Chapter 10: Strawberry Beers

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We traveled along the Lacdonian River for two full days without passing a bridge that wasn't guarded by Dark Sorcerers. Every time we saw them, I put on the hood of my cloak and hid my face until we were well out of sight. Some other travelers gave us strange looks since we were such an unusual company: an ordinary-looking girl accompanied by a soldier and two Dwarfs. However, apart from that, nobody paid us too much attention.

Ellie and Larry were constantly quibbling, to the point where Rowan and I suffered from severe headaches by the end of each day. I pitied Larry; Ellie always found an excuse to find fault with him and for some unknown reason, he swallowed it all and managed to stay cheerful on top of it. Sometimes I caught him looking at Ellie with plain admiration, and I wondered why she kept giving him a hard time while she clearly liked him just as much. In moments like these, my gaze eventually always landed on Rowan, causing a mysterious warmth to spread through my body. I had no idea what it meant.

The mood was rather heavy when we sat down together at a table in an inn that night. The more days passed without finding a bridge to cross, the more troubled and frustrated Rowan became. There was a permanent frown between his eyebrows and my fingers itched to smooth it out.

"Remind me again why we couldn't cross any of the bridges we've already passed?" Larry asked, gulping from his giant mug of beer. It always amazed me how much alcohol he could pour into that small body of his without getting drunk.

"The Sorcerers would discover that Kenna's the Dark Sorceress they're looking for, you welt!" Ellie whispered. "And keep your voice down! We don't want the other customers to know what we're doing here."

Larry looked at me, confused. "I thought you were shielding your magic?"

"I am, but I don't think my Light magic can keep their Darkness out," I explained. "If they really want to take a look inside my head, I can't stop them. That's why we have to avoid them as much as we can."

Rowan didn't participate in the conversation. Instead, he studied his map, sipping at a glass of water. Some bridges on the map had already been marked with a red X to indicate that they were unsafe to cross, and the more bridges we passed, the more X's were drawn.

"You know, you won't find any more clues on that thing, lad," Ellie said to him. "Even if you stare at that piece of parchment for an entire day, it won't tell you anything that you don't know already."

He smiled, although he still seemed distracted. "I know." He folded the map and put it back into his pocket. "I'm afraid we'll have to travel through the Forest of Indarr after all. There are only three bridges left on our route and my gut tells me that they'll all be toll bridges as well."

"What does it matter if we have to go through the Forest, Rowan?" I said. "I know you said that there are a few gangs of robbers in the woods, but if that's all ..."

"Ah, but that's not all, missy. I understand perfectly well why your friend doesn't want to travel through that forest," Ellie replied. "You see, the woods are not just home to the robbers, but to all kinds of Dark Creatures as well. Or so I've heard."

"Dark Creatures?" I asked, puzzled. I narrowed my eyes at Rowan. "You didn't mention that earlier."

"That's because the existence of such creatures has never been confirmed," he said. "Few travelers dare to enter the Forest, and even fewer have returned from it with their sanity intact. Moreover, there's no credible history book that speaks of demons. They're only brought up in myths, and myths aren't very reliable."

"Yet, you fear the stories are true." I could see it in his eyes, the carefully hidden dread.

"Let's say I wouldn't be surprised if they were," he admitted reluctantly. "Dark magic has been spreading over the world like a disease for many years now, festering, infecting the air and polluting nature. If these so-called Dark Creatures are real, the Dark Sorcerers are to blame."

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