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Title - Unintended: A Tale of Clumsy Matchmaking and the Value of Custom Boots
Rating - T/PG-13

Chapter 9 – Forest

The horse tracks weren’t at all difficult to follow. The animal had been running at full speed and the ground was still soft from the rain they’d had a few days prior. None of that even mattered; Kurogane had a sneaking suspicion that he knew where the trail would lead, muddy hoof prints or no.

The Irtat Forest.

It wasn’t a place Kurogane would normally go. And even though Fai was impressively quick, Kurogane wouldn’t recommend he go either, certainly not alone, as he appeared to have done.

After an hour of hard riding, he pulled his horse to a stop and let out a low growl.
It wasn’t often that Kurogane was disappointed to learn that he was right. Before him stood an expansive forest towering above the adjacent landscape. Wrapped chest high on the outer line of trees were twine ropes laced with weathered strips of once colorful cloth – the ancient wards that kept the horrific creatures that dwelled within the forest’s borders from entering town.

Kurogane was going to punch the idiot’s lights out when he found him. “I told him this place was dangerous!” he grumbled beneath his breath. More clearly, he said, “Hey! Pork bun! What did that guy say before he left?”

“Fai said he needed to look into something for his research. He’s gone on short trips before, but Fai always returns when he says he will.”

“Until now.”

“Yes.” The white thing managed to look remorseful. When they’d first met, Kurogane would have never thought a weird little creature like this could have such depth of emotion.

“This isn’t your fault.”

“But Mokona could have gone with Fai. Or told Kurogane sooner.”

“And I should have realized his plan, but there’s no point in worrying about what-ifs.”

Kurogane nudged his horse forward, but the animal shied back a few steps. He dismounted, fully intending to lead the horse past the border on foot, but the two men following him were having an even harder time with their mounts.

The idiot’s brother said, “Kyle, you must stay here with the horses. Kurogane-san and I will proceed on foot from here.”

The guard looked like he wanted to protest leaving his lord in the (apparently dubious) hands of a recent acquaintance, but the prince gave him a withering look and the guard remained silent.

“Worry not. My brother trusts this man and therefore, I do as well.”

Kurogane didn’t waste time asking how the man could possibly know whether or not Fai trusted him.

The lord answered the unspoken question anyway. “My brother wouldn’t allow anyone to get close enough to care for him as you obviously do if he didn’t trust you.”

Kurogane ignored the comment.

The guard pulled a bow from behind his saddle and the quiver of arrows from his belt and handed them to his lord. Kurogane could only hope the man knew how to use them as he passed his reins off to the foreign guardsman and strode into the forest.

The air was noticeably cooler within the deep shade of the forest, but that was hardly the most prominent feature of the place. An acorn crunched beneath Kurogane’s boot and the sound seemed to echo in the absence of other noises. There was no skittering of animals through the leaf litter, no buzzing of insects, no birdsong. Not even the wind to rustle the branches of the massive old growth trees.

The deathly quiet made him feel like he was trespassing into a grave, but then, maybe that wasn’t far from the truth. Kurogane’s father had come here with 10 other soldiers. Only one man made it out alive. None of the bodies had been recovered.

The crunch of twigs and leaves beneath his feet, and those of his hanger on, were thunderous by comparison. Conversation was not only unwanted and out of place, but possibly outright dangerous. Every step screamed, “intruders are here – come and attack!” Both the other man and the pork bun caught on quickly and neither tried to engage in any more talking.

Despite the quiet, there was no doubt the forest was populated. The trail they were on was not the result of human activity. Maybe it would be safer with fewer people. Less noise. Less human scent.

The hoof prints were more difficult to make out here. Much of the recent rain would have pooled a few drops at a time on the leaves high above and the drier ground was not as willing to leave good tracks, but Kurogane knew what to look for (disturbed leaves here, a partial print there) and lead the way at a brisk pace.

Based on when Fai left the Kinomoto manor and how long it took to get here, the man must have been in this forest for days. Kurogane could imagine him, huddled alone in the dark of night, expression bleak seeing as there was no one around to dupe with a fake smile.

Sometime later, with the sun setting and the already dark woods getting even darker, Kurogane came to an abrupt halt. The path he’d been following converged with another. He squinted, then crouched to the ground for a better look. Just beyond the convergence point, Kurogane could make out two incomplete hoof prints, except they weren’t part of a set. They were facing opposite directions. Fai must have come into the forest along this tangent path.

Kurogane stood back up and took one step forward. A twig snapped beneath the weight of his foot. The sound almost seemed to echo. Except it wasn’t an echo. The sound had been too close. Too clear.

He reached a hand to the sword at his hip and turned to indicate to the man behind him to proceed with caution.

Avoiding fallen leaves and twigs was impossible with the low light, but maybe it didn’t matter. The not-echo sounded a second time, then a third. The sun continued to sink. Kurogane squinted into the darkness. Somewhere to his right came a squeak, then a crunch. Kurogane closed his eyes.

Something was alive over there – an animal or monster – definitely not a person. He could feel its life force. A smaller life force was a few dozen paces from the beast.

The larger life force moved slowly toward the smaller one for a minute, then in a burst of speed, the larger caught up. There was another, louder squeak and the smaller life force winked out of existing. Kurogane could imagine the hunter beast crunching its prey down, bones, fur, guts, and all.

Kurogane continued forward and keep his mind on the hunting creature’s location. When it became apparent that whatever type of beast it was, it had no interest in him, he picked up the pace and scanned the remainder of his surroundings for signs of life. He found several. Most were small and certainly none were human – unfortunately. He hoped the idiot had found a good place to shelter through the night. Considering his horse hadn’t bolted until earlier today, chances seemed good that he’d found a safe way to pass the previous nights.

Just enough moonlight filtered through the tree canopy to prevent Kurogane from running into trees. Every once and a while he would squat to the ground and run his fingers across the soil and through the vegetation along the sides of the path, feeling for any sign that would confirm they were still on the right path.

Over the next hour, the whole forest seemed to come alive. The creatures that lived here were all nocturnal, it seemed. Kurogane was just getting used to the sounds when the noise cut off. One second there were soft growls and rustling leaves, sniffing and snorting, the next, the deathly daylight silence was back in full force.

The pork bun shouted a half warning, then it was there. A massive life force. A giant, hulking shadow of pure black blocking the way ahead. How had it made its way through the forest without a sound? Could it fly? Was it a remnant of some ancient magic? Was this the type of demon that had killed his father?

There was a whoosh of air and Kurogane threw himself back as the beast lashed out. Between the tight trees, the low light, and Fai’s brother behind him with skills unknown, this was going to get complicated.

Kurogane threw himself into the fight and made a wide, sweeping stoke with his sword in an attempt to both wound the creature and to draw all its attention to himself.

The beast let out a thunderous roar and turned to attack Kurogane.

For as large as the monster was, it could move with far more agility than expected. Kurogane was a fraction too slow and received a burning slash of claws across his torso. He could feel a trickle of blood across his chest and down his abdomen.

To his side, the foreign lord leapt back a few paces and launched an arrow into the beast. He wasn’t a bad fighter – he was better than the kid, though that was expected purely on the basis of age – but he was nowhere near as skilled as his brother. Knowing he was first in line for the throne, he’d probably spent a lot more time with academic tutors and governmental advisors than his less politically ambitious brother.

Kurogane paused a moment to wait for the other man’s next arrow. They stood a better chance of defeating the monster if they coordinated their attacks.

The man loosed and Kurogane sprung forward while the beast was momentarily distracted with the arrow. They continued in that manner until the other man yelled, “this is my last!”

It was going to be down to Kurogane to finish this. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the other man dodging blows with less and less success. The man took a solid hit, crashed into the forest floor, and struggled to rise.

Sensing his prey was weak, the beast ignored Kurogane as much as possible, brushing off his attacks like a man batting away a fly. Their relative success to this point was based on their combined efforts. He needed to execute his strongest attack technique, but if he’d had time for the Hama You-ou Jin, he would have done so already.

He did the only thing he could. He skidded into place between the monster and Fai’s brother, prepared to take the beast head on.

He braced for an impact that never came. For some unthinkable reason, the monster wheeled in the opposite direction. Kurogane seized the opportunity. There wouldn’t be another.

Knees bent, stance wide for stability, Kurogane brought his sword before him, blade parallel with the ground. He focused his mind, the strength coursing through his veins. Bending his elbow, he drew the sword behind his ear. Power resonated through his body, shook his bones. With a guttural cry, he swung forward, unleashing the full force of his attack on the distracted monster. The Hama You-ou Jin pulsed through the air like the wings of the hawk the technique was named for.

The attack hit and the beast screamed, then fell to the forest floor with enough force to make the ground heave. Kurogane dropped to one knee, drained of energy, the pain of his injuries flaring to life.

The body of the monster shimmered in the moonlight for a brief second, then seemed to dissolve into the air itself as though it had no substance. Kurogane didn’t have time to consider what that meant. Beyond the space where the monster used to be, stood the familiar outline of a lanky blond. A torn piece of shirt hung awkwardly from the man’s arm, but he held himself in the same self-assured posture that he’d sported when the two of them first met. Back then, Kurogane had been annoyed by the man’s very presence. He wasn’t annoyed now.

For Fai to be where he was meant he had single handedly distracted the beast. He didn’t even appear to have a weapon and yet there he stood as if what he’d done was no big deal. Kurogane was more than just not annoyed. He was relieved. And…and something else too. Then the man hobbled forward a few steps. Kurogane sucked in a sudden breath, lungs burning from an apparent lack of oxygen. Fai bent down and retrieved a reasonably straight and sturdy branch, which he then used to support himself as he continued to limp forward.

“Fai! You’re hurt!” Mokona sprang from its place with the Jashari heir and onto Fai’s shoulder.

“I’ll be okay. It’s just a sprain.” He patted Mokona on the head and turned to face Kurogane. “I fell. In a sinkhole of all things. Were you worried about me?”

Kurogane prepared himself to deny it, but it was hard to do, not only because he’d obviously come searching for the man, but because the idiot looked like he was giving him a genuine smile for once. It was short-lived. His gaze shifted as his brother finally stood back up.

“What are you doing here?”

Kurogane had believed the man when he said he didn’t mean his brother any harm. Now he wasn’t so sure. If he meant his twin harm, Kurogane wouldn’t hesitate. He would—

“You know why. It’s time to come home. Father’s time is growing short.”

“All the more reason for you to have remained by his side!”

“I had to come in person. I knew you would just evade any messengers I might send. I know what you think you’re doing, but—”

“I have a solid lead this time. I’m sure of it.”

“Chasing legends and myths is not going to help our people! Just look around. You really think the answer will be found in a place like this?”

“You know I can’t go back home. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“You won’t.”

“You can’t know that.”

Kurogane had no clue what they were talking about, but one thing was clear. “We don’t have time for this. We’re leaving. Now. Before another of those things shows up.”

Fai began a slow limp back the way Kurogane had come, but Kurogane was completely out of patience. He hefted the man off the ground, and when he received not so much as a peep from the idiot, he found himself wishing the other man felt well enough to tease Kurogane about his muscles.

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