Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
They were anything but stealthy as they trekked through the underbrush, the fallen leaves crackling under their feet.
Harper led the party of three with a small spear, a real one this time, pointing it outwards and jumping a little every time the forest released an unknown sound.
Kyra followed up on his friendly advice by squeezing the small boy’s shoulder, and he visibly loosened up. In the middle of the pack, the girl herself wielded a slingshot, ready to fire at any target that caught them unawares.
Having the most dangerous position, Rhun held the rearguard, protecting their flanks and ensuring nothing would ambush them from behind. He clutched a small rusty blade and kept it raised. Fortunately, he had a free hand due to not needing to hold a torch as the spheres floating above sufficiently lit up their surroundings.
Half an hour or so elapsed before their guard weakened. Yawns spread throughout the small party, and shoulders slouched.
It was around this time when their group encountered a creature that did not shy away from the three lights scaring off all the forest inhabitants: a bulky brown bear.
“Grrrrrrrrrrr!” Rumbling in a low voice, the bear blocked their way forward.
“Ack!” “Eep!” His two friends squawked out in surprise.
Rhun skated to the front, took a defensive stance, and barked out a familiar phrase, “Defend at the ready!”
His valor contagious, the other two found their bearings and prepared for battle. The odds were unfavorable at best; he could not foresee an outcome that did not include at least one of them getting mauled to death.
The three orbs descended and circled around the massive mammal. It roared at the floating lights in response and stepped back warily, attempting to keep all three objects in sight.
The battle came to a standstill as the sparkling spheres sent a barrage of messages to the large animal, which kept growling back in response, in a defiant manner of sorts, and glancing back at them in between roars.
Rhun realized the large bear was sizing them up but still hesitated due to whatever the orbs were communicating to it. He needed to break this stalemate before the creature decided to attack them regardless of the consequences.
Raising his left palm upwards, he circulated his mana from the rest of his body and condensed it into the form of a small ball. Gritting his teeth, he focused on growing the ball, bigger and bigger until the pale blue globe was just a tad smaller than a bowling ball.
Next comes the hard part. Rhun dug his fingers into the magical gases and methodically recited several words, careful to keep the space in between words equal and his intonation even as possible:
All life atrophies
Someway and someday.
Lowering his arm, he aimed at his opponent and surged soulforce of a specific nature into the spell, the ball immediately taking on a grey tinge.
The gray ball zigzagged erratically towards the bear before slamming into a tree trunk two feet away from its intended target, draining all color from the plant and causing the tree to slump over.
“Fuck!” Rhun cursed.
However, the magic seemed to be enough to deter the animal as the frightened bear growled in fear and scampered off deep into the woods.
“Well, I guess that still works,” the boy uttered.
He turned around to check on his compatriots only to find them wide-mouthed and flabbergasted.
A beat passed.
“That was super awesome! Rhun! Rhun, how did you do that‽” The other boy shouted in his ear.
“What the heck! When did you learn that spell, and why didn’t you tell us?” She pouted, but her eyes belied extreme fervor.
He smiled bittersweetly as he recalled the countless attempts (and failures) to create the Wither spell: an uncountable number of times where the spell backfired, causing self-affliction and led to him lying on the ground, waiting until the effect wore off, endless periods of isolation where he tried every combination of chunni words until he found a pattern, a logic of sorts to the rules of magic, and the sweet, sweet feeling of elation when he finally succeeded.
“I’ll tell you guys later. Let’s get going before the sun comes up,” he deflected and jogged ahead.
“Hey!” “Rhun, tell us!”
He laughed, “Later, later!”
A heavy sigh.
“How much further?” Kyra asked, directing the question to no one in particular.
Rhun replied, “That’s a good question.” Exhaustion crept in as he forced himself to be on high alert ever since the bear attack a while back.
He peered upwards and repeated the girl’s inquiry, “Hey! How much further do we have to go? We can’t be traveling all night.”
The one in the front, the angry orb, circled back and descended. Addressing the group, the orb vibrated a few times.
Rhun rolled his eyes. “Okay, I get it. We should be honored to be invited by the Wise One, and we’ll have to give him our utmost respect, yes, yes. But you didn’t answer my question, how much longer till we reach our destination?”
The angry orb pulsed once.
He raised a brow, “You could’ve just said you didn’t know.”
The angry orb told him he asked way too many questions, did the orb-equivalent of flipping him off, and buzzed away snappily, if not a bit dramatically.
“At least you tried,” Harper shrugged, having witnessed the exchange.
Another orb, a different one, floated down, approached Rhun, and hummed.
“Oh really?” A slight dip. “Great! We’re nearly there then.” Another bob. “Guys, you heard that right?”
“Yeah! We’re almost there! Woo!” The other boy cheered.
“Finally…I’m tired,” she yawned, stretching her arms.
Murky shadows and silhouettes infringed on their party’s perimeter, demarcated by the spheres’ incandescence. The chilly air ebbed and flowed as they made their way past billowy, brown branches and fallen foliage.
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a piercing cry penetrated through the air.
Rhun located the source of the sound as the others cried out in fear.
A lithe creature with dull blue skin and the face of a human stared, unblinking. Brown feathers, razor-sharp talons, and a blunted beak comprised the humanoid’s features. And most prominent of all were the broad wings on the creature’s back.
Rhun gulped and thought, ‘This one will be tough.’
The harpy screeched again, and to their sheer horror, its partner, another, but smaller, harpy, answered the call, landing awkwardly on an opposite branch.
The orbs rushed into action. Immediately, they flew in front of the harpies, rapidly blinking, trying to pacify the part-avian creatures. Annoyed, the larger harpy swiped and swiped again at a floating ball, becoming increasingly frustrated at the pest’s intangibility.
“Prepare for combat. I don’t think the harpies will listen to the Wise One’s servants,” he directed.
Kyra drew back a stone, and Harper moved into a defensive stance in front of her, while Rhun lowered his center of gravity.
“Looks like they’re pretty fast, but they’ll probably swoop in like hawks, so be ready to roll to the side at the right time,” he checked for their understanding. Nods. “Harper, try to get a swing in immediately afterwards.”
“Okay, got it.”
Kyra looked at Rhun for additional instruction as well.
“Umm, Kyra, try to aim for the wings — we probably won’t be able to do much without real arrows, but it’ll throw off their flying at the very least.”
She nodded, “I’ll try my best.”
Rhun remained low to the ground and kept his sword in front of him.
The feathered creatures finally had had enough, and both shrieked, a distinctive, metallic cry echoing throughout the forest, sending vibrations spinning through the air and delving deep into their bones. Blood leaked out of the children’s ears as they desperately tried to cover them.
Rhun chanced a peek backwards; he could see the other two screaming but couldn’t hear a sound. It was like he was back on the battlefield, and someone had thrown a flashbang minus the flash. His attention returned to the enemies above.
The once-bright orbs dimmed drastically and dropped like bricks.
‘Fuck!’ The boy then realized the cry was a magical one, the only explanation for how it could affect the floating orbs.
Nothing to distract them from their original targets, the harpies squawked, almost gleefully, and flapped a few times before leaping off their respective branches, diving straight for their party.
“Get ready to dodge!” He screamed at the top of his lungs, their hearing having only partially recovered.
And at the most critical moment, Rhun ducked to his left, swiftly swinging his blade, aiming for a wing as the monster passed right above him. The larger harpy cried in response. Success.
Hearing a similar cry from across the ways, he mentally fist-pumped — the others succeeded too. He couldn’t risk checking though; he needed his full attention on the injured monster, who had crashed into some low branches.
‘This is a good time!’ Rhun decided and stabbed his sword into the dirt. He channeled mana, hastily crafting a sphere, excess mana leaking out like a geyser as he sacrificed control for speed.
The blue energies grew to a sufficient size, and an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion overtook him. He methodically chanted the magic words, then finally applied the Death element to the mana ball.
The harpy recovered and flew towards him, favoring its uninjured wing, when Rhun released his spell.
He almost cried when the grey orb looked like it would miss but felt extreme relief when the magic clipped the harpy’s other wing, grounding the creature and shredding off a sizeable amount of feathers.
The half-naked harpy cried out in fear and pain before plunging face-first into the dirt. He took this chance to nab his planted sword, dashed to the bird-creature, and speared his blade through its throat and rapidly retreated.
The feathered humanoid suddenly stumbled back up and tried to cry out, only to find blood gushing out of its throat and mouth when it did so, spewing and splattering crimson everywhere.
It desperately clawed at Rhun, but the boy was prudent enough to keep his distance after his last attack. The life left the creature as it toppled over, letting out a stifled shriek.
He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and dropped to his knees, feeling like a truck had hit him after emptying nearly all of his mana pool.
Taking a brief respite, he checked to see how his other friends are fairing, even secretly hoping they defeated their own harpy as well.
That glimmer of hope faded when he saw Harper clutching his right shoulder, blood oozing out of a wound, and Kyra barely avoiding a sweep from the flying creature, which was indeed injured but seemed more infuriated than impaired.
“Goddamnit. Fucking bird bastards.”
Rhun pulled himself up with tremendous effort and limped his way over, frantically extracting any remaining reserves of mana. He did not get very far before his energy sphere burst, the spell backfiring and him collapsing.
He raised his head just in time to see the harpy circling around for another sweep, its pointed talons aimed straight at Harper who had lost too much blood and needed to lean against a tree.
“Harper! Watch out!”
The boy looked up, his eyes widening in fear. He knew he would not be able to dodge in time, especially in his condition.
“Nooooo!” Kyra, having recovered, fired her slingshot at the winged devil, only to miss by a long shot.
Rhun knew the current situation was a disastrous one and tried once more to draw out some mana from his drained body.
His head throbbed painfully, warm blood trickling out of his ears, and his vision dimmed, yet he somehow created a baseball-sized ball from his left palm. He attempted to line up his shot, but his arm felt like an anchor and refused to lift any higher, a direct result of his own spell backfiring.
Either way, it would not make a difference — the distance too great, the spell too slow. Fuck. He cursed his own incompetence and failure as a leader, which most likely will get them all killed.
Then, all of a sudden, right before the harpy carved a hole in Harper’s chest, something incredible happened.
A large branch thwacked the harpy right out of the air.
Speechless, everyone remained frozen as a bulky mass of bark shuffled over to the half-avian attempting to crawl away, its wings most likely broken.
The treant lifted and brought down its wooden appendage several times, pulverizing the harpy’s head into pieces, bits of brain and flesh splashing everywhere.
Rhun’s heart leapt out of his chest when the massive, mobile tree turned to them.
“My sincerest apologies,” the treant expressed, “these feathered rats do not possess any ounce of intellect. They are unpleasant creatures mainly driven by instinct and frequently disobey the Wise One; I do not understand why he continues to allow them to reside in his forest.”
The tree shook its head — its crown.
“Fortunately, one of the little ones guided me to your location in time,” the treant pointed to a floating orb. Rhun could’ve sworn it was the angry one, but they honestly all look the same.
‘Oh. That magical cry must’ve been temporary. And thank god, we’re saved.’ He sighed with great relief.
Before blacking out, Rhun saw the treant manipulating a few vines to wrap up Harper’s wounds, creating a makeshift bandage of sorts.