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Rise of the Nightmare Crestmaster

Chapter 4 Paralyzing Cold

Aldrich reached the farm"s short wooden fence safely. A fence that could hardly stop any kind of attack, he never thought about that before this very moment, a short while ago Aldrich thought it couldn"t possibly get any colder, he was wrong.

Everything looked normal, far to the right, from the corner of his eye he could see Miller and Balden working on the corn field. It was quite as it should be, he told himself to stop letting fancies take him.

Everything is fine, but every time he blinked he saw the dark-cloaked stranger and ran even faster. Mr. Isger is the owner of the farm, he"ll certainly know what to do.

Aldrich jumped over the fence in his haste, it was not that far from there to here to begin with. A very short fence, he now noticed, with a lump in his throat.

He entered through the door without bothering to knock and breathed a sigh of relief. Mr. Isger was heating some milk over the fire. Isger turned around at the sound of the opened door and rough breathing.

"A stranger!" Aldrich said breathlessly, walking inside quickly. "A stranger, just outside the farm."

Mr. Isger frowned, discerning Aldrich"s distress, "was he armed? Did he threaten you?" He asked.

Aldrich took a minute to register the questions, "no, I… he…well…" suddenly it began to dawn on him, the stranger hadn"t said a word at all.

"well? Speak up, lad. On second thought, first sit down and collect your bearings."

Aldrich wanted to protest, this wasn"t the time to sit down, but before he could voice his thoughts, Isger already pulled over a chair. Resigned, he could only do as told. He did feel much better after sitting down.

"The stranger was tall, very tall, he wasn"t armed at least as far as I could tell. He wore a dark cloak that covered him entirely, so he could have been hiding a musket or a sword under it, no, I am willing to bet he was hiding some sort of weapon." Aldrich was spitting words faster than an alarmed rabbit. He was determined to convince Isger to come with him.

"Did he threaten you?" Isger asked again. Firmer this time.

Aldrich had to take a moment to answer swallowing his saliva repeatedly, his voice was much softer this time and words much slower, "No he did not threaten me, not in any obvious manner, he appeared behind me without a sound and when I looked at him, I felt that he meant me harm. I stumbled and fell when I looked back he was gone as silently as he came. He couldn"t have gotten far."

"So he was harmless, beyond a feeling. And when you turned to look at him you stumbled and fell." It was more a statement than a question but Aldrich ashamedly nodded.

"Where did this happen exactly? We must go swiftly" Isger, moved smoothly pulling his broad-bladed spear off the pegs on the opposite wall.

And they were briskly walking back to where Aldrich left the sheep, Aldrich followed absentmindedly before he asked.

"what? Why? You believe me?"

"what guests would come this far off the Village trail? and this deep into the woods? First, he might be lost and if he was it is our duty to help out. Two, if he did come with ill intentions… we must look into it either way."

"you believe me then?" Aldrich cheered.

"we"ve been a week out in Ulek surrounded by strangers, I don"t believe an ordinary stranger would scare you with a mere look. Besides haven"t I always told you to trust your instincts?"

"Why didn"t you call Miller and Balden with us? we might need their help." Aldrich had to ask, the stranger didn"t have the look of an ordinary man, if he was a man at all.

Mr. Isger had a pondering expression, "It could be that the stranger is a thief and his little encounter with you is a scheme to lure us out of the farmhouse. When we left in a hurry both saw me leave with my spear which must have alarmed them making them extra vigilant. If the thief went about his scheme he won"t have an easy time of it."

Aldrich felt his genuine awe at the plan, what was even more impressive was how fast Isger came up with this plan.

And they were there, back on the pasture. Only the sheep and Dan were there still in place. As they were, as if nothing unusual happened. Thank god.

"There! He was right there!"

Aldrich pointed at the exact spot the stranger was at when he saw him. Isger"s brows locked in thought.

"He was there." he insisted "A man in a long black cloak."

Isger"s shoulders relaxed "I wouldn"t doubt your word, lad, we"re here to look around for him anyway, he might not have gotten far."

Aldrich snatched the fallen bow and arrow and half drew before letting the bowstring relax. There was nothing to aim at. "He was." He insisted.

Isger shook his grizzled head. "If you say so, lad. But look at the ground. He must have left some tracks; we"ll have a look. If we find them, we"ll know for a fact he was there. If not, well... this is a day to make a man think he"s seeing things."

The stranger"s boots must have left some marks on the snow and soil, if he fled into the woods there will be broken twigs and branches. These were only the basics, if Dan has managed to get the stranger"s smell things will be even easier. This farm and the surrounding woods was their home-ground.

The search for tracks bore no fruit, all signs lead Aldrich to believe that nobody was here at all. If the stranger had tried to erase his tracks he would still be able to tell, but all sings pointed at the fact that there wasn"t anyone here at all.

If he could figure out this much then Isger probably did too. Dan was unresponsive, clearly he didn"t catch the smell.

"Aldrich be a lad and count the sheep, I"ll do some searching in the woods on my own just to make sure."

"There"s no need, Mr. Isger. I might"ve been seeing things I didn"t sleep a wink last night and I"ve been having nightmares frequently as of late…" he tugged the hood of his cloak to cover his pale face.

Aldrich wisely decided to end it here, without proof, he will only manage to make himself look the idiot. And even he himself wasn"t completely sure he wasn"t seeing things.

"I told you to stop reading these useless books that Krynt gives you, he"s got nothing better to do than scaring children. What a disgrace. I"ll have words for him today, yes, I will."

"Mr. Krynt is just giving me the books I ask for, anyhow, no point in looking for what isn"t there, not when we could get out of this wind and into the village. We still have a big wagonload of ale to deliver right?" Aldrich relented, trying to sneakily change the topic.

Isger and Krynt didn"t have much love for each other. More like they were at each other"s throats for one reason or another. Hell, sometimes they would get into an argument just by bumping into each other in the village.

"I could do with a pipe," Isger said slowly, " and a mug of ale where its warm." He gave a wide grin.

Aldrich managed a weak smile at that.

Aldrich collected the scattered herd, on the way back Aldrich noticed Dan was lagging behind too much, Dan wasn"t his usual cheery self he was looking around suspiciously and barring his teeth.

His barks were low and threating, even glaring at Aldrich as he approached causing Aldrich to slow down considerably. He petted Dan to calm him, "take it easy boy, take it easy. It"s just me."


Finally, they were back at the farm. Aldrich felt a little exhausted though the walk was short, he gave the farm a wide look, confirming that everything was fine. Again. Then he took the sheep back to the sheep-pen.

"Oh, no!" suddenly Isger dashed back to the farmhouse. Aldrich was half a step behind. "That"s it, the stranger lured them far enough so he could sneak into the farmhouse somehow he managed to evade both Miller and Balden!"

They pass by Miller and Balden, who in turn, noticed that something was wrong as they immediately join the duo.

Isger roughly pushed open the door, Aldrich saw Isger throwing the spear he was carrying on the floor as he fell down in seeming despair.

"Sir, what happened?" although Aldrich did not notice anything broken, he still asked concernedly.

"It"s burned… the milk is burned" Isger answered slowly, in a daze.

"what?" Aldrich, suddenly felt the world spinning around him in his own daze. He imagined this was probably what his mother felt when she smoked Dreamshade. "I misheard you, just now what did you say??"

"I forgot to take the kettle off the fire, the milk boiled and overflowed, this cost me at least half a copper…" Mr. Isger"s voice was clearly bitter.

That"s all? It"s my fault for letting my imagination go wild. His mother always said he had too much imagination.

Aldrich suddenly let out a self-deprecating laugh at this whole thing. Miller and Balden joined in the laugh.

Mr. Isger laughed the loudest. "It"s a joke. AL loosen up a little, yeah? This whole thing rattled you a bit."

That"s right so what if he had a little paranoia, Aldrich was not going to let it get to his head, the day was only just starting. Aldrich felt some warmth despite himself, he felt lighter after laughing he wished he could sleep now and wake up the next day already.

"Alright, we"ve got a whole cart to deliver, no time to waste. Aldrich you"re coming with me, Miller and Balden keep a tight watch over the farm, we might have some trouble."

"Trouble? Ha! I like trouble." As Balden declared that he cracked his fingers. Aldrich observed Balden"s huge figure and rippling muscles with admiration. Yes, that"s how he wanted to look like, it was also one of the reasons why Aldrich wanted to work here.

Miller on the other hand, looked clearly not as amused by the prospect of trouble as Balden is. "Sir, is it possible you irked someone during your stay in Uleq?" An interesting question.

"No, not particularly. At least nobody who would bother to send someone after me for a petty argument."

Aldrich sank deep in thought, could it be that their three day stay in Uleq had some abnormality? Perhaps it was not as straightforward as it had seemed to him? Not likely, besides he had never felt watched in Uleq nor did he feel that paralyzing cold.

Abruptly Aldrich realized what had been odd about that stranger, aside from him being there at all. He did not cast a shadow, it looked like the light of the sun passed right through him. The howling wind didn"t touch his cloak.

His mouth was suddenly dry. He must have imagined it. Mr. Isger was right; this was a morning to prickle a man"s imagination. It"s but a daydream. how could he tell Isger that the man who apparently vanished into thin air cast no shadow? That the wind did not touch him?

A man who could disappear so suddenly could reappear just as suddenly, maybe even right behind him.

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