THE GODS’ GAMES EXCERPT
Better quality excerpt since this website doesn't let me do indents here.
THE GODS' GAMES EXCERPT
Ben relaxed by the fire with a pointed stick and entertained himself by prodding the embers. Teal milled around behind him, tidying up around the camp and telling Ben various stories of his adventures in Alcove.
It seemed that the poor kid had been alone since he was seven years old. Ben had made a continuing point not to ask Teal any personal questions out of respect for Teal’s emotional state, but he listened intently to his stories to try and get an idea as to just who his new friend was.
This current story was about Teal mugging several travellers when he was thirteen years old. Apparently thievery was one of his favourite things though he never missed a point to insist that he only did it during the winter time when he was starving, or several times when he was sick and needed to buy ingredients to make medicine.
“And I dropped down from the tree while they were sleeping and their damn dog woke up!” Teal said in an excited tone. He appeared beside Ben and handed him a small cloth bag full of dried fruit. “And you know what the dog did?”
“What?” Ben asked, already chewing on a piece of candy pear. He was glad that the fruit in Alcove was somewhat the same.
“Wagged his gods-be-damned tail at me!” Teal laughed. He sat down beside Ben and dug out his own piece of fruit. “He had recognized me when I was in Lampton, when I had fed him that little bit of bacon. He watched me with barely an interest as I lifted those two elves’ coin purses, and didn’t make a peep when I stole their sack of food either!”
Ben chuckled at this and shook his head. He loved Teal’s stories; he had even shared a few of his own. “I used to shoplift from stores but I’ve never pickpocketed someone or something like that. You’ll have to fit that into my teaching schedule.”
“I will!” Teal grinned. He reached in and grabbed another piece of candied fruit, before pausing and giving Ben a devious smile.
Ben narrowed his eyes in return. He might’ve just started to get to know Teal but he knew enough of his friend already to not trust that look.
“I should take you hunting today…” Teal said, his voice trailing but his grin remained.
“I have a better idea!” Ben said in an equally excited voice.
Teal’s face lit up in anticipation
“How about we don’t?” Ben exclaimed.
Teal scowled and lightly pushed him. “Come on, I think it would be a great idea. I’m not talking about hunting lapin or audechts –” Whatever those were, Ben thought. “– just the black squirrels; the meat that you’ve been eating. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some fresh meat tonight?”
Ben sighed and looked down at his sack of dried fruit. “This is fine; the meat, cheese, and oat bread is fine too. Why can’t…”
Teal’s smile disappeared and Ben automatically felt guilty. So with a sigh and a roll of his eyes he nodded. “Alright, Teal, you win – we can go hunting.”
“Great!” Teal jumped to his feet and immediately disappeared behind Ben without another word. The energetic hibrid could be heard behind Ben doing something in the forest but Ben wasn’t sure what. Teal didn’t need Ben for whatever he was doing so Ben went back to poking the fire. If he was going to be hunting squirrels he might as well save his energy for that.
Teal called him from the forest about two hours later. Ben grudgingly got up, his joints still aching from being bedridden for the past week and his body weak from detoxing. It wasn’t near as bad as yesterday though and as he followed Teal’s voice into the woods he started to become more confident with his energy level. His new hibrid body was a lot stronger than his human body; he was starting to realize this more and more.
Teal handed Ben a spear. Just a long, thick branch taken from a silver oak, the top of it whittled to a point. He had one himself and was also carrying a burlap sack that was tucked into the belt he had around his waist.
“Finally a weapon,” Ben said gleefully. As he followed Teal into the woods he found himself balancing the spear with the palm of his hand, moving his body around in order to keep it balanced.
Teal looked behind him and chuckled; he had his dagger in his hand as he sharpened his own spear. “Don’t impale yourself, unless you have another brother on earth I can bring to replace you.” Then he looked in all directions, especially above them. “You won’t need to do much, just be another set of eyes and learn. Watch how I move, be as quiet as possible. The more meat we get in you the better.”
Ben snorted at the innuendo in that comment, and also knowing it would go completely over his new friend’s head. “So you want me to just watch out for the squirrels?” Ben asked, coughing into his hand to hide the smile.
Teal gave him a serious nod and started taking his hard sole leather shoes off. Ben did the same assuming it was something to make them more quiet. “That’s right. If you see one, just make a clicking noise, don’t speak. Click and point, and I’ll take care of the rest. If one is near and you think you can make the shot, do it. Just make sure I’m far, far away from you since I’m sure your aim is awful.” Teal smirked. Ben gave him a glare but decided not to take the bait.
As Ben watched Teal walk through the woods he had to admire how stealthy the hibrid was. Teal stepped over the rocks and green plants around them like he was the weight of a feather. Ben tried to mimic Teal’s stealthy movements but it was like comparing a mouse to an elephant. While he walked tree branches snapped under his shoes and he tripped several times over moss that only had the appearance of being solid. By the time they got to the trees Teal had eyed up, Ben was sure his stomping had scared away every animal in this forest.
“Hey, I see some!” Ben exclaimed. He was so thrilled with seeing something alive that he had forgotten to keep his voice down.
Ben eagerly pointed up to the trees, feeling his pulse quicken with excitement.
The squirrels looked even uglier alive than when they were dead: beady black eyes and incisors an orangey-yellow; they also had oddly huge arms, more like a kangaroo’s than a little rat’s. Ben was enchanted with his own hibrid mind when he found his mouth watering with anticipation. He had no qualms about eating squirrel; on the contrary those little buggers had tasted great on the skewer.
“Let’s get ‘em!” Ben hissed. Teal looked over at him, seemingly perplexed but happy that Ben’s attitude about hunting had taken a complete turn.
“They’re up too high, the branches are too thin that far up,” Teal explained in a kind and patient tone. “We’ll need to find some lower to the ground, and I’ll give it a try then.”
Ben nodded and, more quieter now, he continued to follow Teal. Then, after almost half an hour of walking quietly around the forest, Teal stopped beside a large collection of orange mushrooms and brought out a dagger he had sheathed to his belt.
“These will taste great with the squirrel,” he said happily, quickly throwing the mushrooms into the bag. He opened his mouth to say something else when he stopped. Ben had heard it too, a crack of a tree limb above them.
Sure enough, directly above them were three black squirrels about twenty feet up, every one of them glaring down at the hibrids as if they knew the two had cruel intentions.
Then Teal pushed the dagger into Ben’s hand, not taking his eyes off of the glaring rodents. Ben saw his eyebrow give a twitch before there was a thunk as Teal dropped the burlap sack he had brought on their trip.
To Ben’s astonishment, Teal let out a small cat-like growl.
Ben put his hand over his mouth to hide his smile. It was a strange thing to see, a person actually growl, and in a way it was kind of cute. It wasn’t a low-throated growl like a lions but one a house cat would make when it spotted another tom through the window.
Teal, thankfully, didn’t notice Ben’s facial expression. “Finish cutting the mushrooms and put them into the bag. If you see a squirrel close, try and kill it and put it in the bag too.”
“But the branches aren’t for ten more feet,” Ben said as he examined the tree more closely. “How are you getting up there?”
A smile split Teal’s face. He sheathed his spear in the holster that he had originally been using for his sword. His green eyes became bright. “We’re hibrids, Ben. These claws aren’t just for show.”
With that, Teal stealthily jumped over to one of the silver oaks, and, to Ben’s amazement, he sunk his claw-like fingernails into the bark and started to climb up the tree.
Ben could hear the distinctive sound of claws on wood as his friend climbed higher and higher up the oak. He seemed to carry his own weight easily, though Ben was sure he was making it look easier than it was.
The forest canopy above them erupted in chatter as the squirrels talked nervously amongst themselves. They seemed to have spotted Teal as he climbed closer.
When Teal reached a branch that he had deemed acceptable, he grabbed onto it and swung his body until he was standing on it. Teal stood on the branch, using a limb above him as balance, and took his spear out.
And though Ben did want to trust his new friend’s abilities in his mind he was already making plans as to what he would do if his friend fell to his death or accidently impaled himself.
Teal held onto the top branch and quietly inched his way closer to the oblivious squirrels.
Ben found himself holding his breath. Teal was almost three-storeys up in the air, with thick branches all around him. He was staring at the squirrels, an intense look of concentration on his face. It was like a cat stalking a bird, though Ben wasn’t sure if this kid would land on his feet.
Then, with incredible speed, Teal grabbed his spear and flung it at the nearest squirrel. All of the squirrels saw him and scattered, but one was too slow. The spear impaled it right through the gut, causing further panic throughout the group.
Two squirrels fell, the impaled one and another one who lost its balance in the chaos. As Ben watched it come crashing to the ground, taking several thin branches with it, he saw Teal run after the remaining ones, following the rodents higher into the Silverwoods’ thicket.
Ben gripped his spear as the still-alive squirrel fell to the forest floor. With a rush of adrenaline he ran over to it, the little rodent squealing and thrashing madly on the ground. He stared at it for several moments, its friend stone dead beside it, and felt his mind freeze.
Then his hibrid instincts seemed to kick into action. Feeling a new found bloodlust rush through him, Ben raised his spear and stabbed the squirrel.
Though, in his excitement, Ben missed and only succeeded in stabbing the creature through the tail. It shrieked from pain and tried to run away, though the spear through its tail was preventing it from doing anything more than thrashing like a fish on a line.
Ben froze a second time but like what happened previously he felt his instincts come to him. With his hastily gathered bloodthirst Ben did the only thing he could think of – he raised his foot and slammed it down onto the squirrel’s head.
There was a sickening crunch before blood squirted out of the squirrel’s mouth and nose. Ben cringed for a moment but he quickly regained his composure. He brought his heel down on the rodent’s head and pressed, feeling its skull snap and bend under his weight.
The squirrel twitched for a few moments as it died. The blood shining dark against its pitch black fur and coating the green and brown foliage underneath it.
Giving the squirrel a moment to die in peace, Ben walked over to the other skewered rodent and unstuck the spear from it. He picked up both of them and threw them into the canvas bag, unable to hide the proud smile on his face.
Then he looked up to see where Teal was. Rush after rush of pride flowing through him, whispering to him that perhaps he could defend himself after all. He knew for sure he could feed himself at least.
Teal was out of sight but Ben could hear him crashing around in the canopy above them. Ben took this moment to lean up against a tree to catch his breath. His heart was racing with adrenaline and he absentmindedly found himself checking out the branches or trees for more squirrels. Or anything really. He was so full of energy and the high from killing something he would’ve probably murder a june bug if it flew close enough to him.
Ben was almost jumping out of his skin with excitement when he saw Teal climbing down the tree trunk, though unfortunately he was empty-handed.
“Look!” Ben exclaimed. He was clutching the bag in one hand and his spear in the other; it was all he could do to keep himself from jumping up and down. He quickly, stumbling over his own words, told Teal the harrowing tale of him murdering his first black squirrel.
Teal smiled at him proudly, his face flushed from his own pursuit. “You? The human? You killed it, eh?” He opened up the burlap sack and looked into it – then he burst out laughing.
“Ben! You crushed its head? Oh, Anea above, you didn’t lie. You did stomp the bloody life out of it!”
“It would’ve gotten away if I took the spear out of its tail,” Ben said, glancing in the bag; he chuckled when he was reminded just how badly he had crushed it. “If I had a dagger I could have done it cleaner.”
“Maybe when we’re on the road,” was Teal’s reply. Ben let out an unimpressed noise at his hesitation. He would’ve liked to have thought he’d earned his dagger after providing them with two squirrels for dinner.
They started their walk back to the camp, Teal with the burlap sack slung over his back. But as they carried on Ben noticed that his friend seemed to be acting strangely. Whereas the entire hunting trip had been lighthearted and fun – Teal seemed to have stiffened up and he wasn’t making jokes like he had been before.
He kept glancing behind his shoulder as they walked too. Ben gave him a curious look but Teal seemed too preoccupied with whatever seemed to have taken over his thoughts. Something must’ve happened while he was up in that tree.
“What?” Ben asked cautiously.
Teal glanced behind him again and Ben could see his jaw tighten. Though when he noticed Ben was analysing him the look vanished. “Let’s just get back to camp, clean the squirrels, then I’ll tell you.”
Ben felt his skin prickle with goose bumps; he didn’t like the sound of that at all. They carried on back to camp, and after quickly sharpening Teal’s daggers they both got to work on the squirrels.
As Ben started peeling the skin off of the rodents, Teal put some wood onto their dwindling fire. Though this time he brought out a vial from the seemingly endless collection in his pack. This one was a scarlet red bottle filled with an off-white powder.
To Ben’s amusement his recall was triggered as Teal dusted it onto the fire. It was a powder used by many blacksmiths all over Elron, called tsivia. It made the fire extremely hot, hot enough that it didn’t produce a lot of smoke.
Teal rolled the two large logs they’d been sitting on a foot back as the fire heated up. When he was satisfied with it, he turned to Ben and helped him finish dressing the squirrels.
“We’re going to be leaving tomorrow and heading towards a small village named Malla,” Teal explained in a steady tone.
Ben felt a spark light inside of him, though he wasn’t sure if that spark held anxiety or intrigue. He let Teal continue.
“I saw what looks like the remains of a camp about a league away,” Teal explained. As Ben gave him an alarmed look he saw his new friend start to grab his forearms with his clawed fingers; he seemed to do that when he was nervous.
Out of reflex, Ben looked behind him, as if the bounty hunter that was after them would be there wielding an assault rifle or something equally earth-scary. Though as the new information sat in his stomach he realized he was more nervous about seeing other occupants of this world. Obviously he had never seen another hibrid or elf or any of these strange creatures. Hell, he hadn’t even seen an animal bigger than a black squirrel. Was he really prepared to see the rest of Alcove? He still wasn’t sure that any of this was really real.
“Do you think it’s the malkah bounty hunter?” Ben asked, wondering to himself if the town would even be safe. Maybe they should just go deeper into the woods?
“No, there’s no way for him to know we’re here and a league is a long way away, especially in this terrain. A league is about three and a half miles,” Teal said in a reassuring tone, though Ben wasn’t sure who the reassurance was for. “I couldn’t see the camp well-enough to know if someone was actively there. It was too far away.”
The hair on the back of Ben’s neck creeped up as he scanned the forest. Suddenly the silvery woods in front of him seemed dangerous.
His hands clutched the bloody dagger he had been using to skin the squirrel. “Can we… leave now? Is it in the direction we’re heading?” Ben asked nervously. He decided in that moment he was more scared of unexpected visitors than he was going to that village.
Teal shook his head. “No, we’re heading in almost the opposite direction and it’s too late for us to leave right now. It will take us a couple hours to properly break camp. I don’t want to leave any trace that we were here. We’ll clean up camp as much as we can tonight, leave early in the morning, and do a full days walking towards Malla.”
Ben’s mouth twisted to the side. “I’ll trust you on this but I still don’t like it. If we get jumped and stabbed you’ll be able to use – that?” Ben motioned towards the sword.
“I’ve lived in the woods for years, Ben. Don’t worry, we’ll be fine,” Teal said with a confident smile. “We’ll walk hard and we’ll be in Malla before you know it.”
“And Malla’s safe? How far away is it?” He had heard Teal mention the small village a few times but he had no idea what it would look like or what was in it. It could be a bunch of forts in the trees for all he knew. Alcove to him right now consisted mainly of his camp and a bunch of gigantic trees.
“If we walk fast and leave early we can make it there before dark. It’s about five leagues away. It’s a nice place; probably two hundred Alcovians reside there, more in the surrounding forest. It has a good wall, though it was used as a shelter for the soldiers during an invasion a few years back; it never really recovered.”
Well, if it had a wall that was better than staying in this camp. The camp Ben had been calling his home since Teal had brought him here suddenly seemed exposed and unsafe. A stark contrast to his feelings only minutes ago.
Ben found his eyes falling to the thick of tree limbs above them. Maybe he could just make a nest like a bird and stay in there for a while. That would be safe – bounty hunters probably couldn’t climb trees.
“Do they have hotels there?” Ben asked. “With… locks?”
Teal smirked; no doubt amused at the word ‘hotel’. “They’re called inns and, yes, there’s one in Malla. It has locks on the doors, all of them do. And they hire strongarms and sellswords to guard the inn and the square. Not to mention the guards stationed on the wall.”
This made Ben feel better but he was still pensive about the whole thing. Either way it sounded like the town would be safer for the two of them.
Though this new news and the anxious look on Teal’s face made Ben once again question just why he was going along with all of this. He might’ve had a lot of things to worry about in his old world but at least they were things he knew how to handle. This world held many threats, most of them shrouded in darkness, or worse, still deceptively cloaked in the thick silvery woods.
With a sigh, Ben went back to work, though his thoughts never left the mysterious campsite only a few leagues away.