The Shadow Casters
My name is Robert Shade, and I am an average just turned fourteen year old boy. If you were wondering how I got my unusual last name; I got it from the inhabitants of Starlight Village, when I was found abandoned at the age of one. I was found wrapped in a blanket half a mile from the village in the shade of a fir tree. The good people of the village took me in and fed and clothed me, but as we all know it is hard to love and accept an outsider as one of our own. The thirteen years growing up were hard when I could feel that I was not really wanted or accepted; the worst of it was from other teenagers, who felt I was taking advantage of the hospitality of the village. I never fit in anywhere I went to try to help in town; so I kept to myself usually, and went into the Rennwood to hunt or relax. Sometimes I was gone for a week at a time, but no one asked where I had been when I returned. As the years passed, I took more time in the woods and less in the village. As a result of this, I was stronger and more agile than the rest of the kids in the village. The village has one tradition that they hold above all else: for outsiders to become one of them, the outsider must take a dangerous journey to all regions of the earth. They must then return with signatures of the heads of each region saying they had actually been to those places. The villagers make sure every outsider knows the two choices they have when they turn fourteen, they can either: go on this journey and get all of the signatures, or they will be banished from this village and the surrounding areas forever. I have decided to go on the journey, not for the people but for the woods that I love so dearly. All you can take on the trip is the clothes you’re wearing, your belt knife, and your sleeping blanket. It wasn’t until after I agreed to go on this trek that they told me no one else has ever survived the test. I decided to leave the night after I learned about the choices I had; I figured it would be better to do it sooner rather than later.
So on this moon-lit, stormy night I set off to look for the king of the region of Banthar, in hopes I will see this village and the woods again. I had to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, because I was so scared that I would die on this journey. I looked back only once before the village disappeared beyond the horizon, and I was surrounded only by the trees I am so fond of. The trees take my mind off of the long, perilous road ahead of me, and I just wander around feeling more peaceful than I have ever felt before. It was nearing day break before I realized I had no idea where I was. I tried to remember where I had gone after I left the village, but it was impossible to remember more than the past half-hour. I was lost, alone, and in unknown territory! I decided to look for a place to rest and eat, for lack of anything better to do. I guess bad luck comes with an equal balance of good, because in less than ten minutes I found a small, sheltered clearing with a stream running along one side of it. I spent a few minutes surveying the area, seeing if it was a suitable camp site for an hour or two. Once I was satisfied with the site, I sat down my blanket and set about trying to catch a few of the fish that were so abundant in the stream.
I had just caught my fifth fish, when I heard a noise from a bush on the other side of my campsite. I thought nothing of it for the moment, but then it started moving towards me. I tried to act like I hadn’t heard anything, and went back to my blanket with my fish. I lay down on my blanket and pretended to sleep, but I didn’t close my eyes all the way so I could see what was following me. It waited fifteen minutes; then it slowly came into the clearing, and I was awed at the size of it. Even though I couldn’t see it clearly, I could tell that it was human. I still didn’t let down my guard, because I remembered that no one has ever returned from this journey yet. After the human came a few feet closer, I could see more clearly. I could tell it was an adult male by his face: he had a rust-colored beard, a firm set mouth, a nose that looked like it had been broken a few times, and dark brown hair; the feature that caught your interest right away was his blue eyes, they looked like they could cut through steel with just a glance. The stranger came closer and drew the knife he had at his belt. Since I thought he was going to kill me, I rolled to the right and grabbed my own knife. When I came to my feet he was still staring at where I was laying; I knew he saw me and that he could beat me in a fight easily, so I looked at where I had been laying. Much to my horror, on my blanket I saw a small beast covered in blood! I felt something wet on my back, so I put my hand back to find out what it was. I was horrified to find I was bleeding, and that my back was sore when I touched it. The man waited until the thing on my blankets was snoring softly, and then went in for the kill. It all happened so fast I would have missed it if I had blinked. He lunged forward and sliced the small beast into two pieces. I had seen some slaughters at the village, but this man could have put the best butchers to shame in the quickness he ended it. Only after that did he speak to me in a deep, resonant voice befitting a court bard.
“You mind-numbed fool,” he growled, “How could you let yourself get stuck by a Stiltz?”
I said, “A what?”
“A Stiltz, you idiot,” he yelled.
I had had just about enough lip from this guy, so I yelled, “I don’t know who you think you’re talking to, but I don’t have any idea what a Stiltz is!”
A puzzled look crossed his face. “Aren’t you the ambassador from Razzahan?”
“What are you talking about; I just want to get the signatures from the leaders of all the regions, so I can live in Starlight Village!”
A pained look crossed his face as I mentioned the village. “I am extremely sorry for yelling at you, I didn’t realize that you weren’t the ambassador. My name is Ross Galbarda, by the way.”
I was still a bit angry at him for yelling at me, and I couldn’t keep that anger out of my tone. “Why didn’t you tell me that the Stiltz was underneath me?”
“You don’t know anything about the Stiltz, do you?”
I replied that I didn’t know anything except the creatures of the Rennwood, and that was from hunting them. Ross just looked at me and said, “I’ve got a lot of explaining to do if you’re going to survive these woods.”
“The Stiltz are woodland creatures that survive by sucking the blood out of unwary travelers and other animals. They make a small cut on your back, and spit in the cut. Their saliva makes your whole back go numb, so they can slice further down your back. After they get a big cut, they lick the blood out of the cut. Once they are full they go to sleep for about fifteen minutes, so they can digest the blood and come back for more. Most of their victims fall asleep for an hour and by then it’s too late. The reason I didn’t say anything is that their hearing is better than both of ours, and if it heard us it would wake up. Then we would have to wait for it to fall asleep again, and lose a lot of time. Stiltz are only one of the many dangers in these woods, so you will need to learn a lot by the time you leave on your journey.”
I inquired, “How do you know all of this, Ross?”
He replied, “I am one of the Foresters, and have lived here for many years.”
A memory came to me in that instant: I was in the village square, and eavesdropping on the old women gossiping. “I heard that the Foresters got to him, poor fellow,” one said. The others all gasped in horror at this news. “Not the Foresters, I can’t think of a worse way to die,” another said. “The Foresters are ruthless in their devotion to the king, if they even heard of a rumor of betrayal, they would kill the one who it said had betrayed the king,” said the first one. This was the first and last time I had heard of the Foresters in the village.
Ross must have seen a look of fear pass across my face, because he said, “I know the stories that get passed around, but the foresters are a peaceful group of woodsman who are eager to help the king. We’re not as bad as some people make us out to be.”
I still wasn’t sure how much I could trust Ross, because I had just met him; I decided to listen to his advice and stories of the creatures.
Ross said, “Should I continue the story of the Stiltz?” I replied I would like to learn more, so he went on.
“The Stiltz are one of the newer species of these woods, they were only discovered almost a thousand years ago. Most of the animals in these woods were found soon after The Great Division. In case you don’t know what The Great Division is, I will explain. The world was one great nation in the beginning of time; this nation was called Rinfolec, the government within Rinfolec was The Serpintian Counsel. The counsel worked for the best interest of the whole nation, and for a decade everything went fine; then the rebellion started, a large number of people were going to try to take the nation by war. The rebellion even had some of the counselors won over, so the good counselors: Banthar, Razzahan, and Pinian, gathered all the armies that would still fight for unity as it was before. The evil counselors: Recoal, Finorse, and Goanes, decided to make their move before the other counselors could gather any more armies; they attacked the other counselors, which therefore started a fierce civil war that lasted until all the counselors were tired of fighting. The counselors worked out an agreement: each of them should have an equal amount of space, and they will all keep to it or else risk being dismembered by the others. This kept the counselors at bay until they died, but by then people were used to the boundaries. The people of each small region chose a king to rule with an iron fist, and things have passed unremarkably from there to here. When the counselors broke free and for a few years after is called The Great Division.”
“The animals must have appeared after the war, but no one knows how they got here. We only had some small creatures before.”
Ross was starting to wander from the subject, so I said, “What about the creatures of these woods?”
“Oh, yes of course! The Stiltz are easily identifiable by the small horns on their heads, and by the size of their teeth. They have very small teeth, which are made for slicing open the back of their prey. That is all you need to know to identify a Stiltz. Now, let’s move on to killing them. You will need a longer weapon than that knife for this.” He reached into his pack, took out a sword, and tossed it to me. I tried to catch it, but I missed and it fell to the ground. Ross just laughed and said, “I guess I will have to give you lessons also. So, let’s get back to the Stiltz. You need to be fast or you won’t kill it. All you have to do is aim right in the middle of its stomach with a slashing motion; it’s very simple once you learn how. That’s all you need to know about Stiltz, and the rest of the beasts won’t give you much trouble. I guess we will start your sword lessons tomorrow.”
When I heard tomorrow I was disappointed and said, “What’s wrong with right now?”
Ross looked at the sky and replied, “Nothing, if you plan to evade me in the dark. Now, get some sleep and be ready to learn tomorrow.”
I looked up and saw to my amazement that it was almost dark out; Ross seemed to be trustworthy, so I followed his orders.
During the night I woke up twice, and saw that Ross was standing guard over me. That thought made me feel safe, and I fell asleep feeling as well protected as if nothing could hurt me tonight.
On the next day, Ross woke me up near dawn; he didn’t say anything, he just handed me my sword and motioned to the middle of the clearing. I looked and saw nothing at first, but then I saw the small Stiltz asleep. I took my sword, and advanced upon the beast. I tried to do just as he had told me, but it was harder than I thought; I missed on the first swing, and just barely caught my sword before it plunged into the forest floor. On my second try I hit right in the middle of its stomach, only after the Stiltz was still did Ross come out and congratulate me on my first lesson completion.
I was eager to learn to use my sword now and I told him that, but he just laughed and asked when I wanted breakfast. As he said that it made me realize that I hadn’t eaten for over a day, and I was starving. I helped him cook the fish I caught for a small breakfast snack, and then we sat and discussed the plan for the day. I hadn’t realized it yet, but I depended on Ross for many things.
After breakfast, he took me into the middle of the clearing and taught me the right techniques for using the sword without hurting myself; I caught on really quickly, and we sparred for two hours. I had many bruises and bumps and Ross had none, but I learned to handle my sword so I wouldn’t kill myself.
We stopped and had a lunch of fish and some wild blueberries we found on the edge of the clearing. During lunch Ross was talking about how far he had to travel, and how he had to find the Razzahan ambassador soon. I didn’t realize it, but he was preparing me to be on my own when he taught me all he knew I would need.
When he started filling his pack, it became obvious to me that he meant to leave me behind and go his own way. I tried to persuade him to come with me, but he would not hear of it.
I said, “Will you at least tell me what way the closest town is?”
He replied, “The town of Sumala is a mile north of here, but I can’t be helping some kid with his quest; I have my duty to do as a Forester, and as a loyal subject of the king. I’m sorry kid, truly I am, but this is how it has to be. I hope to see you again, sometime.”
Ross waved to me, and started off on the path he was destined to tread. I was sorry to see him go, but I had my own way to follow.
I packed up my gear and the rest of my fish, and set off north. It took me about half an hour to find the small town, and then I had to find a job and a place to stay. The first thing I did was to try to find an inn where I could sleep. In a town this small, it didn’t take long. The inn was situated in between a blacksmith’s shop and a stable, so I figured it would be almost empty. My judgment was right on track, there was not a single person in the whole inn besides the innkeeper. I went over to him, and asked if he was the manager. The eyes that looked up at me were tearful, and he whispered “Yes” as though he thought I would smack him for talking. I tried to reassure him by saying I was looking for a place to stay for a few nights. After he heard that he sighed with relief, and ushered me into the best room he had. I told him I had no money to pay him with, but he said he didn’t mind if I just did odd jobs for him for payment.
There was a scrawny boy behind the counter taking apart a fan.
The boy didn’t look up when I entered, so I went up to him and tried to strike up a conversation. I said, “Hi, my name is Robert. I came here to get some supplies.”
The boy looked up at me and replied, “I have a lot of selections for traveling long distances.”
I just realized he looked like he hadn’t had a decent meal in a very long time. “Do you want some of my food,” I asked?
He looked at me as if I were an angel as he said, “Would you really give me some?”
“Yes, I will give you some if you want it,” I said, puzzled by the way he didn’t believe me. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Josh Flare, sir.”
“I am not a sir, Josh,” I said sternly as I got some meat out for him.
I gave the piece of meat to him, and it disappeared as if it had never been there in the first place. I was astounded at his appetite, and I was feeling sorry for him so I said, “Josh, how would you like to get out of here, and come to see kings and lords?”
“I would love it,” he said, “but I have no money or companions.”
“Would you like to come with me,” I asked?
As soon as I said it, he started gathering his possessions and getting ready to go. I had to laugh at his optimism, because he had no idea of the route we were taking. “Josh, I am going to all the regions of the world, doesn’t that bother you?”
He slowed down a little, but he still was moving pretty fast, as he said, “I don’t care where we go as long as it gets me away from here!”
As soon as he was done, I said, “Well, it’s almost dark, so let’s stay here tonight and leave in the morning, ok?”
I could tell he was disappointed, but I said, “I’m still tired from today’s journey, so we will leave at dawn.”
I had to tell him I would leave him behind if he didn’t go to sleep, because he was so excited he was talking all the time. After he went to sleep, I locked the door and slept as peacefully as when I was in Starlight Village. I didn’t wake up at all during the night, which I was glad of when dawn came.
At the first light I woke Josh up, and told him that it was time to leave. He didn’t argue, he just got up, took his pack, and followed me out the door. We set a good brisk pace, and we were making good time.
He wasn’t as chatty this morning, and I think he was remembering all the things he might miss. Finally, he started talking again, and it was nice to have someone to talk to again.
“Do you know this area well,” I asked Josh?
“I know these woods like the back of my hand, this is where I come to relax,” he sounded astounded that I had to ask.
“Where would the king be at?”
“Why do you want to know,” Josh asked, sounding suspicious, “I won’t tell you if you mean him harm!”
“I need his signature to become a part of the village I grew up in,” I explained carefully, “that’s all I need.”
“Oh, that’s fine then,” Josh replied, “he would be in the Palace of the Shadows.”
“How far is it from here to there,” I said, wondering about the name of the palace, “and how long will it take us?”
“It’s about twenty miles,” he said confidently, “and it would take us about three days if we went slowly, if we pushed we might make it in one day.”
“What if we went as we are going,” I asked, “would we make it in two days?”
“Easily,” he said, “we would make it with time to spare.”
“Good,” I replied happily, “we will have some time to rest our feet, before meeting the king.”
“I thought you were joking about meeting kings and lords,” Josh stared at me, “how will you get into the palace?”
I hadn’t thought about that at all, and I realized I had no ideas. “I’m still working on it,” I replied. Apparently Josh had it all thought out, because he said, “I might have an idea, if you want to hear it.” I said I did want to hear it.
“How about the sewer systems that run under the whole castle, we could sneak into the servants quarters, and steal two serving outfits. Then we could go to the kitchens, and ask them for the king’s dinner. After we get the dinner we tell the king that we want his signature on a tax bill, and there you have it. What do you think?”
I thought for a few moments, and then I gave my opinion. “I think it’s a good plan, but I am thinking the guards won’t let us past them. Also, what if a servant happens to see us? Where will we leave our gear? I think we need to make a few adjustments to the plan.”
He smiled and said, “I left that part out of my plan, to see if you would catch it. Nice job, but we could leave our gear under a pine tree on the way; I know a great one that will be perfect. We go through the sewers so we smell like servants, and we will carry the food with our heads down so the guards don’t know we’re not really servants. This is the best bit right here, if a servant happens to see us; we will have The Slave Locket. How do you like that?”
“What is the Slave Locket you’re talking about,” is all I managed to get out before Josh was talking again. “The Slave Locket is an old amulet that my parents got from the slaves that they rescued; in their time the lords were vicious beyond belief, and it grants us safe passage from any slaves that happen to see it.”
“That’s not too bad of an idea Josh, I’m glad you’re here,” I was delighted that he had some idea of how this was going to work. “Well then, let’s not worry until we see that pine.”
After we had figured that part out, Josh was more talkative, if that is at all possible. I thought I heard something in the bushes to the right, but I figured it was just another Stiltz. I ignored it for a while, but after a few minutes listening I figured out that it was following us step for step. I knew at that moment that this was no Stiltz that was stalking us; it seemed to realize I knew it was following us, because it jumped out at us. I had only a moment to get my sword out of its resting place on my pack, until it hit me. I was bowled over by the impact, and I had no time to see what I was fighting. I regained my feet within ten seconds after I was knocked down. I realized Josh was unarmed, so I tried to look over to see if he was alright. That was a mistake. One of the things claws slashed at my right side; I tried to move out of its way, but it was not enough. The claw glanced off my ribs, and a searing pain ran all the way up my right side. I heard Josh yell my name, but I couldn’t yell back I was in so much pain. After it slashed me it turned toward where Josh’s voice came from. The pain took me to the ground, but I was determined not to let it get to Josh. I yelled “Run away, you idiot,” as I launched myself at the unprotected backside of the beast. I don’t think it expected me to be up so soon, but it responded with ferocity unlike anything I have ever witnessed. The beast wheeled around as soon as I hit its back, and I was soon on the ground again. I think the beast had had enough of my meddling, because it kept coming after me. I didn’t think anything could save me from this ferocious beast, when suddenly a blade came out of the beast’s chest, slaying it instantly.
I fell unconscious for a time, and when I woke I was almost expecting to hear Josh in front of me talking as much as he always does, but what I heard instead was a voice that I remembered from what seemed centuries ago. The deep voice was trying to get me to open my eyes, but I didn’t want to; my side felt as if it had been burnt with molten steel. After much insistence I finally opened my eyes, and saw a person I expected to be more than a hundred miles away at this time. Ross was staring at me, worry creasing his usually stern brow. As I opened my eyes, he let out a sigh of relief. “I was afraid I had arrived too late to save you,” he said, “but you must be tougher than I thought you were.” Ross called to Josh as I tenderly felt my side, and tried to sit up straight. “Hey Robert, you had us scared for a while,” Josh said as he inspected me for any injury besides my side, “I’m glad your alive, and in good hands.” Ross came back over with a poultice to put on my side for the pain, and it felt a lot better with the poultice.
“I was wondering,” I said sometime later as we sat around a campfire, “how come you came back, Ross?”
He thought for a few minutes, and then he said, “I thought about how much fun we had together, and of all the things you still don’t know about surviving in the forest. I had to come back, because I would never forgive myself if I found you dead. It would have been my fault, for not telling you all the dangers.”
“Your friend doesn’t know any more than you do, so I think I might come along as a guide and guard, if it’s alright with you that is.”
“I couldn’t refuse a friend anything, so welcome to the group,” as I said this everyone broke into joyous laughter at the prospect of a new companion.
“Wait, we should have a name for our group,” said Josh. “What are your thoughts about it?”
“Final Fellowship,” contributed Ross.
“I say Cataclysmic Companions,” Josh put in.
“How about The Fellowship of The Forest,” I asked them?
Both of them voiced their agreement, so we three are now The Fellowship of The Forest.