A black bear with elegant white deer-like antlers appeared amongst the tall autumn trees. Its deep black eyes observed the sloping forest, its floor covered in a myriad of orange, yellow, and brown leaves. It’d rained a week ago, but with the chilling air, the ground was still moist. It’d even began to form near-transparent ice crystals. Only visible when the scattered sunlight hit them just right. They twinkled here and there as the bear trodded onward further into the ravine.
It circled a few bushes, though it stopped to nibble at a few that held berries. Once it snacked, it went on its morning routine. Which was to drink from the nearby river that could be heard roaring in the distance. The mating songs of birds could be heard overhead. Several of them danced through the air, fighting or fucking. The bear never knew, but it didn’t care so long as it was peaceful. That was why it loved this part of the ravine.
High above, the tall forest canopy blotted out the sun. The light that made it through wasn’t overly bright, but neither too little. It was the perfect amount that whited-out the blue sky above while illuminating the cold forest to show it as if it was under the bare sun. It was far better than the land higher up the ravine where it was packed with snow. And even better than the lands below, where humans dwelled.
Within a few minutes, the bear found its usual trail and took it down towards the river. It was easier than picking its way through the many pitfalls and outcrops. Another few minutes later, the bear broke through the tree line and onto the left bank of a wide surging river. It was about fifty of itself wide if the bear counted by its own length. Its depths at the center was about three of it, but the bear had only fallen in twice before around here. So it wasn’t too sure. It was sure that it didn’t like to be in the river though.
So the bear shied away from going too deep into the river. Preferring to go only ankle-deep into the river as it surged past it. Tens of fishes, of which the bear did not know the spoken word for, leaped in and out of the water as they tried to reach their breeding grounds. It stood there, taking its surroundings one last time before it turned its head down to the river in tie to catch a fish with a flick of its head.
With a quick snap of its jaws, the fish died. It was promptly chewed up and swallowed. The black bear’s stomach was delighted at the morning’s first meal, and the bear waited for another opportune catch. Several minutes later, the bear had caught several unlucky fish. Its low body was drenched from the surging river, and the black bear could no longer smell its surroundings after gorging itself.
It turned and stepped back onto the bank, but it heard something over the surging river. Something out of place. It quickly turned to observe its surroundings again, watching its side of the river with intense scrutiny. The bear thought it sounded like horses or was it deer? Was it another monster looking for territory? The sound was heard again, faint and nearly drowned by the river, but it was out of place enough for its sensitive hearing to pick it up.
From somewhere downstream, something heavy was approaching. The sound was out of place enough for the bear to hear over the river. Its eyes rose to scan its side of the river. The sea leaves remained untouched, and nothing stirred from behind any of the trees. A few moments later, another crack. It was softer than the first, and this time, the bear heard voices.
It turned to the river’s other bank. It was a tall, steep slope – plagued with mossy rocks and treacherously hidden roots. The bear had learned not to use that slope. It towered over the river, offering a prime view of the forest. But there was no safe path down for long ways in either direction. Thus, the bear never made its home there. That, and it also held a human road.
A horse’s uneasy breathing could be heard now, and now the bear understood what was going on. Humans were coming and – – A black, thin object lanced from between several trees downstream – from the human path. It cut through the air before the bear could move and sliced the air several feet to the right of its head. The object exploded on the rocks behind the bear. A moment later, adrenaline spiked through its system and it reared up in anger. How dare someone challenge it! Or rather, something akin to that ran through its mind.
The bear lifted its head up and let out a deep, demonic roar. It was by far, a voice no normal bear could make. All the birds in the trees took to the air. Hidden rodents dove into their holes, and anything else so unlucky to be nearby hoped that they were not the ones to anger the monster.
Another whistle cut the air. The bear heard it, but half a heartbeat later, the bear felt its head jolt backward and the thinned out forest canopy was replaced with the river. Its sight turned red, and it ceased to be…
“That was, by far, the worst archery I’ve had the displeasure of watching,” Crown Prince Randol commented dryly as the sun caught his golden dragon armor. “Had you actually managed to kill it with one shot, I would have left it alone. I’ll let you off with a warning, but you will collect its carcass and bring it to the campsite at the top of the ravine – Earl Ravendale.”
Princess Mai watched with great amusement as the human boy was chastised. His fair face was redder than the autumn copper leaves around them. It brought her great joy to know that most of his embarrassment was because of her. Early Ravendale shot the princess a menacing look that promised her this slight would be avenged within the near future. She was not worried though, because she had the backing of the pathetic human’s nation.
“Sister,” Prince Randol turned to her as she mounted her longbow back onto her saddle. “I apologize for the boy’s behavior.”
The prince still sat atop his massive black destrier. His short golden hair rivaled that of the autumn trees around him, and his blue sapphire eyes were clearer than the river below them. Prince Randol was a man’s man, nothing like the scrawny child Ravendale who’d slunk back down the long column of students and servants. His punishment was to retrieve his – Mai’s – kill, and field dress it and bring it to the servants to prepare at the top of the ravine.
Earl Ravendale was a coppery haired boy of thirteen years. He seemed to always have a holier-than-thou expression on his heavily freckled face. He was slender but did not lack muscle. What he did lack, however, was a personality, discipline, and a decent grasp of the magical application. The ornate recurve bow the earl used had been handed off to his servant, who dutifully followed his master. Along with his only allowed house guard.
On the other end, Mai was not human. She was a fox-kin, one of the several types of species officially listed under the Beast-kin umbrella. Mai had large raven black fox ears atop her head, blending seamlessly with her hair that stopped at her midriff. Her eyes were nearly as black as her hair and seemed to be like to regal marbles. She had a lovely nose that had a higher sensitivity than humans, but not as fine as a full-blooded Fox-kin.
She was half-human, which graced her with an obvious lack of furry appendages her kin had. Mai’s body was fit, slightly curvy with small breasts that came as an off-trade for her battle-hardened body. She was a prime grade female, but she was fully aware she stood on the higher end of desirable females. Mai was not so dense to not see the lustful stares she got in passing, but alas, because she was a beast-kin with large obvious ears – she was not approached openly by her peers.
She, like her fellow students of the Imperial Academy, was dressed in deep blue scholarly robes. Well, those who belonged to the Mage and Scholarly departments.
“That was a fine shot!” Prince Desmond, her betrothed said as he pulled his destrier up beside her. “It never ceases to amaze me just how amazing you are at archery.”
“The Red-leaves tribe are world renown for our skill in hunting,” Mai felt her face heat slightly at the praise. She didn’t face him but opted to nimbly mount her courser and pull up her oversized hood – pushing down her ears. “Anything less than that would disgrace my tribe.”
Prince Desmond was the Randol’s youngest brother and was third in line for the throne. By some odd act of the cosmos, Desmond was the opposite of his older brother. Randol was just a year shy of thirty, with Desmond lagging ten years behind – three full years older than Mai herself. He was also slightly paler than Mai, but her problem was she just turned red when exposed to the sun too long. Her betrothed just spent nearly most of his life indoors. Reading books.
The prince had a slender build, taking after his late mother. It wasn’t her slender, thankfully, but a manly slender. Where Randol would be considered a “Tank”, a term passed down from the olden days, Desmond fell under the term “Battle Mage.” He wasn’t fat like many of his fellow book worms, thanks to Mai repeatedly making him spar with her, and even had some muscle definition. Desmond also stood two inches taller than Mai at five-ten.
“Of course,” Desmond chuckled. “Taking down an Abyssal bear with a single steel arrow, and looking beautiful while doing so, that’s an impressive feat. It makes me almost want to learn the fox tribe’s way of archery.”
Mai felt her ears grow hot. There it was, his ability to make her heart race with that unflinching honesty of his. Desmond wasn’t a romantic, but he was also kind of airheaded. He could give a compliment that’d make most men feel mushy for saying it, and not even flinch. That could be attributed to his ability not to put more stock into his words than necessary. But it was the thought that Mai liked.
“It is all thanks to the enchantments you placed onto my bow,” Mai said truthfully. “They work wonderfully.”
“I’d love it if you’d test them out,” Desmond said as he looked to her.
And then he began to drone on about Mathematical Enchantment Theory, along with several other ones Mai hadn’t remember. She felt her cheek twitch as he slid into his feverish dialogue on simplification of the current enchantment practices. He also praised to the heavens on how the relics from the Forgotten Era were simple and easy to use.
To Desmond’s joy, Mai had knowledge of this subject. She even carried a relic with her. The object was hidden beneath her robe, in a slender and discreet pouch hidden on the inside of her left thigh. Speaking to Desmond, she could feel the weight of the object now.
“If we could just decipher their entire alphabet, we could do it,” Desmond sighed as he began to come down from his bookworm high. “With such little surviving the dark ages, its hard to actually get an accurate grasp on their language. Or, maybe if the Theocracy would stop hunting down anything pertaining to the ancients, we’d probably be far more advanced by now.”
“Maybe,” Mai said without taking a said. “My father has mentioned that their witch hunters and priests have been more active in the plains as of recent. Though, I doubt they’d find anything that wasn’t already under any of the tribes’ control.”
“Lady Mai!” A childish voice perked up as a small girl, no younger than 13, brought her horse up to the couple. “I just heard that you killed that Abyssal bear a few ways back! That is amazing! Don’t those bears have notoriously thick hides? How did you manage to take it down!?”
The voice belonged to none other than Lady Priscilla Harrel, a young girl that was of Desmond’s small social circle. Like Desmond, she was a book worm with a magical affinity. Priscilla could be considered Mai’s friend as well, but the girl’s grandfather had a very strong hatred of beast-kin. Being one of the two surviving generals who’d fought in the Beastial wars sixty years ago would do that, so the vixen didn’t take it personally.
“They do,” Mai nodded. “Normal arrows stand little chance to penetrate them. Bolts have a higher chance, but the bolt’s head needs meticulous sharpening. I used my longbow here that Desmond enchanted before we left and steel arrows with sharpened tips. I managed to hit it in one of the soft spots – just under its jaw were its tongue is.”
“Wow!” Priscilla beamed, her pretty brown eyes growing wide. “I could never do that! My father tried to teach me how to use a bow, but I could never pull the string enough.”
“Maybe when you grow older,” Mai lied.
Priscilla took more after her mother, a dainty but magically inclined woman. She was small, slender, and lacked any notable physical ability. That may change, but from the physical build of her parents, she didn’t expect that to change; a delicate flower.
“Lady Priscilla, why don’t you go keep my brother company?” Desmond suggested.
The idea derailed the young teen’s thoughts as the crown prince was brought into the picture. He was only twenty horses ahead, at the head of the column along with the headmistress. Priscilla’s eyes sparkled with desire but then held herself back for a moment. Until Mai reached over and slapped her courtier’s rear, sending the horse forward. The girl looked betrayed and Mai gave her an encouraging smile.
With that, silence enveloped the couple as the host continued up the ravine. Following close to the river when they could. Scouts came and went, noting nothing close to being a danger like the Abyssal Bear. Earl Ravendale was reported to have already rejoined their host – favoring the silent rear. It was said that he was as clean as when he went down onto the river. His servants and knights were a different story and had to be ushered off to clean themselves because of the smell.
By the midday, the host had exited the ravine and appeared at the foot of the empire’s highlands. Golden hills and rocky mountains stretched out before her. None of them were relatively tall compared to the massive monolithic mountain range that rose far in the distance. That was what stunned her. Mist escaped her mouth, along with everyone else in the host. And collectively, they all became humanoid steam pipes as each stared opened mouth in awe at the sight.
The mountain range in the distance was known as the Sentinel Mountain Range. The border between the land of light and the land of dark. Being of the light races, neither Mai nor the humans in her company had ever been in the dark lands. A place was monsters were said to be as common as pigeons. Clouds grazed the sky, drifting on silently with the cold breeze – only coming halfway up the tallest sentinel.
“Set up camp!” Knights began to shout. “Come on, don’t stand in the way. Move away from the ramp and don’t stand close to the river! If you fall, you’re going to die! Remember, that’s a waterfall there, not a bloody slide!”
“Why are we stopping?” Mai turned to Desmond as he dismounted and began to lead the horse towards a safe distance from the ravine’s edge. “It’s only midday, we can continue.”
“We can’t, Mai,” Desmond said as he gestured for the girl to follow. She did, dismounting and leading her mount by the reins to the river’s edge. “Me, you, Randol, the knights, and all the teachers have been up here before. But most of the students here haven’t ever been this high. Their bodies need to acclimate to the highlands or they’ll get sick.”
“Why won’t we get sick?” Mai asked. She wasn’t aware of this ‘acclimate’ he spoke of. To be fair, the Beast-kin were not advance people – which mainly loved to war with one another. War and mating, a past time that even humans could enjoy.
“Altitude sickness,” Desmond said as he patted his mount. “Air is thinner the higher you go, so your body doesn’t get enough air. Its fine if you allow your body to adjust every five-hundred meters up. We’re just shy of that here. The actual five-hundred-meter mark is…”
He stepped away from his horse to get a better look at their surroundings. He eyed several of the low hills for a moment and eventually pointed towards a distant point between a hill and a small rocky mountain. It took a few seconds for Mai to see it. A small manmade symmetrical rock pillar had been erected inbetween them.
“That’s the furtherest that those of us who don’t travel often can go,” Desmond continued. “Those who don’t stop to let their bodies adjust, die. So to avoid any mishaps, everyone is advised to rest here for a day. Since we’re not going to be traveling for just a few hours, we’ll rest for two days and set out in the morning. For now, we can roam around where the knights can see us.”
“We can’t go out of their sight?” Mai asked
“Yes, but no,” Desmond answered. “You can walk off if you want, but this place is the only ‘safe area’ out here. This is far from the Empire’s reach – as much as they’ll say otherwise – and even the adventurers rarely come this far north. That means monsters proliferate the area. They won’t come near us if we’re in a big group like this but that’s why you’ll be advised not to strange out of sight.”
And as if to fortify his warnings, several demonic howls rose in the distance. The students were startled, but Mai’s sense of adventurer began to rise. Along with Desmond’s pleading look. She gave him a cute but mischievous grin.