by Michael R. Grice

The Hunted

Colren looked over his shoulder as he walked through the canyon near the Atorel North Caves. That name had been given to the tunnels decades before Colren had been born, but he was now sure that all the stories his best friend’s father had told him were true. The village of Atorel had been Kippo, or at least near where Kippo had been, and the Atorel North Caves had once been called Gaia’s Navel. And within these caves, I will find the Dwarf City and hopefully my brother, he thought as he glanced over his shoulder again.

Anil moved closer to him and smiled nervously. “Is it there again? I thought it stopped following us when we left Pandora the second time,” she whispered to him.

“I don’t know. I figured that resting in the city for a day would knock it off our trail, but I keep feeling like it’s watching us again. So you know nothing about this thing?”

“No, I already told you. All I know is that it was after me for close to a week. If you two hadn’t appeared it would have had me for sure. I know it’s very fast and very quiet, but besides that I know nothing more.”

Colren checked behind them again. “Are you sure? You haven’t told me why it started hunting you. How about you tell me anything that might be connected to this thing, then maybe we can figure out how to lose it.”

Anil nodded slowly, her body beginning to shake. Colren stopped walking and watched her; unsure of what he should do to comfort her. Anil began to speak. “I was running not only from that creature, but from most of my life. I was born into a cult dedicated completely to the Elemental Shade. They would not worship any other Elemental and their practices were evil. I learned how to read and I read many of their so-called Holy Books. I learned that the religion was a complete fake. Shade had nothing to do with it and the “priests” who led it were liars. The past few years they have been getting worse and I just couldn’t stand their evil anymore because I knew it was wrong. I can’t tell you what they did because it’s just too terrible, but I can tell you they are desperate to get me back because I know everything about them. Their power comes from the secrets they hold and I think they’re worried that I’ll spread their location through Fa’Diel. They are very dangerous Colren.”

Colren put his arms around Anil and she relaxed against him. “We’re almost in Gaia’s Navel. When we get there we should be safe. If the caves are like they were during the time of Mana Knight Haiden, the creature should have more than enough Goblins to keep it entertained.” Anil nodded but both of them knew that if the hunter had really been sent to find Anil, it wouldn’t stop its hunt until it had caught her.

The walls of the rough cliffs suddenly split wide and formed a massive fenced in pond fed by a wide and thundering water fall. Colren motioned for Anil to follow him and they quickly improved their speed, running around the pond to an almost hidden path along the edge of the north cliff and pond edge. They slowed as they kept close to the cliff face and pulled themselves along the path towards the waterfall.

“It’s a cave!” Anil exclaimed. Something moved in the thick bush across the pond and Anil shot her head up, but found nothing. “It’s still out there Colren,” she whispered. Colren nodded and beckoned for her to follow him into the dark and damp cave. “It’s just like the stories of Gaia’s Navel!” Her voice echoed eerily off the moisture slick walls.

“I guess,” Colren responded, much quieter. “I’ve been here many times with Ethan, but we’ve never found any sign of the Dwarf City Haiden visited on his journey. That’s why I’ve never believed that this was Gaia’s Navel.”

“But she’s telling you that it is, isn’t she?” Anil said. “The voice I mean. You’re following her instructions, just like Undine told you to do.” Colren nodded sadly. He touched his right arm just before his hand but quickly pulled his hand away when he saw Anil watching him. “You’ll learn to use the magic eventually,” she encouraged.

Colren pulled a lantern from his pack and tried to light it numerous times with his flint and steel, which he had bought when they had passed through Pandora on the way back from the Water Palace and conversing with Undine. Colren growled in frustration and shoved the flint and steel back into his backpack when his efforts to create a spark failed. He rested his left hand on the top of the lantern hood and closed his eyes. A crackle and flicker of red preluded the cave filling with light as Colren’s innate magic took effect. He stood, picking up the lit lantern and smiled at the quick response of his abilities. “I just hope it comes that easy when we really need it,” he said, looking out of the cave and searching briefly for their hunter.

They traveled deep into the darkness, resting briefly when tired and then continuing again when they felt strong enough for more traveling. The darkness of the caves was easily conquered by the light of the lantern but the cool dampness and the constant drip of water forced both Colren and Anil to be alert. They were able to avoid most danger, taking alternate paths when finding the bones of dead animals down one path and wading across a subterranean stream when there was no other path to take. They avoided all contact with the pig like goblins said to inhabit the caves, only hearing the presence of the humanoid beasts momentarily on the first day of traversing the dark tunnels.

On the fourth night since entering the caves, Colren and Anil rested by a large black hole in the ground. They had taken shelter from a mysterious underground wind that had begun when they had stopped for lunch that day. The constant deep crying of the wind as it passed over a creek they had crossed was unsettling and Colren felt more afraid than he had every night since entering the darkness.

“Anil?” Colren asked from his quickly created bed. Anil stirred in her own blankets a short distance away. “Do you think that cult you were a part of would keep chasing you if that creature was killed?” Anil sat up in the darkness and moved closer to Colren, pulling her blankets along with her.

“I don’t know.” She spoke quietly. “I don’t think so. They mostly stay around the back end of the Witch’s Wood, almost as far as you can get from Elinee’s castle without leaving the forest.” She paused. “You don’t think you can actually kill that thing do you?”

“With your help, maybe. It’s better than being hunted for the rest of our lives and besides I hate knowing there’s something chasing us down here.”

“I agree, but whatever you’re planning, make sure it’s good. I’m too tired to stay up so good night Colren.” Anil lay back down and Colren felt her close to him though still far enough away that their blanketed bodies would not touch. The young adventurer pulled himself up against the tunnel wall, glad that it wasn’t dripping like almost every other wall in the underground maze. He pulled up his sleeve and fingered the blue gem that swirled with its own dim light. If only I could know Undine’s magic now. If I knew more about Mana I could maybe use it against my traitorous brother without killing him. And I still don’t know what the cursed monster is that’s after Anil. “And why since I entered these blasted caves have you stopped talking to me!?” Colren demanded of his personal mind-specter.

He was answered not by the voice but by the sudden opening of glowing yellow eyes and a wicked deep-throated growl. Colren croaked and slapped his hands against the wall, one dropping down and smacking Anil’s back. She jumped into wakefulness as Colren rolled out of his blankets, a long clawed shadow bursting over him and slamming into the rock wall. She screamed in terror but quickly regained her composer and grabbed the foot long silver rod nestled in her belt.

“Anil, distract it while I find the lantern!” Colren shouted into the blackness. A sound similar to that of a steel blade being pulled from a tight metal sheath ringed in the air. A quick clicking snap from Anil’s direction didn’t effect Colren’s desperate search for the lantern he had earlier set aside. He found the lantern almost instantly and put a hand on it, loosing fire Mana into the cool metal object. Colren had always found wielding enough fire Mana to light fires easy, and he thanked the elemental of fire that this time was no different. The cavern filled with bright light and Colren almost fell into a deep pit at the centre of the room, the sight of the black lioness battling with Anil shocking him into inaction.

Anil swung a long silver staff, the weapon whistling as it cut through the air and slammed against the skull of the black beast. She dove back, barely dodging the sharp claws that were too long for a naturally born cat. Colren didn’t question where Anil’s sudden weapon had come from, but instead grabbed his dagger and rushed the monster. Just as he brought his arm down in a deadly slash, the black beast kicked back, sending Colren into the air. He slid to a stop just before the dark chasm.

Anil spun her staff and the end knocked out all four of the creature’s legs, delaying its next attack only for a minute as it returned to its feet. But that time was all Anil needed. Colren couldn’t help the gasp of astonishment from leaving his mouth as his eyes blazed with the crackling light that bolted across the staff in Anil’s hand. The silent lightning twirled around her body, the staff being the focus point, the lightning leaping from either end of the mysterious weapon.

Anil roared as she swung the staff down. The end connected with the beast’s chest and the lightning shot through its body, exploding from its eyes and mouth. Anil was flung back and her foot accidentally knocked the lantern down the massive. The tight muscled creature shrieked, a cry that was quickly cut short as the magical light focused on the centre of its body and exploded outward.

The room was instantly dark, the lantern far gone and the mystical light of the staff’s magic also gone. The smell of slight smoke rested in the air and the room was silent. Not even the monster’s remains had been left by the magical explosion.

Anil and Colren both crawled across the floor, following the sound of each other’s voice until they bumped shoulders. Colren’s arms wrapped around the young woman and he couldn’t help himself from kissing the top of her head, thanking every Elemental he knew the name of for saving their lives. “That’s one thing I forgot to tell you,” Anil whispered through sobs of relief. “I stole this Mana weapon from the cult,” she said, patting the smooth rod once again slipped into her belt. “They feared this weapon more than anything else because it was empowered with pure magic of the Elemental Lumina. No other power went into the artifact, and it has been hidden for centuries.”

“That would explain why I had never heard of it,” Colren laughed quietly. “But thank Lumina you had it with you.” Colren sighed inwardly as he felt the smiling presence of the being within his mind. She’s returned. The familiar whisper drifted into his head. …Yes, I am glad you were victorious young wizard… “Can it do that every time you use it?” he asked.

“No, only when I have focused the Mana energy into it for a long period of time. I don’t have any magical skill, but it absorbs the Mana that radiates from all beings, including me. It usually takes a very long time to recharge, and I think it only works against evil. I used it when escaping the Shadow’s Eye cult and haven’t been able to use it again until now.” Colren laughed as he practically squashed Anil against his front, the excitement of battle still flowing through him.

“What’s that? Who’s there?” A deep and strangely accented voice floated up from the pit. Both Colren and Anil turned their heads to see the flickering light of a torch slowly lifting out of the darkness. The long burning rod was held by a heavily bearded and short man who stomped up a wide wood ladder. Colren was sure that the ladder had not been there when he had arrived to make camp with Anil. “Hey! This ain’t no place for lovers ya hear? You’re liable to have a Goblin hooked dagger through your back down here.”

Anil loosed her grip on Colren and sat back. “Who are you?” she asked quickly.

“Me? I be Rurik of clan Tairbane. And what be your names and clans?” Colren blinked his eyes, unable to believe what he saw. “Yah, yah, I’m of the dwarven kind. Now do you two need help? I heard some scuttling about up here and the sound of somethin' wailing like t’was dying. Eh? You’re not answering.”

“Uh, we’re looking for the Dwarven City,” Colren stammered. The stocky man leaned forward, lifted an eyebrow and straightened again. He rested his large fists on his hips and grunted.

“If ya mean Kairdan, you’ve found it. Come on, follow me.” Rurik began stepping down the ladder, watching his footing as he went while trying to keep the torch in his left hand from hitting the wall of the pit. Colren and Anil looked at each other in the fading light and smiled. They jumped to their feet, grabbed their blankets and pack, and followed the dwarf down the ladder, neither one caring that they couldn’t see the bottom of the whole as they disappeared into its vastness.

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