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“Did mosquitoes ever sleep?” he wondered. There were creatures who rose with the sun every morning, their strength fueled by that golden orb’s warmth. There were fiends of the night, monsters and demons and animals who prowled the darkness. There were even beasts who slept through the winter, their eyes shut against the cold and barren world. Even Maugoru needed rest, or so Adrian assumed. Insects did not sleep. The first frost of each year pushed the bugs onto new courses for warmer weather and smothered those left behind. On nights like this, in the middle of summer, it was easy to forget that men and women ruled this world. For, when they fell silent, the ever present bug buzz held dominion over the land. It was this buzzing that nudged Adrian back into his senses, nightmares of the burning forest replaced by the soft light of the Rangers’ medical house.
He could still feel the tingle of smoke in the back of his throat, a reminder of the danger he’d been pulled from. He swatted a mosquito away from his face and took stock of the room. Of the two dozen beds, not a single one was left empty. Stargems, crystals suffused with the luminescent sap from Kolorian Yellowbark Trees, filled the room with a dull blue glow. The stargems cast long shadows across everything in sight, from people down to the crawling creatures of the night. Most of the other occupants were asleep, the drone of their snoring intermingled with the buzz of the insects. The Beast still lived. Adrian didn’t need to see the end of the battle or hear the howling to know that Maugoru still roamed the forest. When the Rangers had been formed three decades prior by the Kolorian Council, it had been to serve as stewards to Kolor’s forest. They were meant to harvest yellowbark sap for stargems and keep the six roads through the forest clear. They were not an army built to hunt down and exterminate evil. Many of the first Rangers had been botanists, untrained in any form of combat. Now, most of the new recruits had spent their childhoods playing with makeshift bows and arrows, and all of them were eager to tangle with Maugoru.
Adrian swung a hand at another mosquito hovering beneath his nostrils. It buzzed away, off to vampirize one of the other medical house denizens. His wounds ached with the sudden movement. At some point in the fight, he must have been hit over the head. A knot had formed at the back of his skull and begun to throb. He’d be dealing with that headache for the next few days. He was grateful to be alive though. It wouldn’t have been the first time someone was left to the wolf pack in the midst of a hasty retreat. He closed his eyes and felt himself slipping back into the folds of slumber. The same mosquito drone that tore him out of sleep now lulled him back into its sweet embrace.
* * * * * * * *
Eight men, four women and the little girl. Thirteen survivors in all. Adrian drew a sharp intake of breath as Dorian, head medic in the Rangers, applied ointments and bandages to his myriad of wounds. The claw scrapes across his chest. Cuts on his hands and neck from his tumble out of the trees. A couple of light burns from the fire. All to save thirteen people. By the time Adrian woke again, most of the beds had been emptied, those survivors with minor injuries having been taken to different lodgings for the night.
Baron Harkley had lived through the chaos, to Adrian’s surprise. While his men died in the dirt, the Baron had grabbed hold of the little girl and slid behind the final line of defense. A smart move, but one driven by cowardice. As soon the wolves attacked, he forgot all about the girl and ran. Now he sat with Captain Orly, demanding that he and his countrymen be allowed into the city immediately. Never mind the wall sentries and their charge to keep the forest gates closed from dusk till dawn. These were the Council’s honored guests. At least that’s how Harkley argued with the Rangers who rescued him. Eventually they just shoved him into Captain Orly’s treehouse and went about their business.
The Forest Rangers Guild had spent the past thirty years building up their personal forest enclave. Comprised of large tree houses, wooden watchtowers, and suspended huts, the Rangers’ camp was a bastion of security amidst a forest full of danger. Adrian had seen the headquarters for most of the other Kolorian Guilds, and the Rangers maintained one of the best. This was in spite of their limited membership.
Nearly a hundred potential recruits volunteered every year to serve with the Rangers, but the forest guild never accepted more than a dozen or so. Enthusiasm only got a person so far when training to jump from trees and handle a bow. Only the most able-bodied and well-sighted volunteers were accepted as recruits. Only the best among those men and women completed the year-long training process. The Forest Rangers of Kolor hadn’t been conceived of as a military force, but they had grown formidable in the years since their beginning. Even Maugoru had been deterred from mounting a direct assault on the camp, though he had encroached upon its borders several times.
Adrian winced as Dorian wrapped the final bandage around his torso. The man in the bed directly across from them moaned and rolled over. Several of the survivors had suffered severe burns and bite wounds. One of the women had nearly lost an eye to the wolves. It was common knowledge among all the surrounding cities that the Kolorian Forest was beleaguered by Maugoru and his pack. On top of that, Captain Orly had personally sent a carrier pigeon to the Baron’s castle. No one could argue whether it was Baron Harkley’s fault that his people had been put in danger. Yet those killed in the attack had not been avenged, and for Adrian, that blame rested solely with the Rangers. More specifically, his own failure was to blame.
When he had fired the arrow at Maugoru, his aim had been true. Had the arrow struck the beast, the creature would have fallen. However, if Maugoru could be defeated so easily, some other Ranger would have killed the monster years ago. Adrian had hoped to catch Maugoru off guard, but the wind still protected the beast. Some Kolorians claimed the wind protected Maugoru of its own accord. Others said Maugoru wasn’t a wolf at all, but an air spirit that flowed through dead wolf carcasses, controlling their movements. A few foreigners had grown afraid of stepping outside after an attack, fearful that Maugoru was the wind itself.
Adrian had ruled out most of the rumors. Any fool could figure out that Maugoru wasn’t the wind. Otherwise every breeze would be an attack and there would be no people left. The wolves were alive, Adrian knew that much because he could kill them. If he hit them enough or in the right spot, they would not rise again. Maugoru had been wounded before, though never seriously. That meant two things to Adrian. First, it meant that his protection was impenetrable, and that he could be wounded again. The second fact was this: anything that could be wounded could be killed.
Adrian rose from the bed and stretched his legs. Maugoru would live to plague the forest for another night, but they had saved thirteen lives. Moist summer air greeted him as he stepped outside. A firefly floated lazily past his face as he looked around. The treehouses always put his mind at peace. Most of them were dark now, but a few still leaked blue light from their windows. The soft glow of the stargems pulled his thoughts away from the smoke and the fire. Away from Maugoru’s wicked smile as the beast leapt from the trees.
Adrian took one of the rope ladders down to the lower levels. His injuries bothered him a bit, but not enough to go back to Dorian. Every now and then he would catch a snatch of conversation from an open window as he passed.
“Damn nobility should know better.”
“They’re getting more aggressive.”
“—heard that someone took a shot at the big guy.”
Adrian came to a stop as he reached his hut’s level. Stargems lit the wooden bridge that led to his bed. Adrian followed them, his eye lids getting heavier with each step.
“You should have outposts placed all over this forest! How did you take so long to find us?”
“We would need an army to defend such outposts-“
“You have an army!”
Adrian paused and peered upward. The shouting came from two levels above him. The Captain’s quarters. He had never heard anyone speak to Captain Orly like that before. Adrian hurried across the bridge and ran over to another ladder, climbing as silently as he could. He froze just before he reached the Captain’s level, keeping his breathing shallow.
“You need to keep your voice down. Otherwise you will rouse the entire camp,” said Captain Orly.
“Do you realize how many people I lost tonight? My party set out sixty strong. Now we are just over a dozen, and half of the survivors are maimed.”
“Truthfully,” started the Captain, “you are lucky to have any survivors at all. If you had strayed any farther from the Solar Path, we never would have reached you.”
A dissatisfied grumble came as the only answer from Baron Harkley. The silence stretched on for a minute. Then two. Finally, Captain Orly spoke again.
“In the morning, you will have the opportunity to propose a solution to our canine problem. If you can think of one, I’m sure the council will take it into consideration. I certainly shall.”
“You already have the solution,” said Harkley. “You think we’ve all forgotten about that weapon stashed in your vaults, but I know it’s there. If you’re all too afraid to use it, then give it to me.”
Another silence, this one shorter. Adrian scooted a little farther up the ladder. Now, he could see over the wood ledge and just into the Captain’s window. Both of the men were seated across from each other, a hand carved chestnut desk between them.
“If you know about the weapon, then you know what it stands for. No man or woman has wielded it since the days of the monarchy. Our own citizens don’t even get to view it. You are a foreigner.”
Baron Harley shifted in his seat uncomfortably. Then he spoke, so quietly that Adrian could barely make out the words.
“I saw that monster call the wind. I saw it fling away arrows and stoke fire. And I saw your men flee. How long do think you have until it comes for you here? Until it comes for your city?”
Captain Orly sighed, and the lines on his face grew deeper. “Maugoru isn’t concerned with us. The beast knows its place in this world, and the day that it forgets, the Rangers will be here to remind it.”
Baron Harkley rose from his chair and walked over to the window. Adrian scrambled back down the ladder, deciding he’d spent enough time eavesdropping. One final ominous statement hit his ears as he descended.
“When that day comes, you best be careful Orly. Otherwise, that beast will realize its rightful place is the one you’ve been sitting in.”