Nara slowed down as she gasped for the fresh forest air. Her lungs burned and her throat felt like a tight knot. Her legs couldn’t keep running even if she tried.
“Hold…hold up,” she said, panting and trying to regain her breath. Tarnan stopped abruptly beside her, sending chunks of grass flying from his feet.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. His voice was strong and fresh.
“I’m… way out of shape. I’ve… been spending too much time reading… not enough exercise. Give me a minute while I… I… regenerate some energy. Then… we can continue our chase for that damned girl,” said Nara as she fought to regain her breath.
The forest was thick at the base of the Jin-Shaw Mountains, and yet bright sunlight still managed to pierce the pinnias tree ceiling. The trees around Nara and Tarnan swayed in the wind, and their once-closed pine needles had recently opened into wide leaves to celebrate the arrival of the Season of Fire. The sweet smell of the pinnias leaf trees danced throughout the forest, blending with the musk of wildlife and the delicate smell of blooming flowers.
Nara slammed her palm onto the ground, and closed her eyes. The grass around her started to tremble. Strands of light purple threads flowed towards Nara from each blade of grass, each strand thin and translucent. The magical threads spun around her body, and sped around her with each second, until finally coming close enough to pierce her body. But there was no violence in this act, and Nara jumped up, feeling full of energy as she wiggled her shoulders and shook each leg off.
“Next time, instead of relying on magic—”
“Shut up. I’m an Arconic Monk and I’ll use magic whenever I need to. Do you mind telling me how many people outside the temples can do what I just did? Now come on, let’s find that gods-forsaken thief. My legs are growing restless,” said Nara. They picked up their short spears, and resumed their pursuit down the seldom-used forest road.
The brother to the King of Jin-Shaw, Prince Zulfus, was going to visit Innia, the temple-village high up the mountains. There was a small problem, though. The temple that Nara and Tarnan served was known for being able to bake the Bread of Tranquility, a rare treat that was reserved for royal visits. The special mix of mountain herbs, spices, magically infused water, and even the peculiarity of the air itself was said to go into the making of the Bread. Whoever ate the entire thing would feel profound inner peace for a quarter-season, until it wore off. Prince Zulfus was particularly looking forward to this despite the dangerous journey to Innia, and he only made the trek once a year. In return, he shared some of his coin with the temple. The King’s unfavorable attitude towards Arconic temples had made Innia desperate, lest it would fall to disrepair and ruin.
Instead of magic bread, the temple only had a sorry story of how a little girl ran off with the most expensive bread in all of Jin-Shaw.
“Will we be back in time to greet Prince Zulfus?” Nara asked. The dry pine needles that littered the forest road crunched with each step of their stride.
“The mountain road is a difficult one. Journeying to a place of worship could instead send you straight to the gods themselves. I’m sure he’ll take his time—” Tarnan replied. He halted. “There. Look.”
“It won’t be long until we find her now,” Nara said.
The two Monks found small footprints that broke the pine needles, and across the road in a seemingly hasty dash. Nara and Tarnan followed them off the path. The footprints were difficult to track now, but fresh pieces of broken shrubs made it certain that the girl was nearby. Tarnan lay down and placed his ear against the soft grass floor. He closed his eyes. A purple light glowed where his ear touched the ground. He spoke in bits and pieces as he listened to what the ground had to say.
“Rapid heart rate. Breathing suppressed. She’s not moving much. Scratch that, now she’s completely still. Hiding. But not from us. Something has her attention. I can hear something not far from her…hooves? Perhaps light horses, or heavy deer. No, definitely metal horseshoes.”
He picked up his spear and sprinted forward. Nara was dazed for a moment with his surprising speed, and tried to follow him as best she could. But Tarnan was a student of wind magic, and could dash between points faster than a horse could sprint. Until he stopped, Nara could not catch up to him.
“For someone who scolds me for relying on magic, you’re all too eager to use it yourself, Tarnan,” she mumbled.
Tarnan’s whirlwind path flew towards the direction of the mountain road, but the forest would still be thick for hours if traversed by foot. Soon Tarnan saw the main forest path, well tread and beaten in.
Terrible sounds broke the silence of the forest as he neared the road. He heard a fearful shriek from a horse, followed by the sound of its body dropping to the ground with a dull thump. The angry shouts of men and the clashing of swords against metal and wooden shields rang in the air. He couldn’t see the violence, as a small hill blocked his view. On that hill before the road sat a girl who clutched something under her rags, and looked at the source of the sounds below her. Tarnan knew the girl—the thief at the temple. His desire to confront her vanished once he clearly heard one of the voices from the skirmish ahead.