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I woke up when a foot dug into my stomach.
“We’re leaving”, a spear-man with dark bags under his eyes was looking down on me, as I hunched over my hurt belly, still disoriented.
There was no wait, and when I noticed, the group I was supposed to be a part of was already leaving. I hurried up to catch up with the warriors, and some other unfitting people; other people who negotiated their offering?
There were three spear-men other than the one with the dark bags under his eyes that woke me up, all tall and holding spears decorated with feathers, plus their leader, Arapaima, who stood out not only for his size and vivid blue cape, but for the massive, three meters long club of beautifully intricate carved wood, which displayed dozens of fishes along its body.
While the tall man led the way, the four spear-man guarded one figure in particular, a boy of my age, with fury round brown ears, and black nose and lips. He also wore a rich set of bearskin clothes, shining jewelry, and a fancy black wand in the form of a hawk’s claw, yet, somehow, this boy had a totally different aura from Spruce, even though both of them displayed exaggerated riches: in that boy, those things were fitting. So much so, he seemed to be used to the shower of compliments three of the guarding spear-man were covering him with.
Then, there was the last member of the group, the only one apart from me who was left out of the protection of the spearmen, another boy of my age. He was frantic-looking, his brown eyes constantly jumping from one thing to another, and his short black hair must have been cut by a crab with Parkinson syndrome, so rough was the job done. He wore some very tight clothing beneath a simple gray cape, which made his crestfallen walk even more awkward. One thing about him caught my attention in special, however: he carried a shield on his left arm, and attached to it, a black sword.
“Enough”, the boy wearing bearskin sighed, raising a hand and shutting his sycophants up. “Where are we going? I thought you’d simply give me my offering”, he frowned at Arapaima, and crossed his arms, not a bit intimidated by the size difference, or the fact that he was surrounded by the tall man’s underlings.
“Gluh gluh! I can’t simply give you an offering, Ursus boy”, Arapaima shrugged, showing a smile of needle-like teeth.
“Don’t call me ‘boy’, ever again”, he snarled, showing large bear fangs.
“The Selection Festival is directly supervised by the mages of The School, so I need a pretext to give you an offering, and make it valid. Politics”, Arapaima explained, without bothering with Ursus threat, and got back to walking. “So we’re making a quick travel to the Wind Cave, a famously magical place nearby. If you get to a specific part of the cave, you obtain the ‘Wind Blessing’, and I use it as an excuse for a valor test, and reward those who get it with my Offering.”
“Is- Is this cave dangerous?”, the awkward swordsman asked, hugging himself.
“Mostly not”, the spear-man with dark bags under his eyes replied, as his companions laughed.
Ursus harrumphed, the swordsman went pale, and continued to march forward, as I asked myself what the annoyed warrior meant by that?
I should find out soon enough.
When we reached the cave, a gush of wind blew from within the earth, and onto us, on the surface.
“Oh!”, I held down my hat, which was almost blown away.
“Is this the Wind Blessing? Can we go back, now?”, the swordsman asked, hopeful.
“No,”, again, the spear-man with bags under his eyes ended his fun.
“Let’s go”, the tall group leader proceeded, unshaken, the tinny entrance making him look even bigger.
Inside the cave, to my surprise, the annoyed-looking spear-man hit the ground with the butt of his weapon, and its feather decorations started to shine. He was a mage. And his simple, but useful magic revealed a whole new world before me: huge underground expanses, stalagmites and stalactites taller than any people, and complex rock formations creating a bizarre, but beautiful and unique scenario.
As I gawked all around, the one carrying the shiny spear explained:
“This cave goes deep, deep underground. It’s connected to the world of the Spirits, and the power which comes from there is responsible for all kinds of magical phenomenon”, seemingly uncomfortable, he added: “…this is also a sacred place, so be careful.”
I was dying to ask the mage with dark bags under his eyes some questions about that place, learn about it, but that group didn’t seem the most welcoming to such behavior, so I contained myself.
Then, not long after, we reached a bifurcation, in which the path we were following became tapered off ahead, and there was a stream of water to the right. Arapaima turned around, and showing off his creepy smile again, explained:
“We’re gonna split here. Me, my men, and Ursus boy here are gonna proceed this way. You two will have to take the stream path”, he pointed to the right bifurcation with his thumb.
“What?! Why?!”, the swordsman asked, gesticulating exaggeratedly and breaking in sweat.
“This path goes right over an abyss, actually, and can’t take any more weight than this group’s members”, the tall man explained over his underlings laughs. “Don’t worry, though, the stream way connects to the main path just a little ahead.”
That was weird. And I would ignore it, if not for the clear distress the situation was causing my “group member”.
“We can stay here, wait for you to go over the bridge, then we cross it too once you get to the other side”, I suggested, since the awkward swordsman seemed to have lost his ability to form proper sentences, but simply shake and open and close his mouth.
“…Can’t do”, the tall man answered, his smile dying down a little.
“Because I am the leader, and I am saying so”, he turned completely serious, and stepped closer to me, overshadowing me with his height, quite literally, since the light-carrier was behind him.
The air turned dense with tension, things had gone in the least desirable direction.
Thankfully, before the situation could escalate even more, the mage with dark bags under his eyes intervened:
“We’d lose too much time if everyone had to cross the natural bridge, and the Wind Blessing is only available for a few hours a day, we would not reach it in time. So, please, take the stream path.”
“I see…”, I replied, accepting a shinny orange feather he pulled from the ornaments of his spear. And since the swordsman seemed to have somewhat recomposed himself with the explanation, I also decided to let it all slide, and started to move away from Arapaima’s group.
I hadn’t gone too far away in the stream path, before I heard whispers behind me, and took a quick glimpse:
“Don’t overstep my leadership, apprentice”, it was Arapaima, holding down the whole head of the annoyed-looking mage with a single hand.
“Yes… young master.”
“D- Do you think are there monsters in here?”, the swordsman asked, looking all around, and walking uncomfortably close to me.
“In this cave? Probably. In this specific region of the cave? I doubt, it’s too close to the surface, and Arapaima’s group seems to come here with some frequency”, the question stirred the curiosity I’ve been keeping in check from the beginning of the day, however. “Oh! Do you think that the monsters here are blind, and depend exclusively on sound and touch, or that they have really big eyes to see in the dark?”
“Hiii! Le- Let’s not talk about monsters…”
“What do you like to talk about, then?”
“Medicine!”, the awkward swordsman seemed, for once, not paranoid, but displayed a pleasing smile.
“That sounds cool”, I haven’t found a topic I didn’t like to learn about yet. “So, do you want to close wounds, and stuff?”
“Hiii! No, no, no, no! I can’t deal with b- b- blood!”, the swordsman stopped in his tracks, vehemently shaking both hands in negative.
“I see… What’s you name, again?”, I asked, buying some time to throw the light around, and find inspiration for something inoffensive to talk about.
“Strike, Of The B- B- Bloodstain Clan…”
“Ike is perfect! And you?”
“Skyblue Coyote. Coyote is fine”, I finally found something that shouldn’t be scary to that person: “Oh! Look at that, a lake!”, the body of water was crystal clear under the light of the feather I held. “Do you like crayfish? Even if you do, you shouldn’t try to pet them, you kn-”
“HIII!”, the swordsman screamed behind me.
Was that topic also too scary?!
Turning around, I noticed that Ike wasn’t scared of the lake however. But the things in the opposite side of that space: people’s bones. And a pair of glowing red eyes in the darkness.
“Oh, they have normal-sized eyes…”