Legends of Varlaurea: The Dragon Emperor - 61 THE GREY MAIDEN 3

Chapter 3: Strangers in the wood

With the new information from the inn's receptionist, Prince Tua wondering what does these strangers doing here, does they have something to do with these missing and gatherings in the wood? After settling in to their room and a quick lunch, Prince Tua call his bodyguard to his room to plan their course of action.

"So… the first thing we'll focus on is these so called strange gatherings in the forest. But all we known was, there are mysterious gathering in the wood, and there's no information about where these gathering took place. And if what the receptionist just told us is true. I think these strangers might have something to do with the situation, we've to look out for them while searching too, if we encounter any of these individuals, we'll have to apprehended them. So we'll started here…" Prince Tua pointed at a wooded area south of the village on the map. "we'll sweep this whole area till dusk, searching for any trace of activity has occurred there and continue in tomorrow until the whole area has been surveyed. If nothing was found we'll move to the western part."

"But Your Highness, just the three of us?" A bodyguard concerned

"Yah… I know, but if we get more people, we'll drawn attention. We'll get to the southern hilltop first, surveying the wood from a high ground and pick out point of high potential first, and started with them. So that'll eased our workload." Prince Tua scratching his cheek

After that, with a few bags of water they rode to the southern forest of the village. After 10 minutes, they reached the southern hill, on the top of the hill overlooking the southern wood, sweeping their eyes over the woodland, surveying the area before venturing in. The woodland's vegetation isn't very dense, and its acreage is not very large either, dotted the landscape were a few large patch of meadows, rock formations and caves. They quickly located a few rock formations that potentially can be a place for gathering or hideout place for those strangers and started they search at the nearest location to them. Tied their velelises to a large tree nearby, then head downhill into the forest. The first three locations came up empty, but then at the fourth location, in a cave created by an overlapping rock formation, one of the bodyguard found a remnant of a campfire, fresh animal bone piled up in a corner and crumbs of bread.

"How long do you think this campfire has been here?" Prince Tua ask the bodyguard

"I'm not so sure Your Highness, but I think it's just recently, a week top, and with the amount of ash in it, it's must be used multi times." The bodyguard said

Assessing the cave, Prince Tua find it was perfect to be a hideout, the cave's chamber doesn't run deep but with room enough for four to five person, formed by many large and flat boulders overlapping each other, created a nature roof, shielded the inhabitants from nature, surrounded it was many thick bushes and boulders, from the ground level none will think there is a cave chamber in here, they'd only spotted it while observing the area on the hilltop. Then the other bodyguard spotted another clue, a trail of multi set of footprints leading away of the cave. The trail is fresh, likely had been here only for no more than an hour, someone had definably taken resident here in cave and Prince Tua and his company's present in the area has spooked those people. The trail leading into the woods, when Prince Tua was considering if he should follow the trail, his eyes caught something. Among some tall bushes, from some dozens of lias away, there's a tall figure staring at him. The prince sprang forward, giving chase as the figure retreating into the tree bush after realized it'd been spotted. By the magical power inherited from his parent, Prince Tua quickly reached the bush where the figure was in just a few leap. But there's nothing to be found, how can that be? Where did the figure go? Was Prince Tua's eyes just play trick to his mind? Prince Tua looking around in confusion, then realized, on the ground next to his feet, there is a pair of fresh footprint, someone has indeed been there.

After a minute or two for the two bodyguards catch up with the prince. After Prince Tua explained what he saw, the bodyguards are as stump as the prince, the footprint is there, it's fresh, but where's the person this footprint belongs to? There're no other footprint or any sight that shown someone just run off into the woods. Prince Tua thinking for a minute, then told his bodyguards to spread out, but still keep each other within eyesight, to find more clue, he told them to pay attention to the stem of the surrounding trees. And so they search, and not for too long, one of the bodyguard spotted a clue on the tree stem at three o'clock from due north and from about four to five lias from the mysterious footprint. Fresh moist dirt stuck on the tree bark, this proved Prince Tua's conclusion that the person who that footprint belongs to is a mage, he must have had use magic to control his body weight and jump from tree to tree to escape into the woods without leave behind footprint. Follow that line of deduction, they quickly found more of similar clues on the trees. But eventually the dirk trail on the tree bark ended, though Prince Tua still can deduced the general direction of the mysterious person, but nothing to say that person don't changed his or her direction. Should they spread out to find more clue? Prince Tua wonder, but from when they started to follow these dirt trails he'd a feeling of being watch. Moreover, what's the intention of these individuals? How many are they? Are they malicious or not? He doesn't know, spread out and fumbling in the wood like these won't be a good idea. Therefore, Prince Tua told the two bodyguard to kept close and guard him while he meditated.

Like all mage, Prince Tua can feel the present of other through the Qigun field. This ability usually being use passively, only when the other partisan was using magic and in a close proximity, and the more powerful the magic being use is the easier it can be sense from a longer distant. But to actively searching for other without the other be using magic, Prince Tua need to meditated, to closed all his earthly senses and tuning his mind to the Qigun field around him. It's like to see but instead with eyes he sees the surrounding environment with his mind, feel the vibration of energy around him. Eventually, a picture of fuzzing shapes made of vibrating qigun energy starting to developing in his mind, at first he can only felt the present of the two bodyguard near him, and the longer he meditating the range of his view wider. He can feel every living things and non-living things surrounding him, from the weak vibrating of a rock, to the steady hum on the forest trees, to the energetic vibration of a deer foraging for food nearby. And then, in just a flash of second, some dozens of lias away from where he meditating, a strong vibration came into his view, so strong that it's stand out from all the background energy and can only come from a mage. But it's not the only one, there were two more of such vibration, then they gradually dissipate, but not because they disappeared, more like… they're moving away from Prince Tua.

It's seem whoever were watching them had realized what Prince Tua is doing and trying to flee. The prince sprang up and head to the direction of the vibrations while his bodyguards are struggling to keep up. And not for too long, Prince Tua can saw figures moving amidst the trees, three of them, dressed in clothing style that Prince Tua can't recognized, covered from head to toes and wearing conical hat with veil. They're moving fast, knowing Prince Tua is in pursuit, to engaging them all is a bad idea, the prince is alone, his bodyguards had been left behind and there're no way they can catch up with the speed of a mage. All Prince Tua can, is try to catch just one of them, with his magic, the prince clapped his palms on the forest ground mumbling a spell, aimed at the one at the rear of that group of strangers. Slight tremor shook the ground and the trees roots shoot up from the earth and bound the feet of the stranger, made that stranger fell over. The other quickly stop and help their comrade, while Prince Tua closing in.

The Prince can barely come any close to them, he has to took cover behind a tree while a barrage of dirt, rock, tree branches and a few fireballs hurling toward him at the speed of an arrow by the magic of one of those strangers. After a few second the bounded person had torn off the tree root binding and they quickly took off into the wood. Prince Tua leave his cover to trying to give pursuit again, but one of the stranger turn toward the prince, behind that stranger's veil booms a mighty roar, Prince Tua was knocked back a few lias by the shockwave of that stranger's roar. Right the second his back smack to the forest floor, the ground just gave in, sunk down several dozen liacens (1 liacen = 1 centimetre) created a shallow hole and swallowed haft of the prince's upper body. Then with their telekinesis, those strangers dumping a load of dirt into the hole and on top of the prince. When the two bodyguards caught up and help Prince Tua get out of that earth hole, those strangers were gone.

"Highness, it's already late noon, I think we should head back." A bodyguard said

"Ugh… yah, I think I have enough of action for today." Prince Tua groaned washing dirt off his face and eyes

The three men, climb their way back to the hilltop where they left the velelises, but before they can untie their ride and head back, there a young woman rush out from a nearby bush approaching them. Her eyes look lively, so Prince Tua can certain that she's not one of those villager, but her face look worry and scared, her head kept turning left and right as if she watching out for something. She pacing quickly toward the three men and before Prince Tua can say anything.

"Get out of here!" she spoke with a subdued voice, so only she and the men can hear

"I'm sorry, what?" Prince Tua said

"Get out! It's for yours own sake." The young woman spoke, emphasized the words "get out". Then, with the message delivered she pacing downhill toward Saida.

"Well… thanks for the late message, anyway." Prince Tua smiled, watching her head popping down the hill

By the time they got back to Saida, dusk has set and cool wind starting to pick up, large clusters of grey cloud are rolling in from the south, what left of the twilight sunray desperately squeezing through any gap between the clouds to reach the earth. Under the fading light slowly being swallowed by the thick veil of cloud blanketed above, those "welcoming" eyes of the villagers are even more unsettling for their nerve. They quickly retreated to the inn, Prince Tua order a hot bath and dinner through a worker at the inn, because the receptionist from earlier is nowhere to be found.

When he came back to his room from the relaxing hot bath, Prince Tua found a set of dinner has already place on the table in his room. It's was a simple meal, with a dish of stir fired veggies, a slice of braised snakehead fish, a bowl of tofu and meatball soup, and a medium bowl of rice. Although simple meal but must be very well cook, because the smell of the food is killing Prince Tua stomach. He digs right in without hesitation, but after a few bite, he finds the taste slightly… strange, not in a bad way nor the food were badly prepared or anything just… strange. Prince Tua shrugged and continue not thinking much of it, "probably over seasoning, can't demand too much from country cooking" he thought. Beside, after all that walking and chasing, his brain is no longer have the strength to resist his stomach's demand. So he eats, and the whole thing gone within minutes.

After stuffed his stomach, the prince laying on the bed relaxing, picking his teeth with a toothpick and listen to the rain outside the window. He reviewing what he has encountered in the wood this noon, especially those strangers. There something familiar about them, Prince Tua was not very sure, is it their clothing? He never saw anyone dress like that, at the least in recent memory. So why he has the feeling he has saw… well… their hat style somewhere before. "Yes, those stranger's hat look kind of familiar" Prince Tua thinks while letting out a big yawn and find his mind became more and more drowsy. Why's he felt so drowsy? the sun just set not too long ago, he can't be this tired, he also has been through heavy training with the military, just a little walking and running can't drain him that much. But he can think clear anymore, his body is totally giving up and slip into the cosy embrace of slumber.