworn in that very moment to be a grey hooded figure thatswiftly departed from the top of the slope back into the dense treesbeyond. He blinked checking to make surehis vision wasn’t playing tricks on him.
“Hey, did you guyssee that?” Matty asked.
“See what?”questioned Valkyrie. They all stopped tolook.
“I swear I justsaw someone watching us. Up there on topof the hill, I heard something crunch and when I looked up they ran away,”Matty said.
“You’re justmaking it up. Stop trying to scare us,”stated Tierce.
“I’m not!” Mattyprotested, but after a few moments when no other sounds were heard, he resignedhimself that maybe he had imagined what he saw after all. “It must have been the shadows of the trees. I guess it was nothing,” he mumbled, and wentback to braiding clovers. But suddenlyout of the brush a small figure appeared and ventured into the valley.
“Zenith! What are you doing here? Mom is going to kill me!” Tiercegroaned.
The little girl,Tierce’s younger sister by three years, looked sheepishly at the friends. “You were gone so long, I wanted to come andlook for you. It is so boring at home,and besides momma was getting worried. So I conjured up a tracing spell, and it led me here to you.”
Zenith was a firstyear magic student. Obviously she wasalready putting her schooling to use in quite practical ways.
“Shew, you had mescared, Zenith. I thought I saw someonewatching us but I guess it was just you,” Matty said clearly relieved.
“You shouldn’t behere. Mom is going to kill me when shefinds out!”
“No she’s not! I came here on my own, it's no one’s faultbut mine. Besides, you wander around thewoods all the time, why can’t I do the same?”
“No she’s not! I came here on my own, it's no one’s faultbut mine. Besides, you wander around thewoods all the time, why can’t I do the same?”
“Well for one, itis practically nightfall, and for another you are thirteen years old!”
“Oh my word, youhave been walking around these woods since you were practically a baby, sodon’t give me that ‘you are too young’ stuff. And the fact that it is almost nightfall is only more reason for you totake me home with you now,” Zenith stated with a hand on her hip.
Matty and Valkyriesmirked to themselves, both knowing there was no way Tierce was going to winagainst the fiery Zenith. She may havebeen a young girl, but she was already a feisty opponent that could give justabout anyone a run for their money. Valrose and stretched out her back, opening her mouth to yell at Tierce to stopbickering and start walking but suddenly was cut short by a strange cry thatechoed through the forest.
The sound met theirears and shivered down to their toes. Itwas eerie and frightening, and sounded like some ancient beast scrambling outof its den and awakening for the night’s work ahead. It traveled from deep within the forest, mostlikely farther than any of them had ventured before.
“Someone pleasetell me you heard that, and I’m not the only one hearing or seeing things outhere,” whispered Matty, almost too frightened to speak.
“No,” saidValkyrie in a hushed tone, “I definitely heard that.”
In the distance,they began to hear a soft quick trample of dried leaves and the breaking offrail branches, followed by another terrifying wail.
“What. . . . do you suppose it could be?”asked Tierce shakily, his pale face revealing more than the tremors in hisvoice. “Zenith get over here, now!”
The cry resoundedagain. The crunching of dried underbrushwas quicker now, with every second growing louder as the noise approached theirlocation.
“We need to getout of here,” said Valkyrie. When theboys still remained glued in fear to their current locations Val tried a moreforceful command. “Let’s go!”
Valkyrie ranaround the pool to a narrow point and leaped across the water from one rockyembankment to the next, praying that she found a suitable foothold in theapproaching twilight. Zenith followed inVal’s footsteps, adrenaline keeping her close to the others. Val quickly regretted how perilously closethey were to sunset, and choked at the thought that they really should haveheaded home before the sun began to wane. Now, they would be trapped against the impending nightfall with a beasthot on their heels.
Matty rushed tothe bottom of the valley, sliding down the hill feet first. He caught up to Valkyrie and Zenith near thepool since the ridge was not as steep there, and they began to climb uphill towardsTierce, grabbing roots, tree trunks, and whatever else they could find thatmight help them scale the hill faster. The horrible cry rang out again, this time closer than ever before. It no longer sounded like merely smallbranches being broken, but instead large limbs and small trees could be heardshattering in a constant chaos that was rushing forward. The three finally reached the top and caughtup with Tierce who had not been running at full speed so that his friends andsister could rally to his side. Hegrabbed for Zenith’s hand as they came upon him.
“Don’t stop, don’tstop! Keep running!” said Valkyriefrantically as they all four picked up steam and headed in a westerly directiontowards home. “What should we do, climb atree? Hide under some brush?”
“I don’t know, Ican’t even think! Are we going to die?” wailedZenith.
“We will be trapped if we climb up atree. We can’t risk it. Whatever that thing is, I’m betting it has agreat sense of smell,” said Matty.
“Maybe it’s notcoming after us,” said Valkyrie desperately.
“Well, let’s notfind out. But it certainly seems to beheaded straight in our direction.”
Another howlsounded in the quickly passing twilight.
Matty thought feverishlyfor a solution. “Up ahead, a little tothe north, there’s a shallow cave we found awhile back. It has a narrow opening, but I’m betting thatwhatever is tracking us is too big to grab us from the outside. I’d say our chances are better in there thanup a tree or under brush,” he said over the sounds of their trampling throughthe woods.
“Our chances ofwhat: survival? So, we are going todie!” moaned Zenith. “It’s probablyhungry and wants to eat us for dinner!”
“Zenith, stop it!”hissed Tierce.
They ran as fastas they were able, accelerating through clearings located at random throughoutthe woods, and slowing down through brambles and monstrous bushes which seemedto pop up out of nowhere. Whatever waschasing the three friends was almost upon them now. The sounds of it running through the woodsechoed in their ears, and they could now even hear the heavy breaths and snortscoming from the monstrous presence chasing them down.
“Is the caveclose?” cried Valkyrie.
“It’s right uphere. Just ahead in the next clearing,I’m sure of it.”
If it had been anoasis in the middle of a desert, they could not have been more thankful thatMatty had been right on the location of the cave. They came upon the entrance and Tierce slidin without hesitation after his sister was safely inside, Zenith being hisprimary concern over his friends. Mattypaused, looking at Valkyrie waiting for her to go next.
“Get in Matty,I’ll go after you.”
Matty waivered,and then reluctantly ducked inside the cave. He knew he should have insisted she go first, but did as he was toldknowing there was no time to argue. Assoon as he was inside he heard the loudest, most ear piercing howl directly infront of the entrance.
“Valkyrie!” Mattyshouted reaching a fraught arm towards her.
Valkyrie turned,her fists clenched at her side, and with her chin lowered, she looked upthrough hooded eyelashes. Maybe shewould have had enough time to escape, but a force took over her as she turnedto face the creature behind her. Sheinstinctively took in a breath as she laid her eyes upon the beast for thefirst time, horrified at the thing that for a moment stood unmoving before her.