Chapter 33:

032 ┃ Waiting Game

The Isle of the Forgotten

After taking a couple of days to stock up and prepare, they left the house at dawn. Aware that they would have to spend at least one night away from home, Spud bid farewell to Lion with a tight hug, assuring him that they would return soon.

They reached the city around midday and decided to stop on the outskirts for a while to eat and rest. They had left the houses and cobblestone streets behind, and now there was only forest. While Dawn was making the fire, Spud looked closely at the map.

"We shouldn't linger too long. In theory, there's a village right before we get to the sanctuary, but I wouldn't want the night to fall while we're out here," Spud said.

"Okay," replied Dawn, not very enthusiastic. Spud was aware that she wasn't thrilled about the trip and was making an effort for his sake. He would have to thank her later. "By the way, I need some bigger logs for the fire. Could you go and get a few?"

Spud got up right away, folding the map. If it could help them reach their destination sooner, he was more than willing.

"Sure. I'll be right back," he said, obediently.

With a clear objective in mind, Spud began to gather sticks quickly. It wasn't easy, as the snow reached nearly to his knees. He still wondered how Dawn could start a fire so quickly in a cold, wet place like this. It was truly incredible.

A faint noise made him suddenly alert, his hand on the hilt of his sword. It sounded like a voice, but distorted to the point of being frightening. Spud cautiously approached the source of the noise until he reached the entrance to a cave. It was so dark he could barely see a few feet inside.

Spud drew his sword and slowly approached. The sound had stopped, but it had definitely come from there. Could it be a survivor?

Just as he was about to enter, a long-clawed limb emerged from the darkness to attack him. Spud only had time to jump back with a cry of surprise. He fell to the ground and quickly grabbed his sword again.

Dawn was by his side in a matter of seconds, alerted by the shout. She crouched down in front of Spud.

"Are you okay?" she asked with concern.

Spud nodded, still startled.

"Look at that," he said, pointing into the cave. From the darkness, the figure of a stalker moved restlessly. "Why isn't it attacking us?"

The girl moved closer to get a better look.

"It can't come out," she said, pointing to the shadow line that separated the cave from them. "It's trapped there until night falls."

Spud watched in amazement as the stalker tried to come out to attack them but retreated every time the light touched its skin. It was strange to observe the monsters they were always running from with such security.

It was large and lanky, with elongated limbs ending in sharp claws.

"Isn't that...?" Spud began.

"The one from the castle," Dawn interrupted, serious. "I thought it had died from the fall, but it looks like it survived. Its hand even grew back."

Spud stood up from the ground, amazed. From where they stood, the stalker was no more dangerous than a fly. Still, he felt a chill being in its presence.

"Should we kill it?" asked Spud, gripping his sword tightly.

"There's no need. It's risky to fight, and by the time night falls, we'll be far from here. It's best to ignore it," argued the girl.

Still breathing heavily, Spud sheathed his sword. Dawn was right.

They retreated back to the fire, but Spud couldn't shake the unease of knowing a stalker was nearby.

After eating, they continued northward. As they progressed, they gained altitude and the terrain became increasingly desolate and snow-covered. The few trees along the way were either leafless or blanketed in snow, giving the place a stark appearance.

After hours of walking, they finally arrived. It was nothing more than a small village with fewer than twenty houses, but it should serve them for the night.

"The sanctuary should be less than an hour from here. Since it's already late, we'll spend the night in this village and explore tomorrow morning," said Spud excitedly as he looked at the map.

Dawn walked down the street, sinking her feet into the snow with each step. The snow was falling heavily, and it didn't seem like it would stop anytime soon.

"I don't like the feel of this place," the girl commented, approaching a nearby house. The door and windows were shattered. "You say the place where people are supposed to be is nearby, but this place is as ruined as the rest of the island."

Spud joined his companion.

"That doesn't mean anything. This village was probably already in ruins when the king and the others passed through. Trust me. I know we'll find answers," the boy assured, excitedly.

Dawn just sighed.

Dawn and Spud lay together in bed. They had quickly found a house in decent condition and decided to spend the night there. They had removed the skeletons inside at Spud's request, but otherwise, it was a cozy house.

A sound in the distance made Dawn open her eyes instantly. It lasted no more than a second, but she was sure she had heard it. Alert, she sprang from the bed and stealthily approached the window.

With one hand, she pulled back the curtain slightly to see what was outside. Though it was night, she instantly recognized the silhouette of the stalker walking through the village, and her skin prickled. It was the same stalker trapped in the cave.

How did it know where they were? It must have followed their trail once night fell. She cursed under her breath for not having killed it when she had the chance.

As if hearing her thoughts, the stalker turned its head towards her. Dawn quickly closed the curtain, hoping it hadn't seen her. Nevertheless, it was already too late to ignore it.

She approached the bed and shook Spud forcefully. The boy muttered unintelligible words, still deep in sleep. Dawn slapped him awake.

"Spud, listen to me. There's a stalker outsi..." she began, but couldn't finish.

The bedroom window shattered as the monster lunged at them. With a swift move, Dawn pulled Spud from the bed and dragged him to the living room.

"We have to fight. Quick!" she yelled, running for her spear.

Spud, now fully awake, grasped the situation and grabbed his sword as fast as he could.

The stalker didn't stop. It burst from the room like a rocket, destroying doors and furniture in its path. Spud tried to attack it with his sword, but the monster blocked his strike with its claws and threw him across the room, breaking the dining table.

"I'm okay," Spud quickly reassured.

The stalker now lunged at Dawn, who brandished her spear, looking at it with disdain. The girl tried to strike, but her long weapon kept hitting the low ceiling or the furniture. She could only manage to defend.

When she realized she couldn't win this way, she dashed for the door and ran outside, pursued by the monster. With the opportunity to attack, Dawn tried to defeat the stalker with her spear. However, it moved much faster than when they had faced off in the castle. Not only that, but it seemed to be adapting to her fighting style, predicting where she would strike each time. Had it learned?

After a few seconds of defense, the monster took the initiative. It lunged at Dawn, claws forward, slashing rapidly to cut her. The girl barely managed to block the creature's strikes. It was undoubtedly more aggressive.

A whistling sound pierced the distance, causing both Dawn and the stalker to turn. From afar, Spud shot an arrow straight into the monster's torso, making it screech in pain. Before he could finish it off, the beast left Dawn and sprinted toward Spud at full speed.

"Watch out!" Dawn warned urgently.

Taken by surprise, the boy dropped the bow and tried to draw his sword just as the stalker pounced on him, sending blood flying through the air.

A. Hoshino