“You get that fire going yet, Fin?”
“Naw, it’s hard to start a fire with wet wood,” spat Fin.
“All the wood in this forest is wet,” said Dimber. “So just make do.”
“I’ll make do with your teeth!” snapped Fin.
“What does that even mean?” asked Dimber, gently setting a bag on the ground, which tinkled as it settled to the earth.
“It means we ain’t seen more’n a glimmer of sunlight in this forest the last two dreary days,” Fin exploded, “and not a drop o’ water from the sky neither, so how it is you can’t find a single dry stick to get this fire going?”
“All I asked is if you got the fire going yet,” said Marus gently. “I wasn’t trying to start something between you two. Now calm down…” He looked around himself. “Something doesn’t feel right.”
If you asked him, Marus might have said he had a prickling of his skin, which is mostly accurate. Likely, no one in the world had ever felt what he and his two friends were feeling right then. That they were experiencing something totally unique passed completely unknown to them.
“Hey, who goes there!” called out Fin.
“Really?” said a voice from the woods. “’Who goes there?’ I didn’t think people actually said that kind of thing.”
“Show yourself!” said Dimber.
“Need help with your fire?” A tall, cloaked figure came close. He wore a hood, and in the darkness nothing of his face could be seen. He held out a gloved hand, in which was a wand – it had a grip of silver, with a loop for one finger, and a black tube protruding out. The stranger knelt down by the bundle of sticks and wood, there was an odd click, and from the tube a flame suddenly appeared. The stranger held it to the kindling, which sputtered and spat and steamed. He moved the flame – which never went out – around the pile, and eventually the smallest twigs burst to flame. The stranger kept the flame on it, feeding it with dead leaves and more twigs, until the larger sticks started to flame.
“Should be good now,” he said, standing again. He concealed the wand again in his cloak.
“Who are you, stranger,” asked Marus warily, “and what magic do you possess?”
“Who am I?” repeated the figure, whose darkened hood seemed no less impenetrable, despite the growing light from the fire. “Who am I? I am-“
His whole body shuddered and blinked, and for an instant it was like there were two figures – one, the tall man they had seen come out of the woods, the other, short and slight, like a boy of no more than a dozen years. This image flashed just once before their eyes, and once again he was all cloaked darkness.
“Stupid thing,” the stranger muttered to himself, putting his hands under his cloak and fiddling with something at his belt.
“It’s a demon,” whispered Fin. “A tormenter from the underworld! Begone, monster!” Fin shouted.
“Fin, no!” said Dimber, lurching to stop him. But Fin was too fast. He had snatched up a large stick and brandished it over his head, ready to bring it down on the stranger’s head like a cudgel.
The stranger’s arm whipped out of his cloak. There was a flash, a golden circle traced in the air, and there on his arm was a shield made of pure light. The stick crashed down upon it and shattered, flaming pieces scattering into the underbrush to sizzle into steam where they landed. Fin was thrown back to land heavily on his rump.
Dimber and Marus both started back, their hands going into the air.
“We’ll ask it again, stranger,” said Marus, his voice now shaking. “Who are you?”
The stranger didn’t answer right away. He was looking at the shield on his arm with a curious tilt to his head. With his other hand he jabbed at something on his wrist. He jabbed it a few extra times, harder each time, as though in annoyance. Finally, the shield disappeared.
“Weird,” he mumbled to himself. He shuddered, flashed again, and once more was the dual image of a man and a boy. Only this time, the image of the man stayed gone, and all that was left was the image of a youth, cloaked, but much less imposing.
He sighed, then squared his shoulders. He reached both hands up and pulled back his hood, revealing a young face. “Who am I? I am Stephen. I am the bane of zombies. I am the rider of whirlygigs. I am the savior of the city. I am the traveler of worlds. I am destroyer of the Space Ninjas, and leader of the Grunderson Squad.” He took a deep break. “And I’ll be taking one of those crystals you’re carrying.”