Claude would never forget that night. The entire world froze the moment Welikro's gun fired. The only thing he could hear was the rapidly fading echo of the shot as it bounced off the mountain, and the thud and splashing of the dead dear as it twitched away its last breaths of life.
The two sleepyheads had finally regained their calm, so the three headed to the deer with their lamps. Welikro reloaded as they walked, his trained hands moving effortlessly. He handed the gun to Claude once he was done, letting the three keep watch while he went to work on the deer.
"We can't drag it back," he said again as he worked. "The blood'll draw unwelcome guests."
His hands flitted like there was no resistance in the carcass as he separated the skin from the rest of the carcass.
"Best to process the thing right there, quickly of course, and get the hell out of here before the blood attracts prey animals. And it's even necessary if you're far away from your camp. Dead things have this nasty habit of going stiff an hour or so after they die, which makes it a damn nightmare to cut them up. Best to have them cut up before then."
The moonlight danced on their faces, reflected off the cobbling water. Their lamps glared out into the underbrush. The three stood in utter silence, each straining his ear and eye as hard as he could to hear or, possibly, see anything unwelcome coming to take a look. If the moonlight danced silver on their faces from upstream, it danced crimson downstream as the water drew a red scar down the slope towards the lagoon.
Welikro freed the last of the deer's limbs half an hour later, and about an hour later he was done portioning the whole thing into more manageable chunks. He tossed the hooves, tail and innards into the stream and watched until everything disappeared around the bend. He strolled a few metres upstream and rinsed the skin in the stream, followed by the meat. He tied the meat up with cleaned and skinned vines and handed each boy a limb, Claude got the two hind legs, while he took the head and neck.
"Alright, back we go."
Claude rinsed their pot and fixed it on the by-now coals while the other boys started a second fire for light. He put about a thumb of water in the pot and cut up one of the legs into manageable pieces while the water came to a boil. Once the water was boiling away happily he filled it back up to a thumb and added enough meat for the four of them, added a few pinches of spices, stirred until he was satisfied everything was covered, and closed the pot. He cut some of the rest of the leg into strips and fixed them over the new fire before adding wet bark to begin smoking them. He planned to hide away a good portion of the jerky to take home. This was the group's first catch (really it was Welikro's, but details were unimportant), so why not show off some of the meat to the family and brag a little?
Welikro went to work on the underbrush and soon returned with several sticks which he fashioned into a rack on which he hung the skin. He took out yet another knife -- heaven only knew where he kept all of them -- and started running the blade up and down the bottom side of the skin like a razor as he cleaned it of blood vessels and any meat me might have missed. Once he was satisfied with his cleaning, he broke some charcoal off the ring of half-burnt stumps they'd placed around the camp, crushed them under the handle of a knife on a nearby rock, and applied the coarse coal powder to the underside of the skin.
Borkal and Eriksson stared at him as he worked.
"That was damn accurate!" Eriksson half-shouted as he pointed at the torn head-end of the skin, which Welikro had yet to trim away, "I bet you can sell it for a whole thale!"
"--Not all," Borkal's voice pushed in, "It's a deer pelt, it's not easy to get one. They're the most cautious animals; they'll run at the drop of a leaf. I didn't think we'd get one, and on our first night, too! It would be a waste to sell it to leather shops, we'll get an even better price with the tailors. I bet we could run the price up to a full thale and five riyas."
"Why don't we camp by the stream tomorrow night as well? We might get another deer," Eriksson suggested, his eyes glowing.
"I doubt we'll see any deer by that part of the stream again for a while. You just said deer are very cautious. They also have good memories."
The meat was soon done. Everyone got a few chunks along with a little of the fat that cooked off for a slice of bread, which they finished in a couple of gulps, then went to bed. Welikro felt decided to keep watch with Claude so the two town bumpkins could get some sleep. They'd switch with the two at midnight, and they could keep an eye on things 'till morning.
He moved the pelt closer to the fire to help it dry a bit faster. Once he was sure the other two were asleep, he cut a couple of chunks off what was left of the leg and impaled them on a few sticks around the fire to roast.
He finally noticed the strips of meat Claude had hung over the fire and pointed at the salted chunks still laying on the trunk nearby.
"Want to hang those up as well?"
"No, it's fine. We'll make cutlet with them in the morning. Didn't we bring a pan and some butter? It won't spoil overnight, right?" Claude returned.
"Nope, they'll be fine. It's not that hot, and it's still cooling down."
"Are we really going to the ruins tomorrow?" Claude asked, plomping himself down next to the other boy, facing the fire and the sizzling pieces of impaled meat.
"What's wrong? Scared?"
"No. I just can't believe the ruins are really as big as you say. I can't imagine how the magi got the stones up to the full height of the building if they're really as big as that one we saw earlier."
"You'll get used to it. I couldn't believe it either the first time I saw it. It's all just one big heap of rubble now, no one really knows how big it was when it still stood, it's all just rumour and guess."
Welikro pulled one of the smaller impaled chunks out of the ground, blew on it a few times, and took a bite. He swallowed delightlessly, then shoved the stick back into the ground, other side firewards, then flipped all the other meat around as well.
"Has anyone figured out if it had a basement? I heard all those kinds of places are supposed to have basements."
"Who knows?" Welikro pondered, "I know of three entrances that head down at least a level. I've not gone down any though. Dad's been down there, I heard. He says the floor's buried under a foot of mud."
Three entrances? Did they go all the way down to the level of which the diary spoke?
Claude had to see it for himself. The magus' stuff was supposed to be near one of the flights of stairs, so if he checked all three, he should be able to find it, right? Then again, he did have to search for the stuff under a foot of mud...
"What's up? Think of something?" Welikro asked, glaring interestedly at Claude's dazed face.
"It's nothing," Claude whispered, not taking his eyes off the fire, "I was just wondering why the magi built those towers, and why build one on Egret? And I always wondered why all the books that talk about them say they're evil, but never say why. D'you know?"
"No. I never liked reading, and I like reading or hearing about history even less than all the other stuff. All the listening I want to do is to my dad's stories when he teaches me how to hunt and live in the wild. Why care about that stuff, anyway? The magi are gone, they're never coming back, so it's all useless stuff."
"I guess you're right. Best we not poke our noses into this kind of stuff. We're small fry, even if the magi came back it would have nothing to do with us."
The forest was only now slowly beginning to recover from that shot. Noises slowly came back around the curve of the island. A howl sounded not too far away and Welikro's hand shot to Claude's mouth. The tense moment lasted only a few seconds, then he relaxed and lowered his hand again.
"Nothing to worry about. Was just a lynx call. The innards I threw in the stream must have gotten stuck somewhere and it found it. It's probably fighting over it. Luckily they're pretty small and don't usually attack humans."
Luckily for Claude's nerves, that was the only moment of excitement for the rest of their shift. They ended up sitting and chatting through most of the night, not just until midnight. They only got up once the jerky was done. The two woke their sleepy companions up and switched place with them.
Their trip was off to a great start. They got a deer, he made some jerky, and they would be heading to the ruins in a few more hours. He tossed for at least an hour before he finally fell asleep. Welikro had been snoring for at least two thirds of the time he'd been laying in his tent by the time he finally drifted away.
He came to when the sun was already a good arm above the horizon. A light gust of wind blew the flap over the entrance up and he caught a glimpse of his three friends sitting around the fire, their tent already packed up.
"What time is it?" he asked as he stepped out of the tent, stretching.
"Almost nine," Borkal answered.
He saw an hourglass by the boy's side. Despite its name, the glass kept six hours. It was rather inaccurate, but it could be adjusted easily enough by only flipping it at sunrise and keeping a mind to flip it on time throughout the day, then let it run out through the night and flipping it again the next morning.
"Why didn't you wake me up? We've wasted precious daylight," Claude complained.
"Wero said you were up all night smoking jerky, so we let you sleep in a little. Now that you're up though--" Eriksson pointed at the pot, "make us some breakfast."
"You're a real glutton, you know that?" Claude jabbed humourously.
There had been some leftovers in the pot last night, a single extra piece of meat and a few drops of the sauce, but that was gone when he opened the pot.
"You've already had a serving for breakfast but you still complain… You really are a glutton…" he whispered under his breath as he washed out the pot.
The fire had been kept going dutifully, so he only had to scrape a few coals to the side to prepare the cooking place. He plopped the oversized pan, clearly not designed for camping, on the coals and dropped a clump of butter into it. The butter melted over several minutes, slowly at first, but with increasing speed as the thick cast-iron base heated up. Once it was all melted and just starting to sizzle, Claude plopped the cutlets in and fried them until ready.
Breakfast vanished down the four black holes just as quickly as dinner and the remaining tent was packed up just as quickly. They put what they'd need for the day's trip in their rucksacks, stowed everything else on the boat, and headed off. They'd be at the ruins at noon, according to Welikro. There they would split into groups. Those that wanted to explore the ruins could do so, while the rest would hunt again, then camp by the ruins that night.
They climbed the hill along what was left of the magi-built path. Claude had to admit Welikro had been telling the truth. He saw large stone after large stone. Indeed, only magi could have built that road. The stones by the shore were completely hidden under mud and underbrush. The first stone only peaked out about a quarter of the way up the hill. By about two thirds of the way up, however, they all lay bare on the surface, showing the way to the top in eternal majesty.
Borkal and Eriksson didn't notice the stones the first half-way up, but once they did, they were utterly captivated. The stone also jogged their memories about their childhood tales of the horrible magi, which they shared with exaggerated enthusiasm to try and scare one another. Eriksson had apparently heard the most, he definitely had the most interesting stories. How much of them were actual rumours about Egret, and how much came from his own rampant imagination, Claude didn't want to bet, however. Since most of the stories he had heard from others also came from sailors, Claude didn't put much stock in those either. A sailor's tale was indeed a sailor's tale no matter which world's sailors told it.
Welikro must have gone deaf, since he didn't react to any of their stories. Claude supposed he must be fighting not to laugh at the ridiculous shit with which the two were coming up. He and his father had been at the ruins a few times, his father several dozen times, and they'd even spent quite a good stretch of time there continuously once, and none of the tales, not even the most moderate ones, seemed to strike true for him.
"We're here," Welikro said two hours later just as they turned a corner.