Heroes Journey || Chapter 2: Creeping Shadows

Heroes Journey || Chapter 2: Creeping Shadows

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The stag was a massive beast, larger than any creature Lance had known. Its fur was white—a blinding white that gave off light. A smokey, white aura surrounded it, wavering as the stag moved. It moved its head side to side, its gray eyes peered at Lance and his friends. The creature was intelligent from the look in its eyes. There was reason and wisdom in the way it held itself.

Leigh stood in front of the rest of the group. The stag approached and bent its head towards him, sniffing. Leigh held his hand out. When the stag didn’t flinch, he brushed its snout. The stag’s ears and nostrils twitched, but it didn’t retreat. 

Lance stepped up beside Leigh. “What do you want?” he said. His tone was defensive; he was prepared to fight if it came to that. He also wasn’t sure how they’d communicate with the beast, but when the stag raised its head to level with Lance’s eyes—its head as big as his torso—he knew it had understood him.

It opened its mouth and words fell from its tongue though it didn’t have the means to form them. “It’s not safe here. I know of somewhere you can rest,” the stag said. His voice was calm, inviting—yet somehow foreign. As if the voice itself didn’t fit in his mouth quite right.

Lance glanced between his friends, his gaze finally landing on Leigh. Leigh sheathed his sword and pulled his hand back from the stag. “How do we know we can trust you?” Leigh asked.

The stag stood tall and peered down at Leigh. “I saved you. Your mage wouldn’t have lasted much longer, and your weapons are useless against the shadows,” he said. 

He had saved them. The shadow creatures were nowhere to be seen, having dissipated into particles after the stag’s magic hit them. All of them except the wolf beast who had slunk back into the trees. If it hadn’t been for the stag, Anahel would have run out of magic. And then what? If Leigh’s sword and Lance’s arrows were really useless, they’d be in big trouble. 

“He has a point, Leigh. Let’s at least hear him out,” Lance said. If the stag had meant them harm, surely he would have shown it by now? 

“We don’t know him,” Sylqen said. His eyes darted to the stag. “No offense.”

The stag bowed his head.

“I want to follow him,” Anahel said. The party’s eyes rested on her. It was the first time she’d spoken since her magic waned. She sounded tired—exhausted from her magical exertion. But there was also a soft determination in her words. Gagzar laid his hand on her shoulder and gave her a small, comforting squeeze. Lance trusted her judgment. 

Lance glanced at Leigh again who paused, then nodded. With Leigh’s approval, Lance turned back to the stag. “Lead the way,” he said.

Leigh took point, right behind the white stag. Lance walked at Leigh’s heels, his eyes everywhere but the stag in front of him. He watched where they were going—and the trees around them—for more signs of the shadow creatures.

The birds had never left the trees, still singing and calling out as if the shadow creatures hadn’t bothered them one bit. A tiny creature flitted from one branch to another, though Lance couldn’t make out what exactly it was. A squirrel, perhaps? Not a shadow squirrel, just a squirrel. 

Tiny streams of sunlight danced between the treetops and barely illuminated the path ahead of the stag. Grasshoppers jumped out of the bushes and into the tall grass. One landed on Lance’s boot and he shook it off. 

The forest seemed awfully calm after it had been invaded by shadow creatures. It bothered Lance. As if the shadows were somehow normal. “What were those things?” Lance asked loud enough for the stag to hear. He wanted answers. 

The stag kept its eyes on the forest ahead. “I’ll tell you more when we’re safe, away from the shadows,” he said. 

Lance did not ask again.

Eventually, they came to a great tree. Lance could only assume this was the middle of the forest from how far they’d traveled. The tree was massive, so big around that Lance knew the tree could fit several stags inside, and so tall Lance couldn’t see the top of it among the other trees. It towered over him, stretching high above the rest of the forest. 

“In here,” the stag said. He stepped through a giant hole in the tree. Light poured invitingly from the hole. The teenagers looked at each other. 

“We’ve come this far,” Leigh said. He took charge once again and led the way behind the stag.

Inside was warm and cozy. There was a rug on the floor made of bearskin, furry and large. In the corner was a lit stove which heated the inside of the tree. Something sweet like honey wafted from the stove and filled the air around them. The walls were covered in red footprints, ranging from two-toed hooves to tiny hands. A bed of dry leaves laid across from the open hole. Light poured in from above and brightened the inside of the tree.

It was just like home—at least home to someone. 

Gagzar helped Anahel inside. He settled her on the bear rug and stood over her with his muscular arms crossed. Sylqen sat next to her, holding her hand in his own. Leigh took his place beside Anahel, in front of the stag. Lance moved to the other side and leaned against the wall, careful not to crack the dried, painted footprints.

Once the party was inside and comfortable, the stag laid down in front of Leigh and tucked his legs underneath himself. He raised his head to get a look at the teenagers, leaving his gaze on Leigh. Then he spoke. “My name is Caomhnóir,” he said. “This is Crann Wood, and I am its guardian.”

“It looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you, Caomhnóir,” Leigh said. Lance watched Leigh as he spoke for the rest of the party. He had always had a way of taking charge, even from a young age. Lance always felt left in Leigh’s shadow, leaving Leigh to make the decisions for everyone else. He wasn’t bothered by it, though. Just an observation. 

“The barrier you found on the edge of the forest is my doing,” Caomhnóir continued. “I erected it to keep the shadows at bay. The shadows corrupt everything they touch—living and not.”

“But it’s cracked now,” Anahel said, “the barrier.” She shifted her weight, giving Sylqen’s hand a light squeeze before she released it to rub the wrinkles out of her skirt. 

Caomhnóir nodded. “It is indeed,” he said.

“But you can fix it?” Lance said, hopeful. 

Caomhnóir bowed his head, moving his gaze to the floor. “I cannot,” he said, “I spent all my magic erecting the barrier. I barely have enough to protect the forest from what trickles in through the crack.”

“Can you pull the barrier down? So we can leave?” Leigh asked. 

Caomhnóir shook his head. “Not as long as there are shadows on the other side. I can’t re-erect it should the barrier come down.”

“Oh,” Leigh said. He looked pensive, perhaps thinking of a solution.

Lance glanced between Leigh and Caomhnóir. There had to be a way to get out of the forest, around the barrier. If the shadows could get in, surely they could get out. But that seemed risky, and if they broke the barrier the shadows would surely pour in. 

Then another thought occurred to Lance. “What if we help you with the shadows?” he suggested. “If we got rid of the shadows, then you could let us out.”

“Your mage has exhausted herself. And your weapons are ineffective,” Caomhnóir said.

Leigh spoke up. “You said that before, but we haven’t really tried our weapons. I mean, we both missed—Lance and I. If we had another go at it—we’re really quite adept—but the shadows just caught us by surprise.”

“All weapons are useless against the shadows,” Caomhnóir said.

Lance huffed. That left only Anahel and Caomhnóir with their magic. Maybe Sylqen; he hadn’t tried yet. “Maybe if Anahel rests.”

“What about that beast? The one with the antlers and the heart?” Anahel asked, her hands above her head to mime antlers. 

“That’s the Duskhound. He’s the king of the shadows. My power isn’t enough to combat him in my current state,” Caomhnóir explained. 

“I could help,” Anahel said. “Once I’ve rested.”

Caomhnóir nodded. “I will take any help you can offer. For the time being, you may rest here.”

Lance glanced down at Anahel who’d closed her eyes. When she opened them, she said, “I’d appreciate that. Thank you.”

“What do we do in the meantime?” Gagzar asked. He looked worriedly to Anahel. “She’s not going anywhere any time soon.”

“I want to explore the forest,” Leigh said. “Get our bearings.”

“It’s dangerous out there,” Caomhnóir said. “There’s no telling how many shadows have crept into the forest. And with the Duskhound wandering—”

“I’ll go with him. Strength in numbers,” Sylqen said. 

“You two stay safe,” Lance said. He turned to Gagzar. “I’m hungry, I don’t know about the rest of you. Should we hunt something?” It occurred to him that the guardian of the forest might not appreciate that. “Sorry,” he said to Caomhnóir. “Is that alright with you?”

Caomhnóir nodded. “Everyone needs to eat. It’s the cycle of life, even among the forest here.”

Gagzar knelt and laid a hand on Anahel’s arm. “Will you be alright here by yourself?”

“I’ll be here with Caomhnóir,” she said. “You go on.”

Leigh and Sylqen had left as Lance and Gagzar finalized their plans.

“Shall well?” Lance asked and gestured out towards the forest. Gagzar nodded. He stood and they exited the warm tree, out into the cool air of the forest. “What an interesting situation we’ve gotten ourselves in,” Lance said as they stepped out into the forest. He stretched his arms over his head and groaned.