Alec silently stalked through the forest. It was early morning; the sun was just beginning to rise overhead, and the entire forest was covered in fresh, morning dew. Alec heard the soft footsteps of a creature, the slight crunching of leaves, the snapping of twigs, and a gentle sigh.
In the forest, Alec could hear everything. This was his domain; it had been for years. Some time ago he had been a foreigner, slowly learning to conquer his environment and hunt game. But now he was part of the environment. The squirrels and rabbits called that forest home; Alec considered it his kingdom. He was the king of that wild frontier, and every heartbeat of every creature was part of him.
Alec could easily cloak himself behind a row of trees. That’s how he got so close to his prey. A mere dozen feet away, a deer was munching on a leaf, blissfully enjoying the tranquility of morning. It was a mighty stag, big and powerful with a twelve-pointed helmet of horns on its head. This will do nicely, he decided.
Hunting wasn’t as thrilling as it had been years ago. Snaring a rabbit or shooting down a hawk was mere child’s play to him, so nowadays he only killed the things that he thought were worthy of his attention. He believed a king should only be subjected to the ripest of fruit.
The deer still didn’t know Alec was closely watching it. He lifted his bow and pulled out an arrow in one swift motion. The arrow was nocked, and he was ready.
When it came to deer, Alec always went for a single shot to the heart to claim his prize. He also knew how to predict an animal’s next movement, which always kept him one step ahead. In this case, he knew that if he fired an arrow directly at the deer’s heart he would miss. Deers are tricky beasts, they can sense their environment and would probably notice a flying arrow right before it managed to hit them. The deer would have just enough time to take a step forward. Alec readjusted the bow. He closed his eyes and released.
Alec didn’t open his eyes until he heard a loud moan. And with a thud as the stag dropped to the ground, the beast was no more.
It had been a while since Tim was able to wake up and immediately wash. On that sunny spring morning, the river water felt great, so Tim was happy to take a dip to wash off all the dirt and ash he had accumulated after the night of sleep. Apparently Alec had left for the morning. With nothing better to do, Tim took his time in the cool water. After being thoroughly soaked, he came out to retrieve the dry clothes that he had left on a rock the previous day. Then he had nothing to do but wait at camp; after all, he didn’t think it was a great idea to wander too far away before Alec got back. His stomach did grumble a bit, but he didn’t dare to eat any of those accursed wild berries. Besides, it seemed like Alec was fully capable of wrangling up some forest meat. Soon Tim’s wish was granted. Suddenly appearing at the campsite, Alec was carrying several pounds of red meat on his shoulder.
Tim eyed it in wonder, “What’d you catch today?”
Alec was nonchalant about the situation. “I slayed a deer. The rest of it is still lying in the forest, not too far from here. I think I’ll bag up the rest of the meat and take it to town today.”
Tim’s excitement abruptly stopped, “Why are you going to town?”
“There’s too much meat for us to eat on our own. I might as well sell the excess and use the money to buy some supplies. It’s a fairly long trip too, so we’ll probably stay at an inn tonight.”
Alec was now standing only a few feet away from him; Tim took a nervous gulp.
“We’re staying in a…village tonight?” he shakily asked.
Alec looked at Tim suspiciously, “Yeah, I was planning on it, but if there’s something wrong with that you can stay here at camp until I come back sometime tomorrow.”
Tim wasn’t eager to spend another night alone in the woods. With no idea how to start a fire or ward off a dangerous threat, it would be another cold and scary night. However, that also didn’t mean he was willing to venture into the public eye. Considering his current state, Tim didn’t think he’d be too popular amongst the locals.
“I’d love to go run this errand with you, but I’m not too sure I should be showing my face in public,” Tim finally admitted.
Alec’s eyes narrowed further. “What are you, some kind of criminal?” he bleakly asked.
Tim nervously chuckled, “Noooooooo, of course I’m not a criminal! I just… I’m a little shy, that’s all.”
Tim was sweating bullets, cringing at the thought he may have offered this stranger too much information.
Suddenly, Alec’s face lightened and he went back to wearing his usual mischievous grin. “I get you. But don’t worry about that, I think I have a solution.”
Then, without saying another word, Alec went climbing up his special tree and returned with two items. One, a large, leather sack. Two, a dark green cloak. Alec draped the cloak over Tim’s head, covering his back with soft fabric. Tim tightened the two strings of the cloak around his neck; it was tight enough to cover his face in shadows, but not tight enough to force his horns to jut out.
Alec motioned to Tim’s obscured face, “Voila.”
Tim laughed, “I guess this will do.”
“I’m glad you like it. After all, I would consider myself a connoisseur of fashion,” Alec dramatically declared while still wearing his forest camouflage covered in dried mud.
“Whatever,” Tim replied while rolling his eyes.
He walked out to the edge of the boys’ camp and pointed to the woods spread out before him. “Let’s go grab that dead deer.”
The remaining deer meat was directly northwest of Alec’s camp. It should only take about twenty minutes to get there, even with Tim possibly slowing me down, Alec thought as he began his trek through the woodland.
Alec had yet to get anything out of his relationship with Tim. This whole ‘friendship’ simply started because Alec saw a strange boy tromping around his domain. And naturally, the old man attacking Tim because of his ‘cursed horns’ only served to make Alec warier of Tim. That was especially strange because it seemed impossible that someone like Tim could be an actual threat. He looked to be at least a year younger than Alec, but he was incredibly short and scrawny, and generally gave off a weak aura. So to Alec, Tim was either a scared and lost child, or a mysterious and dangerous threat he couldn’t hope to comprehend. Thus, Alec wanted to keep him on a tight leash. He intended to get to the bottom of this mystery, as was his duty as the forest king. If Tim was just a sad kid, Alec fully intended on helping him. But if Tim really was a danger – to the forest or even the entire country – Alec knew he would do what needed to be done. Although Alec hadn’t learned much about Tim, at the very least, it was becoming increasingly clear that his mysterious past was linked to those strange horns.
Trailing behind Alec for about twenty minutes, Tim soon caught sight of what remained of the deer. It wasn’t pretty.
Alec had already taken the initiative to strip it, leaving a giant deer hide draped over a nearby rock. As soon as the two boys arrived, Alec started throwing clumps of deer meat into that leather bag he carried with him. Looking at the bloody muscle and stretched-out skin, Tim threw up a little in his mouth. He whipped around and kept his eyes glued to the ground, determined not to look at the death that surrounded him. But as his eyes wandered a bit, he saw a pair of antlers stashed away by a tree. They were massive things, sprouting in several directions in a round pattern that formed a crown of horns. It was an unpleasant reminder of what Tim was going through. He walked over to one of the antlers and reached out his hand. With a slight poke, Tim recognized they felt the exact same way his horns did. A small part of him wondered if his own horns would ever be that big and messy. Tim would have stayed there a while longer to further examine the antlers, but then Alec called back: “Hey, I got all the meat gathered up.”
Tim turned back around; Alec had the stuffed bag of deer meat casually slung around his shoulder.
“How are you carrying all that? It has to be like fifty pounds!”
“Nah, probably more like sixty,” Alec responded without answering Tim’s question.
But then he pointed to the deerskin lying on a rock, “At least I won’t have to carry that thing.”
“Why not?” Tim was curious.
Alec blankly stared at him as the realization slowly hit Tim that he would be the one to carry the deer pelt.
Tim whimpered a little.
“Don’t worry, it’s not too heavy. You just have to get it and the antlers,” Alec reassured him.
“The antlers too?”
“Yeah, but that should be even easier. I mean, you should already be used to lugging horns around.”
Alec chuckled a little and turned back around.
Tim didn’t know if he really appreciated the joke, but he complied by grabbing the deerskin and antlers. Meanwhile, Alec was staring up at the sun and slowly rotating his body. After a few seconds of that, he pointed off to the distance and declared: “That way!”
The two boys began their trip.
Tim had the large deer hide wrapped around his shoulders like a scarf; his hands carried the two antler pieces. The hide was about twenty pounds; it was still warm and (regrettably) a bit gooey. Each antler was about five pounds and (thankfully) dry. But to keep himself from throwing up, Tim focused on the task at hand – walking. He had a lot of ground to cover; Alec made it sound like it would take hours to reach civilization. On that long walk through the shining morning forest, the tension within Tim slowly built up and tied a knot inside his stomach. Sure, he had his little cape to protect himself from the public eye, but he didn’t know how the villagers would react to a mysterious stranger. Being around people after everything that’s happened to him was something he didn’t know if he could face. Nevertheless, with deerskin weighing down his shoulders and fear weighing down his heart, he pressed on.
Tim was hungry; he hadn’t had breakfast and had emptied out his stomach the previous night. And despite having his first good night's sleep in a while, he quickly became fatigued by all the walking. He simply wasn’t used to moving this much, but maybe that would be something he’d have to get used to in his new life. Despite those things, Tim never asked for a break. His growing anxiety kept him moving through the whole trip.
Once Tim finally made it out of the dense woodland, he was greeted by rolling hills for as far as the eye could see. The valley was so empty compared to the forest, just bright grass swaying to the spring breeze. It was probably sometime in the afternoon; the sun was hot overhead, and the sky was a brilliant blue. Soon something else caught Tim’s eye – a faded wooden sign, stuck crookedly in the ground. It read: “Yourc — population 3000” Tim looked past the sign and saw a collection of buildings only a couple of hundred yards away.
“Is this the place?” Tim asked. His voice was shaking.
“Yep!” Alec enthusiastically declared, “Let’s hit the market first.”
Alec began walking towards Yourc, and it took all of Tim’s strength to follow. His knees occasionally buckled from his anxiety, but he pressed on.
After walking several minutes to the village’s edge, Tim noticed there weren’t too many people around the town’s border. There were many small, rectangular houses of cobble and wood, but few people. That was good; Tim wasn’t prepared to be around large crowds.
The two boys started through the village, carried by the dusty road stripped of grass. Once he was further in, Tim noticed more people milling about. He saw some children running through the street and laughing without a care in the world. There was a fenced-off pasture area where a herd of sheep was peacefully grazing under the watchful eye of an old shepherd. Through the windows of houses, Tim could see women rigorously cleaning their living rooms. Tim’s heart ached as he saw all these people enjoying their simple lives. That place reminded him so much of Ekho, and he so badly wanted to go home. But he couldn’t allow himself to feel comfortable in this foreign world. He was a stranger masked by a cloak, carrying around various deer parts; he wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. The locals eyed Tim and Alec suspiciously, and Tim could hear whispers from the people he walked past. He was breaking out in a cold sweat and his legs felt like jello, but he knew he had to confidently press on to avoid any more intense stares.
It didn’t take long for the boys to make it to the heart of the village: the market.
It was a long stretch of wooden stands decorated with colorful banners. Each one also had a person stationed behind to announce the available stock.
“Tomatoes! Get some tomatoes!” one would shout.
“We’ve got fresh bread! Fresh bread!” said another.
“We’ve got chickens!” another proudly shouted as they held up a live chicken that was angrily pecking at the seller’s arms.
Alec took in a deep breath of the noisy air and sighed. “It’s been a while since I’ve gotten out of the forest! Isn’t this place great?” he cheerily asked.
There were so many people there. Dozens, maybe even hundreds of people walking about. They were chatting noisily, buying produce, and eating smoked meats. It was a perfectly normal day for these people; they didn’t even know what Tim was going through. But all Tim could hear was all their voices mixed together in a jumble.
So much noise. So much noise! So much noise!
Tim couldn’t think, he felt so claustrophobic being surrounded by such a clatter of voices. He took quick, sharp breaths. He felt like all these strangers were staring directly at him with their piercing, skeptical eyes. There was pressure squeezing his body. He wanted to scream. He couldn’t handle these voices. The voices needed to leave!
“Hey, man, is everything okay?” Alec whispered while gently nudging Tim on the shoulder.
Tim must have looked pretty messed up. He was frozen in place, completely dazed and breathing heavily. But he knew he had to act like nothing was wrong. After all, it was a perfectly normal day for everyone else, why shouldn’t it be for him too?
Tim focused in on Alec’s voice; it was the only voice he was comfortable hearing.
“Yeah – I’m fine,” he managed to sputter out.
“If you say so…” Alec responded clearly unconvinced.
Regardless, Alec pressed on into the market.
Shuffling in and out of the crowd of people, Alec made his way to the vendor at the end of the market. The whole time, Tim stuck close to Alec. He could sense strange nervous energy from him. In fact, Alec had noticed Tim had been acting tense ever since they had made it to the village. But they continued, and soon made it to the wooden stand Alec’s favorite vendor called home.
“Hiya, Alec!” Melody merrily exclaimed.
Melody was an older woman, probably in her early sixties. Despite her graying hair and the wrinkles covering her weathered face, she still always wore a bright smile. She was one of the only people that was anything close to being a friend to Alec.
“I see that you brought in another deer today,” She said while glancing at the two travelers. Her eyes stopped on Tim.
Her grin widened, “Well lookie here! Looks like Alec’s made a new friend!”
Tim froze with a glazed-over look on his face.
“So, kid, what’s your name?”
Tim still wasn’t mentally present, so Alec patted his shoulder. Tim snapped back to attention, “My name’s Tim,” he managed.
Melody turned back to Alec. “I think it’s nice you have someone with you now. You’ve been alone in the forest for so long.”
Alec waved his hand, “Oh, never mind that. More importantly, look at this deer I scored.”
Alec dumped the heavy bag of meat onto the table, relieved by the weight removed from his shoulder. Melody ripped the bag open and started taking out chunks of meat.
“There’s a lot here, you must have found a big one!”
Alec motioned to the large antlers Tim was holding, “I’d say so.”
Unlike many of the other vendors in the market, Melody offered no items for sale at her stand. She simply bought up knick knacks that interested her and always seemed to find somewhere else to sell them. She took a few minutes to inspect the various deer parts the two had dropped onto her stand, and once she was satisfied, she handed Alec a small, brown drawstring pouch. Opening it up, Alec found twenty bronze coins.
“Is that all?” Melody asked.
“Yeah, thanks a lot Melody,” Alec replied.
Melody turned back to Tim. “Now make sure you watch out for Alec’s back. That boy attracts trouble like a magnet.”
Alec spent another hour checking out vendors around the market, but couldn’t find anything for a reasonable price. A pound of beef jerky costs a whole four coins! A decent set of arrows cost six! What is happening to the economy? I’ve heard local warlords have been imposing harsh taxes, but this is just insane, Alec thought in amazement as he examined an excessively expensive pair of shoes.
Thus, Alec didn’t end up buying a single thing during his trip to the market. the trip, though Tim still stayed relatively close to Alec, he seemed to loosen up a bit over time. Once Alec was done with his shopping, he walked away from the busy road and returned to the village’s quiet main street. He could sense a lot of Tim’s tension suddenly evaporate. But more importantly than that, Alec’s moaning stomach made him realize how hungry he was.
“Let’s go grab some grub,” he announced.
At the edge of the village, directly opposite the forest, lay a small inn. It was late afternoon, probably sometime after two. Entering through a rustic wooden door that looked as if it was about to fall off its hinges, Tim looked around a small, dingy room. Scattered about were old wooden tables with large men sitting in front of plates of steaming hot food and drink. The room had only a few windows and was mostly lit by a handful of softly glowing torches on the wall. Tim figured that was probably for the best; the lack of light helped to disguise the amount of dirt and grime the stone floor was covered with. As he followed Alec into the room, he could feel the patrons’ eyes on them while they walked. They were all very large, very scary-looking men. Every one of them looked to be over six feet tall with bulging muscles and manes of black hair, and they probably didn’t take too kindly to a couple of kids encroaching on their club. Nevertheless, Alec confidently strode through the room, acting as if he never gave the dozen men a second thought.
There was a long, stone counter with a handful of wooden stools pulled up to it. Tim could see an opening in the wall behind the counter. The entry was covered by a dark red curtain. Various bottles of colorful liquid lined a shelf behind the counter. Based on what those bottles contained, this probably wasn’t the kind of place Tim would have been allowed to visit when he still lived in Ekho. But maybe that’s the one benefit of being a kid tackling the world on your own: no adults can tell you not to go into shady pubs.
Alec banged his knuckles against the stone surface a couple of times. The dark red curtain behind the counter suddenly whipped open; a very short and fat man waddled out. He looked to be in his forties; he was extremely sweaty and wore an anxious smile. His oily, ebony hair was thinning, but he tried to hold onto what he had left by growing it out long on one side to comb over to the other side. He stood directly in front of Alec with the counter between them, though Alec stood at least half a foot taller.
“What can I do for you today?” the man squeakily asked.
Alec got down to business: “The two of us will be staying at your inn tonight; we’ll need one room with two beds. We would also like some food right now.”
“Okay, that’ll be nine bronze coins.”
Alec dramatically whistled. “Man, prices have been so high lately,” He said as he grabbed the brown coin pouch from his pants pocket and started counting out coins.
“Yeah, times have been tough,” the innkeeper absentmindedly responded while greedily eying the coins.
When Alec had them on the table, the innkeeper’s quick, raccoon-like hands darted out to grab them. He then turned around and walked back through the curtain without taking the boys’ food orders.
Alec sighed, “I guess we just have to pray we get some decent grub.”
Then he turned his attention to a two-person table in the middle of the dining room. There were more private tables toward the dark corners of the room, but Alec chose one right next to the big scary men. Sometimes Tim just didn’t understand Alec’s thought process.
“Weird children! Weird children! Your food is ready!” the innkeeper’s voice bellowed through the room. Tim got up from his seat and returned to the bar. The innkeeper had already disappeared through the curtain but had left two plates of lukewarm food on the counter. Great, it only took them thirty-five minutes, Tim thought while grabbing both plates.
He returned to the table and placed one plate in front of Alec. Alec had been silently sitting at the table since they began waiting for food, staring off into the distance without ever acknowledging Tim. He returned to reality when he received food.
“OOOooo,” His mouth watered.
Tim sat down with a plate in front of him. Picking up the silver fork that was provided, he found a mountain of mashed potatoes, some slabs of turkey, and a sprinkling of peas. Or, more accurately: mushy peas, chunky potatoes, and turkey slices that were a little too cold. Regardless, Tim dug in.
Tim hadn’t had a proper meal in days. All he had to eat were those awful berries and wild rabbit meat. The food served to him at the inn was far from the best meal of his life, but at the time it sure felt like it was. (Especially after not eating anything all day.) He messily shoveled potatoes and turkey into his mouth, barely stopping to breathe. Alec did the same as if each boy had forgotten any sense of table manners. But this little eating ritual lasted only about ten minutes, then Tim reclined in his chair feeling fat and happy.
Tim and Alec must have sat there for a couple of hours, occasionally ordering mugs of some kind of sweet, red nectar. During that time customers would come and leave, but Tim and Alec would always be there, simply watching. It always seemed to be big tough guys who came in; they were always muscular and wore harsh scowls on their faces. But none of them tried to hide their confusion when they saw two boys sitting in the middle of a place like that. It didn’t help that Tim looked incredibly uncomfortable. Nobody could see his veiled face, but it was still clear being in such an adult place made him nervous. Sweat was trickling down his face, and he was as tightly tensed as a wound-up clock. He had also slouched down in his chair. In contrast, no matter how nervous Tim was, Alec always held his head high. Tim didn’t understand how he could do it, but Alec looked just as mature and self-assured as anyone else in the bar, if not more so. And even if Tim didn’t show it on the outside, being next to Alec’s powerful presence made him feel a bit more at ease.
Eventually, a soft orange light began to filter through the one small window of the room. Sunset had begun. Business at the bar had picked up; now there were about thirty men drowning themselves in bottles of strong concoctions. These men were loud; they talked and laughed with such a thunderous noise that the entire bar seemed to shake.
But all that stopped when someone burst through the entrance door. The old hinges squealed in agony, and the door’s wooden surface crashed into the wall. Standing in that door frame, was a man larger than anyone else Tim had seen at the bar. Standing six and a half feet with massive arms and a bulging stomach, he was a true giant. The room went completely silent with his arrival.
Once he stepped into the bar, the torches illuminated his face just enough to see that it was a wild jungle. The untamed, ebony locks hung down from the front of his head, obscuring his eyes. The thick beard around his mouth made it hard to see much else. He began to walk to the counter. With every booming step, Tim thought he could feel the vibrations of his monstrous boots hitting the ground.
The innkeeper had already appeared from the red curtain, now dwarfed by the presence of the approaching newcomer.
And that newcomer, in a deep rumble of a voice, told the innkeeper: “I’m here for the Fire Brew challenge.”
And then, the peace and quiet ceased as all the men in the bar started hooting and cheering.
“Man, this guy seriously means business,” Alec mumbled.
Tim was confused; he had never heard of a ‘fire brew’ challenge before.
“What’s a Fire Brew challenge?”
Alec looked up at Tim. “Oh, it’s just a little tradition this particular bar has. It’s just a drinking competition.”
Tim still thought something was up. “But why is everyone treating it like such a big deal?”
Alec’s eyes gleamed, “Well, that’s probably just because the ‘fire brew’ is the strongest, spiciest, and most vile drink that’s ever existed.”
“Why would anyone drink something like that?”
Alec flashed a wicked grin, “For the fun of course!”
“I still don’t get the point of this,” Tim muttered.
“Look, the game is simple. You get a small cup of the poison, and you drink it. Then you continue drinking more cups until you pass out or are forced to leave your seat. I think the record number of drinks in one sitting is six.”
Tim still didn’t think this ‘game’ sounded any fun, but he was curious to see how it would play out for the big guy. Conversation had overtaken the bar again, and everyone appeared to have a guess for how many drinks the guy will be able to swallow.
“I think he’ll be able to do four!”
“No way, he’ll get at least six!”
“A big guy like that is sure to smash past the record!”
But in one corner, there were a group of five guys whispering to each other. Then, one of the men from the group stood up and declared: “I too will try the challenge!”
The other four started pumping their fists and the air and cheering.
Now, this guy was a big, burly man – similar to most other people in the bar – but he wasn’t anywhere near as big as the giant who kickstarted this campaign.
Alec had watched all this happen. His face was beginning to break out in a wide grin. Tim didn’t like the look of it. He started to madly chuckle to himself.
“This is getting exciting,” He mused.
Tim was reallystarting to feel nervous.
Then, Alec shot up from his chair. He took a bow before the entire room and smoothly announced: “Consider me the third participant.”
Every adult in the room stared in shock at the young teenager who had so enthusiastically volunteered. Next, their shock turned to jeering laughter.
Tim grabbed Alec’s arm, “I don’t think this is a good idea,” he hissed.
Alec gently removed Tim’s hand. “Don’t worry, I’ve tried the fire brew before, I can handle a drink or two.”
Tim looked towards the giant who had started this whole mess. He looked back to Alec, “But one of these guys is like four times your body weight! If you try to outdo him, you could literally kill yourself!”
Alec glanced at the giant. A fiery spark had ignited in his eyes. “I can totally take that guy on.”
He turned away from Tim. “Trust me, just sit back and watch. Nobody but me knows what I’m capable of.”
He began walking away, and Tim should have left it at that. It really wasn’t any of his business; after all, he and Alec were practically strangers to each other. But Tim still didn’t understand why he would want to do something this crazy. So one last time, he called out: “Alec, why are you doing this?”
Alec turned back to face Tim for just a second. He simply shrugged his shoulders and answered: “For fun.”
The innkeeper had prepared a long table at the side of the room perpendicular to the bar. Three chairs sat at the long side of the table, directly in view of everyone in the pub. The giant took a seat at the far left, the normal man in the middle, and Alec to the right which was closest to the counter. All the people in the bar had begun chanting and cheering as the three champions took their seats. Alec still received a few looks of suspicion. Of course, Tim had his doubts; he wanted to believe Alec knew what he was doing, but this was absolutely crazy. He sat at the edge of his seat, anxiously biting his fingernails while he waited to see what would happen.
The innkeeper eventually came from behind the counter with a barrel.
“Are you gentlemen ready?” the innkeeper asked.
All three participants eagerly nodded. They all had a spark in their eyes.
The innkeeper had already put a silver goblet in front of each contestant and now began ladling a little brew into each of them. He would only give each contestant a very small amount, but Tim could still clearly see the bright liquid. It seemed strangely luminous in that dank tavern.
Once every contestant got their drink, the innkeeper stepped away and shouted: “Start!”
The three simultaneously grabbed their drinks and brought them to their lips. The goblets were quickly emptied and the contestants slammed them back onto the table.
Everything was perfectly still and quiet for several seconds. Then someone loudly cleared their throat. It was the contestant at the middle of the table. The throat clearing quickly became a cough, then a violent attack. It went on for too long, and his face was reddening. He went from a little pink to deep, tomato red in a matter of seconds. He clawed at his throat to no avail, wildly flapping in his seat the entire time. Then, after much struggle, everything went silent again. His eyelids closed; he slumped over sideways and fell out of his chair.
Alec was staring at the man as he collapsed onto the stone floor with a thud!
This guy isn’t any better than the many deer I’ve slain, Alec realized as he stared at the big and ‘tough’ unconscious man at his feet.
The man’s quick defeat had caused laughter to erupt from the room. Looking through the crowd, Alec could see Tim turn as pale as a ghost. A few moments later two of the defeated man’s friends came forward to drag his body to the loser’s corner of shame. But Alec couldn’t be bothered to think of anyone else anymore, he needed to turn his attention back to the cup set before him.
The first drink had felt like a million needles dancing in his mouth; but thankfully, the rest of his body felt completely fine. His stomach felt perfectly normal.
The Innkeeper returned to the two contestants with a bit more of the orange liquid for each. Peering into his chalice, Alec was convinced that it couldn’t be more than an ounce. He looked at the stone giant sitting across the table from him; he couldn’t tell if the hulking man was even remotely fazed by the first drink. The two contestants picked up their second round and quickly tossed it back.
If you’re reading this at home, feel free to join in on the game if you’d like. The rumored recipe to make the fire brew is quite simple: it’s one part hot pepper juice, one part scorpion venom, one part literal lava from a volcano, and finally a squirt of lemon for flavor. Then, you just stir for three hours and leave the concoction in a sealed container for a year. See, making the fire brew is quite easy, but drinking it? Now that’s where the fun really begins.
Alec’s second drink was a bit more…intense. His nostrils flared as his mouth filled with heat, and all he could do was take in sharp breaths of cool air. Sweat started running down his face, and his eyes were tearing up. But that’s fine, he had eaten plenty of spicy food before. No matter how many taste buds he scorched, he’d always be willing to keep going. The thing that actually concerned him was the gentle rumble he had felt in his stomach. The real party’s about to get started, he realized.
Soon the Innkeeper came with another shot of fire brew. Alec took another glance at his competitor and saw that his face was stoic. The giant didn’t even pay Alec any attention. Still, Alec picked up his next round and swallowed it in one gulp.
Alec’s mouth was a barren, scorched desert. Cool air wasn’t going to do anything to help him at that point, so he kept his mouth glued shut. Tears were blurring his vision, so he didn’t bother to check on his competitor. He could hardly see the crowd surrounding him, but he could hear them. Their cheers had grown progressively louder as the challenge went on; some were simply shouting and some were banging on tables.
“Go, giant, go!” most would shout.
“Go, weird kid!” a few others shouted.
Alec fully intended on giving them the show they were all looking for. There was just one small problem: the pain in his stomach was growing. Uncomfortable gurgles and gasses were building up, and this was only the beginning.
Alec heard another shot being poured, and he snatched his chalice without hesitation.
Most people don’t understand the true danger of the fire brew. Sure, it will set your mouth on fire, but that’s the least of your problems. You can always condition your mouth to ignore flaming heat, but most people can never prepare themselves for the kind of havoc the brew wreaks on their stomachs. It does so much more than just upset a stomach from its natural state; it actively attacks a stomach. Alec wanted to double over from the pain, but he refused to let it get to him. He still had a few more drinks to go. The innkeeper poured yet another round, and Alec took the bait.
When Alec was new to living in the forest, finding food was always a struggle. He was not yet familiar with a bow and did not know how to snare wild game in a trap. Thus, on cold, hungry nights, he would often resort to eating the wild red berries he’d find on bushes. These berries certainly weren’t deadly, but given enough time they would harshly punish your digestive system. But like everything else he managed to conquer in the wild, he beat that problem. He ate so many berries over and over again, that he simply couldn’t get sick from them anymore. That’s how – despite being an average-sized teenager – Alec could make it through five cups of the fire brew. He had already put his stomach through heck so many times, so what were a few cups of spice compared to that? That’s not to say he wasn’t in anguish; he was certainly starting to feel the wrath of the drink build up in the pit of his belly. Whatever vile demon resided in that brew had been released within him. It expanded, filling his stomach, and violently clawed at the sides.
Everything had become a daze to Alec. With so much stuff going on in his body, and the chaotic yelling filling the room, he didn’t really have enough space to think. Blind with tears and his brain distracted, he felt the whole room become a blur of colors and noise. He blindly grasped the table and felt around until his hand met the cool surface of his chalice. He picked it up; the innkeeper had already poured a new drink.
He drained the cup once again.
Alec’s head was spinning. He was sitting still in his chair, but he felt detached from his body. His stomach was sinking to the fiery underworld and his head felt light, like it could just fly away. His eyes shut for a moment, and he almost let them stay that way.
No! I can keep going! Alec shouted in his head.
The cheering of the crowd, the fire igniting in his body, the record he was about to pass; he was just having so much fun! He excitedly slammed his hands on the table.
I can totally beat that giant.
But then, something strange happened. Suddenly, the jumbled yelling clogging up the room became more clear; every patron let out a collective gasp.
Alec turned to the other side of the table, and through his thick tears, he could dimly see the figure of the giant passed out on the table. Alec had outlasted the giant.
The cheering erupted again, much louder than before. But under that boisterous noise, Alec caught the anxious whisper of the innkeeper. Alec had to use his hunter’s ears to make out: “Do you want another round?”
Alec’s main motivation for joining the game wasn’t out of a need to prove himself to anyone; he just wanted to have some fun. And now that he’s had his fun, there wasn’t really any reason to push himself to the breaking point. Yet, Alec had proved himself. He was tougher than any man who was currently in the bar. He only needed one more drink to pass the current record, and that would show that he was the toughest to ever visit the bar.
Alec held up his index finger, “One more,” he managed to croak out.
Everyone in the bar went silent as Alec took his final drink. He then dropped his cup onto the table and sat still for a few seconds. Then, everything went black.
When Alec awoke, he was lying on a small bed. The mattress was a little hard, and the blankets were a little less than soft, but it was the first time he’d been in a bed in weeks.
He drew in a calloused breath and his stomach churned.
I need to get to the bathroom, he desperately thought. He was just about to crawl out of his bed when he noticed a wooden bucket sitting at his bedside.
That'll do, he decided.
An uncomfortable feeling was rising from the bottom of his stomach to the top of his throat; he didn’t hesitate to grab the bucket to start puking his guts out.
It burns even more coming back up! he furiously realized as his throat was set on fire.
After violently emptying the contents of his stomach, Alec ran out of stuff to give and was thrown into a fit of wild coughing. He gently dropped the warm bucket on the cobbled floor beneath.
He coughed for a full minute before he could take a deep breath in relief.
He sunk into the lumpy pillow propped up on his bed. Looking around, he realized he was in one of the inn’s rooms. It was a small space with barely standing, rotting, wooden walls. A small window a few feet away indicated it was pitch-black nighttime, so the only way Alec could even see was by the waning candle that stood on a nightstand next to a second bed. And in the corner of the room, Tim sat in a rickety old chair, staring intently at Alec.
Alec let out another cough and smiled weakly, “I guess I made it through the game.”
Tim’s black eyes were fierce. Alec had seen no beast in the forest with that piercing glare. “I wouldn’t call it much of a game,” he sharply replied.
An awkward moment passed between the two before Tim’s eyes finally softened.
“But that little display of yours was pretty impressive,” he admitted.
Alec laughed in spite of the pain in his gut. “Heck yeah, it was.”
Tim chuckled a bit and shook his head. “I just met you yesterday and I already have a feeling I’m never going to fully understand you.”
Alec took a deep sigh. “I don’t think I will either.”