There is a certain beauty to a forest, when the sun is casting its last rays before slowly getting under the horizon. A golden line shines all over the canopy, and the many animals that live there can be heard beyond the trees. All of this combined creates a setting that anyone would consider relaxing.
Ryan didn’t really care about any of that. Not only was his mind occupied by other matters, but he also knew that appearances could be deceiving, and that many dangerous creatures lurked in the forest; The kind that no one wanted to cross. Unfortunately for him, that was exactly why he was there.
He was a teenager, having turned 17 a few weeks ago. There was nothing that stood out about him, and he liked it that way. His blond hair was cut short, slightly longer on top, and his visage rarely showed much emotion. Ryan was just another face in a crowd. He needed to be.
Ryan once again checked all his equipment. His worn leather jacket, that offered a semblance of protection, his .45 pistol, which he could use somewhat decently, and all the magical trinkets that Professor Becker made him carry around. A few potions, salt, a piece a chalk and other things one would expect a stereotypical wizard in a TV show to use. Ryan could sense that the stress was getting to him. His hands were shaking slightly and his breathing had accelerated a little bit, slightly audible over the many sounds of the forest. Even after years of going through the same routine, the fear never went away completely.
Finally, with nothing else left to do, Ryan looked up towards Professor Becker, who was similarly looking through his equipment, his back against Ryan’s car. The Professor was a man that looked to be in his fifties, with a balding head and small round glasses. A bushy mustache adorned his upper lip. His gear was visibly more sophisticated than Ryan’s, a shotgun replacing the small pistol and armored parts having been added to his dark coat. If one looked closely, and with the right abilities, they could discern slight patterns of light on the inside of the coat, gently swirling on the fabric.
Becker in turn looked up after a few seconds, slinging his shotgun across his back, his usual frown present on his face. “Are you ready to go ?” He asked Ryan.
“I’m ready.” Ryan answered. This short conversation was common for them, as they often had to go through the forest together, be it to fend off a monster that had gotten too close to the outskirts, or to look for whatever resources Becker needed at the time. They knew this area of the woods very well, as it was the one that bordered their city. Nothing more needed to be said and so they went on their way, deeper under the forest’s cover.
The whole journey was made in silence, Becker was looking around him, trying to find traces of the creature they were tracking this time, while Ryan tried to understand what the professor was doing. It was always difficult for Ryan to grasp what was going on during these excursions, as the professor was a very tight-lipped individual, the kind of person that never did anything for anyone if they couldn’t profit from it. This, of course, greatly annoyed Ryan, but there wasn’t much he could do about it, since Becker was the only person he knew that had the same gift as him. The gift of magic.
Magic was an exceedingly rare talent, only a few people had the capacity to harness it. In all his life, Ryan had only known one person other than him who could use it, and that was the professor. Of course, other people existed, but they all lived in other cities or countries and they often didn’t want to reveal their secrets any more than Becker did. Some of them did, but Ryan had to sift through countless websites to find anything, and most of the time what he found was not actual magic. Magic was a myth for the average person, and so many of them created fake rituals, or fake monsters, which made learning anything about the subject a very tedious affair.
And so Ryan mostly kept to himself, struggling to learn on his own. When he couldn’t grasp something, or was looking for a particular information that he couldn’t find, he would ask Becker, who would always ask for something in return, a favor of some kind.
A few minutes later, Becker stopped, a raised hand indicating to Ryan to do the same. Night had almost fallen on the forest, making it difficult to see further away, and the sounds of the forest had almost completely disappeared. That last part, Ryan realized, was definitely not normal. Many creatures were active at sunset, there should have been some kind of noise, anything. Instead, an eerie calm surrounded them. There was only one plausible reason for that silence : a big predator was close.
His adrenaline spiking, Ryan slowly unholstered his pistol, its presence doing little to reassure him. He knew what kind of creature they were after and his bullets wouldn’t do much to it. His eyes were roaming the darkness, trying to discern some movements, while he was going through the spells he knew in his mind. The stress was really getting to him now, adrenaline coursing through his veins, making it difficult to focus on one task.
Finally, he saw it. In the distance, Ryan could see a shape distinct from its surrounding, calmly moving around. With a silent sigh of relief, Ryan briefly took his eyes away from the creature to confirm that Becker had spotted it as well. The old man was looking in its general direction, and his facial expression confirmed Ryan’s thoughts. They had both seen it, and now they needed to get to work.
Becker had already his shotgun in his hands when Ryan looked at him again, and they both resumed walking, doing their best to make as little noise as possible. Leaves and twigs crunched under their boots, as they approached the creature. As they got closer, the distinguishing features of a manticore were getting clearer. They could see its spiked tails and impressive mane. Ryan had known before entering the forest that this was the creature they were looking for. Becker was secretive, but he wasn’t an idiot. He knew that Ryan needed to know what they were after if they wanted a better chance of staying alive, even if a manticore wasn’t the deadliest creature.
The most dangerous thing about them was their venom. It could kill a person in a few minutes if left untreated, and manticores were able to shoot venomous darts from their tail. Those spikes weren’t really difficult to deflect, however, when one could simply raise a shield with their mind. The other thing to be careful of was the manticore’s strength. If one of them got too close, they could crush a person’s neck or spine, killing them instantly in most cases.
Once they were close enough, Becker raised his shotgun, took aim at the creature which was looking away from them, and shot it. Meanwhile, Ryan raised his shield, magic springing to life and surrounding both of them in a radiant white light. The manticore roared in pain and shot spikes at them while turning around, spikes which were deflected by Ryan’s shield, falling limply to the ground. The beast started running at them, but a second shot from Becker was enough to end its life. The manticore collapsed to the ground with a massive thud, dead on the spot. The whole fight had only lasted seconds, Ryan dimly noticed. Becker’s weapons had always been more effective than they should have been. Ryan was almost certain he improved them with magic, but didn’t know how.
They both contemplated the creature for a few quiet moments, before Becker approached it, making sure it was actually dead. With his task over, the professor unhooked a flask from his belt and crouched next to the creature’s tail, in order to gather as much venom as he could.
“Come help me” Becker said tersely. “You know what to do, press on the gland while I hold the tail.”
Ryan approached and wordlessly did as he was told. The sight of a dead being didn’t faze him anymore, and if they needed to kill a creature, he figured they might as well get the most they could out of it, so it hadn’t died in vain.
What bothered Ryan was something else. This was a manticore, and yet they were still in the outskirts of the forest. He’d never seen one so close to the city. When Becker had told him they needed to take care of a manticore, Ryan had thought they would need to go much deeper than they had, get into the more dangerous parts of the forest. Ryan had also thought the professor actually needed the venom, not that the creature needed to be killed because it had gotten too close to the border of the forest. Manticores didn’t do that. And yet, here it was, lying in front of them.
“What was it doing so far away from its territory ?” Asked Ryan, raising a questioning gaze towards Becker.
“I don’t know. Most of the forest been getting bolder in the last few years, but they don’t usually wander that much. This is worrying.” Becker answered, not looking up from his task.
After they were done with their work, Becker did some sort of magic Ryan could never make sense of, a cloud of white particles enveloping the mythical creature before making it disappear. Ryan wasn’t sure what happened to the body afterwards and he didn’t want to ask Becker, knowing the answer wouldn’t come without a price anyway.
The walk back towards the car was made in silence, both Becker and Ryan thinking about the strangeness of the situation. Something seemed to be amiss, but Ryan couldn’t figure out what, and it seemed the professor didn’t know much more. They finally made it to the car, getting inside before making their way back home, many questions on their minds.
After having dropped Becker at his place – They usually took Ryan’s car, since his house was further away and thus was more convenient this way – Ryan arrived back at his parents' home, readying himself for the conversation he was sure was awaiting him. He’d taken the time to remove all his equipment and traded it for more casual clothing. A simple black shirt with blue jeans.
Unlocking the door, Ryan entered and found his parents in the living room, both of them on the couch, watching TV. They looked at him as he entered, their faces grim, just as Ryan expected.
“What’s your excuse, this time ?” Asked his mother, her voice devoid of emotion.
“I was just out with my friends” Ryan answered, nonchalant. He’d had that conversation so many times, it barely fazed him anymore. It always started and ended the same way. A question, and then his lies.
“You can’t keep going out on weekday nights, Ryan. It’s not healthy and you need to think about school” said his father. Of course, the fact that his grades were stellar didn’t seem to hold much weight in this conversation. Ryan spent a lot of time working, making sure that his school life didn’t suffer from his magical responsibilities, but he knew this argument wouldn’t hold. No matter what he’d say, his parents would disagree. The best thing to do was to try to keep the exchange short.
And so Ryan didn’t answer. He instead made his way to the kitchen, leaving his parents alone to try and find something to eat. They’d let him off easy this time, probably because he was home earlier than he usually would be. That trip had taken much less time than it should have.
Ryan found a plate in the fridge, what looked to be chicken with some rice. Probably what they’d eaten for supper, he mused. He reheated the plate in the microwave, quickly ate his meal, before climbing the stairs towards his room. It was past 10 in the evening and tomorrow was a Wednesday. He still needed to take a shower before going to sleep. Traipsing through a forest had a way of making you sweaty.
The whole day had gone as it always did whenever Ryan had to go into the forest. Meeting Becker, going through the forest, solving whatever problem it was this time, getting back home, getting into a short argument, eating, showering, sleeping. There was never much variation and Ryan liked it this way. It was efficient and carefully planned to avoid compromising his secret. Whether Ryan had to practice his magic, go monster hunting, or just go to school, he always had a very precise plan, it was his way of doing things.
That was why that manticore bothered him so much. It shouldn’t have been there; it wasn’t supposed to. When Ryan finally fell asleep, his dreams were troubled. Images of the manticore and of the forest kept haunting his mind.