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Brian paced casually down the cobblestone street as the lantern light softly flickered around him. He was tempted to glance down at his roughed and scuffed brown shoes to check that he was stepping correctly, but his head involuntarily popped back to the area in front of him. He had more important matters to be attending to and all his senses needed to be free to attend to them. Ahead of him were only simple brick houses to accommodate the people of his home village, Lenrae, and a small park where the children used to fool about in the afternoons. It remained completely empty for the past year, as children would often lose themselves in the forest bordering the playground..., not that these instances were particularly dangerous until fifteen months before. Just after Brian passed by he heard a rustle coming from the direction of the playground.
Brian gulped heavily, unsheathed the knife strapped to his belt, prayed he would not have to use it, and spun around in place. To his great relief there was no demon-spawn crawling out from the hell that the woodlands surrounding his fair town had become. No, it was something that brought merriment back to Brian’s golden eyes, if only for a moment! A child, a child had returned from the death trap! By Brian’s eyes he must have been nigh thirteen years of age. He was rather tall for such an age though, so Brian was skeptical. The child walked under one of the flame lanterns and slowly turned his head to Brian. Brian felt he was standing before a carnival mirror. The boy had long, willowy, light brown hair, a soft face with rounded features, and the same lightly tanned skin as Brian. The only difference was their height; the other boy was nearly a foot shorter The shock of the resemblance almost caused Brian to fail in identifying the youth.
“Oi, Dudley?!... Duds?!” Brian shouted as he ran up to the boy and hugged him. “Where’ve you been, my nephew?!” he said with a laugh and a ruffle of the hair. “We all thought you would have been taken by the Creatures by now... trapped in the forest so long...”
“I’m still only three years your minor,” Dudley chuckled and pushed his uncle away. “I was in the forest a week before I ran into...” and Dudley hushed his tone, “one of the Great Sages.”
“Dudley, you need to stop telling these tall tales,” Brian said, shaking his head. “You know the sages have been attending a meeting in the border towns of Thoran to investigate why all the citizens have become Creatures.”
“Oi, I’m not lying, Brian! They met there about a half a year ago, but now there are bigger threats to remove,” he said, the joy of being right for once showing on his face.
“A... a bigger threat than whatever can transform people into hideous monsters of any sort?” Brian asked, his eyes widening rather than his face scowling at this point.
“Aye, whatever has made the Creatures has made seven enormous creatures roaming across Thoran and its adjacent six countries. They think that if a person was behind it, he’s using it as an ace-in-the-hole if his current wave of normal Creatures fails.”
“Its bad enough already Dudley! What can possibly do about something that’s even more destructive than the forces we already have to fight off?!”
Dudley rolled his eyes with the same smug look moving farther across his face. “The Sages have found a way of course. Each country has, hidden in it somewhere, a tome of great power, powerful enough to destroy the new Creatures.”
“Could it not be killed by any sort of average magic?”
“Oi, no! And it takes a great deal of power to form the spells that these tomes show! As you know any Creature’s skin can only be pierced by a metal weapon and underneath is-“ and Dudley was stopped by his young uncle.
“A shell which can only be penetrated by magic is under the skin. To break that is the only way to kill a Creature. Stop telling me what I already know,” Brian mumbled as he gave his nephew a soft flick to the forehead.
Dudley staggered back for a moment and frowned. “’Ey, I was getting to it! Normal magic cannot break through these monster’s shells; spells of higher caliber need to be tried, namely these tomes.”
“Ugh, so we know not if these tomes will even succeeded! Have they at least found one?”
“Nope, but that’s why I’m here!” Dudley replied chipperly.
“What?” Brian retorted.
“The sage I met made me her apprentice,” Dudley exclaimed as he revealed a tome he was hind at his side. The cover was solid and a light, whimsical blue. In a navy blue circle on the cover there was a small, cloud design.
“... I thought you were going to master the knife under me,” Brian mumbled in monotone. There was another rustle and instinct once again overcame Brian. He grabbed his nephew by the arm and said, “We’ll settle this with your mother.
Brian burst into his sister’s house, also her armory, dragging his poor nephew alongside him. “Oi, look who I’ve found, Marie!” he shouted and his sister’s head and torso popped out from the back. She was much skinnier and taller than either her son or her younger brother and had much sharper facial features than either of them. Her hair was a sort of dirty blonde rather than chestnut. The only quality linking them were their, yellow, glowing eyes.
Marie grinned and her eyes teared to the brim. Dudley rushed into the arms of his mother and they each cried and weeped. “I knew you would make it back...” She whispered.
Brian stood in the corner of his sister’s ornate and florid room, tossing his knife up and down, while Marie and Dudley talked about the month he had spent away. Among the drab and utterly useless trivia, they obtained the name of Dudley’s new master, Drelia, the Great Wind Sage. When Dudley returned to the subject of finding the tome, Brian piped in. ‘So you plan to find this tome on your own? Its bound to be surrounded by Creatures, wherever it is... and you cannot pierce their skin with only magic!”
Dudley put up his hand and sunk his forehead into his palm. “I know enough of each the knife and wind magic to get along.”
“I should say not!” countered Brian. “I know you’ve yet to master the knife and given a month you cannot be adept in magic!”
Marie rolled her eyes and smiled. “Your uncle is right, if not a bit over-zealous... I think you should do it Brian, along with Arch. Find the tome I mean.”
“Bu-“ Dudley began, but his mother hushed him.
“No Dudley. After all your adventures you need rest for at least this night. Let your uncle do this for you... and you can go back to the Sage without more of a hassle from me.”
“If that’s what I get in return...” he growled. “I was told to try the shrine in the middle of the forest... where the people of the Old Religion used to pray.:
His mother arose from her seat and pecked him softly on the forehead. “Now off to bed with you, Duds.” Dudley complied, getting up from his own seat and moodily heading to his own room. Marie’s eyes wandered back to her brother who had resumed tossing his knife about. “Is there a problem with my plan?”
“Aye. I was actually trying to find Arch when I chanced upon Duds. He and I have guard duty for the village gates tonight. We may convince the men already there to take another shift, but... if they decide against it, I’ll be out an extra hour.”
“That would be fine. Just be back by tomorrow morning or I should have to break my promise to my own son... Good luck.”
Brian gave a shrug of thanks and exited the house. Now to find that fool of a mage, Arch, and go to the village gate.
Brian rapped heavily on his friend’s door for at least a minute before the door opened. Out from the shadows and under a fire lantern appeared Arch. His hair was rather odd, completely blond except for the tips, which were orange. Arch often joked that when he stopped using lightning magic and began to train in fire, he traded the firs in his hair for real fire. The fire in his eyes were certainly not traded at least, they burned a fiery red in contrast to his usual dopey, starry look. His build was extremely muscular, more muscular than Brian even though he was a mage. Brian chalked it up to being two years his minor and the weight of the tomes Arch was forced to carry. He was dressed in the dark blue robes and brown rope-belt traditional for a mage.
“And where have you been, you brute?!” Brian interrogated as he rudely poked his partner square in the forehead.
Arch smiled playfully and pushed the index finger away from his head. “Oi, I was sleeping. Resting up to woo a fine young maiden tomorrow. If there is a reason for this appearance though, I should easily give up my rest.”
Brian sighed and declined his had in embarrassment. “We have guard duty tonight, you dolt!”
Arch rolled his eyes up thoughtfully for a moment. “Ah, yes, we’ll be going then,” he said as he stepped out of the doorway and eased the door shut behind him.
“Gah, how can you take your own stupidity so calmly?!” Brian roared.
“Any why can’t you ever be calm?” Arch offered joshingly.
Together they jogged toward the gate, knowing they were already late for their duties. Along the way Brian gave the word of Dudley’s return and tried to explain what they would need to do. As they arrived at the gate it seemed their agenda would not get across; the two women from the previous guard duty were scowling at them.
“Took you long enough...” the more violent of the two, holding a lance, muttered.
“I’m greatly sorry my ladies, my entire fault I’m afraid,” Arch said with a courteous smile. “And I’m sorry to ask this of you, but-“
“But we have much more pressing-“
“No!” the mage woman exclaimed. “You will not fool me into standing here for another hour meaninglessly! There has not been a Creature in sight around this village in a fortnight!” With that, the women stormed away and the men were left to take over their duty.
“I suppose I’ll be returning an hour late today,” Brian sighed.
After half an hour of leaning against the flimsy gate that was the Achilles’ heel of the village, Arch spoke up. “What do you suppose you would do if you chanced upon one of the Creatures and it was someone you knew?”
“Hmmm?” Brian moaned as he stirred from his half-resting state.
“Some of your family was in Thoran during the Shift, right?”
“Aye,” Brian answered softly as images of his parents, his younger sister, and his brother in law flickered in and out of his mind’s eye.
“So what woul;d you do?” Arch asked, stifling a laugh at his friend’s slurred and slowed speech.
Brian looked pensively down at the paved road that led to his village and its gate for only a moment before he had his reply. “I suppose I would do what I always do with the creatures... Try to avoid killing them in case they can be changed back, but kill them if necessary.”
Arch’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “I’m fine with killing the one’s that I don’t know... but if it was someone I knew... I just don’t think I could finish the job.”
Brian rolled his eyes moodily. “I suppose its best that you have the final say in the matter then. Your way eliminates more threats.”
“Yea...” Arch uttered, wondering how that topic had been shot out so quickly. “So do you think we’ll be famous for getting this powerful tome? Maybe just a mention of our names in the legends they are sure to pass down?”
“I hope not,” Brian moaned. “Popularity just ruins people. Look at the Sages for an example. They waste time deliberating over how to please all of their ‘fans’ when with their power, they’re most needed on the front lines. It doesn’t help that there’s one from each country either, just gets more politics messed up in the fiasco... and I have no need to be remembered.”
“Really? I think it would be rather nice...” Arch said with a starry twinkle in his eyes and a sigh.
The gate-watchers for the next hour appeared right on schedule. Arch gave a mimicked tip of the hat to them as he and Brian walked toward the forest. The pair became unusually silent as they entered the forest. It seemed not as harmful as all the survivors had made it out to be. It was just eerie because of the dim lighting of the moon that was filtered even more by the deep green leaves atop the tall trees. For twenty minutes there was peace.
Then Brian heard a loud , pronounced squawk. “Be on your guard!” Brian screeched out to his comrade.
“Alright,” Arch replies with his usual moony tone and expression.
Brian pulled a set of small throwing knights from a pouch on his left side and took a defensive stance. A Raven came screeching down through the branches to attack him. Brian could tell it was a Creature from the odd, greenish tint to its feathers, its sharp, longer beak, and the fact that was at least seven times as large as any normal raven. Brian threw his daggers right into the Raven’s wings, causing it only to slow down slightly. This gave Arch just enough time to open his tome and begin reciting his spell, however. After his chanting in the Ancient Language was complete, he threw up his arm and snapped his fingers. From his thumbs grew small flare. It quickly floated upward, expanding as it went along. It engulfed the Raven ten feet away from Brian. Arch snapped his fingers again and the sound of an enormous blast filled the air. The devilish bird fell right at Brian’s feet, but the flame was completely gone.
Dozens more squawks erupted in the night air as the smell of burning flesh and feathers wafted up Arch and Brian’s nostrils. Another Raven darted out from the branches of a tree and clipped Arch’s arm with its pointed beak. Arch moved away before the Raven could cause a deeper wound and tried to attend to it, but another Raven flew overhead and he was forced to duck for his life. Brian drew his larger knife out of its sheath and dug it into the wing of the second Raven, pinning it to the ground. The third Raven managed to escape back into the higher tree branches and caw for more companions.
“Idiot!” Brian screamed. “That explosion set off all the other Creatures!” Arch just stood there, dumbfounded for a moment. “Run!” Brian urged him, and so they did. Ravens flew true behind them as blood continued to drip from Arch’s gash. Arch could hardly stand the acrid smell, but he had to continue tossing back spells as Brian tossed back knives to slow the Ravens’ advance.
With some sort of twisted luck, the duo made it to the small shrine and the Ravens retreated, no longer seeing humans to pursue and torment. Some of the stupider Creatures, however, bumped into the shrine and greatly disturbed Brian and Arch before wandering away. Though there was next to light available, Brian could see that this was a fairly traditional Old Religion shrine. Namely, it was a shack with much open space and one icon of the protector of the country, the Earth Goddess. Arch searched around the empty space while Brian inspected the icon. He noticed a peculiar inscription. It was written in the Ancient Language, none of which he could understand. There was, however, a small character that protruded farther than the others. He touched it lightly and was delighted to find it moved in a bit. He pushed the character fully in and the statute broke in half. In place of the goddess lay a tome with a leaf icon, glowing green with the earthen power it contained. “Got it.” Brian whispered as he took the volume into his arm. They each headed for the exit, but another wave of Creatures was ready for them.
A Cat flew in through the window right over the small goddess icon and knocked Brian over. Fortunately, he had a death grip on the tome, but he was just barely able to keep it at his side. Another Cat knocked in the door through which Arch was heading. His tome fell out of his hands and slid into a corner with a large “thwomp!” The cats were the same as the Ravens, seven times the size of the animals. They were out of proportion with domesticated Cats though; they had more of the lean and stretched shape of wild cats. This made them come across with odd looks, the shape of a wildcat, the pattern of fur of a domesticated feline, and wild, green-colored fur. More and more filled the old shrine and their combined body heat tensed the air. The Creatures were literally backing the duo into a corner. “Any ideas?” Arch asked, just as calm as ever.
Brian was in the mood to scream at his companion yet again, but he merely passed along the tome. “Try it,” he suggested.
Arch flipped through the volume quickly. “There are two spells, which one?”
“Whichever is shorter!” Brian commanded.
Arch picked the second, as it was only a page long and the very last page of the tome. Brian thought it sounded more akin to a song than the usual tongue clacking he heard when people spoke in the Ancient Language. Just as Arch sang the final verse of his ‘song’, a Cat attempted to knock the tome away from Arch again. It succeeded in only ripping and tearing the page from which Arch had just read. For a moment it seemed that nothing had happened, but after a minute Brian could feel that he was not being torn to shreds by the berserk claws of a Cat; he could feel no blood dripping across any section of his body; he heard not even the smallest mew. He could still see the eyes though. They seemed a little... higher somehow. They darted side to side, frightened. No longer did the glare with the ferocity of a Creature.
A pair of eyes stepped under the moonlight cast though the window. It was revealed as a tall, sturdy man with a bit of fuzz on the chin wearing a beaten pair of farmer’s overalls. No other humans than Brian and Arch had been there, Brian was sure of that. Then this man... was he a reverted Creature? Brian nearly decided against it; he knew this man to be from his own town and he knew whatever made creatures only happened to people in the country of Thoran. But... he had the same eyes of the cat that made the first strike at Arch.
“Welcome back Rich,” Arch said with his ever smooth and dreamy tone. He embraced the man with a half handshake, which pulled into a half hug. More people poked their heads out of the shadows and into the moonshine. Brian recognized two as children who had been missing from his town after the outbreak in Thoran. There were nearly five other people, obviously related and obviously previously rich merchants of Thoran judging by their formal attire. As joyous as the occasion was, Brian felt he was near breaking. None of his family was there. For a moment he hoped it was the spell that changed them back and that it could be used again, but he remembered that the page had been mutilated. He retreated to the darkness, not wanting to show his sullen mood around people who had just regained humanity.
The radius of the restoration spell, as Arch had decided to call it, had a depressingly short radius. Hours after Arch claimed to have done the incantation there was a Creature attack at the gate. It was assumed that because the people missing from Lenrae were Creatures, Creatures could not kill; they could only transform others into Creatures. No one of Thoran could have known before; no one of the little village survived a Creature attack if one of their allies was transformed so no one could pass along the experience of seeing it. None of the Transformed, as the ex-Creatures were called in Brian’s head, could remember either. They had no memories from the point of transformation to the point of retransformation.
Every Transformed from Lenrae seemed to want to make local of heroes of Arch and Brian and each of the Transformed merchants wanted to give them trinkets of gratitude. Arch was all for it, but Brian was very cautious and intelligent about the situation. He would only accept the treasures and praise one condition; the merchants would say that they were refugees from Tohran and that they encountered the children and the farmer in the woods when trying to make their way out of the country. Because they all accepted the conditions the only people aware of the restoration spell by the next morning were Brian, Arch. Marie, Dudley, and the Transformed. However, because their rescue story wasn’t as impressive, Brian and Arch were punished for their tardiness for guard duty the previous night. Namely, they were given two extra hours of watch on a clear and sunny afternoon.
By noon Brian was back at the gate with his nephew. He reluctantly handed over the tome and Dudley began to walk away. Brian held him back with his voice only a moment longer. “Duds... don’t spread this around, okay? I don’t want people coming here for a cure that’s been ripped from its pages... and tell your master that there’s hope in the other tomes for reversions or in that one for victory over the Creatures.” Dudley just nodded and continued his walk. Brian chuckled and sighed, wondering if it was wrong to put all his hope and faith in such a twerp as Duds.