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Wilderness: Book One - The Forest (Chapter Sixteen - The Visitor)

Colin Frayn
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Two weeks had passed since the victory over the ogres. The remains of the beasts had been carried a safe distance from the fort and cremated in a substantial funeral pyre. The few damaged sections of the fort had been repaired, and the four valiant warriors were slowly healing from their painful struggle with death.

Tarok had slept well in the days after the battle, and was now back to full health. Carek took a little more time to recover, as his injuries were rather more severe. A handful of bruises remained, though he could now at least return to hunting. Even Athena was back on her feet; walking round the fort and even going for her early morning swim once more. She was still understandably shaken after such a narrow escape, but was glad to be alive. Fortunately, Tarok's magic had helped to repair a fractured arm that she had suffered during the battle. Carek had broken a few ribs and suffered some extremely nasty bruises, but otherwise he had avoided serious harm. Considering the strength of the ogre warriors, they had all escaped extremely lightly.

The nights were drawing in fast, and Carek knew that the wet season would soon arrive in the valley. This meant weeks without a break in the clouds, and seemingly endless torrents of rain, sometimes for days without even the slightest respite. The group spent as much time outside as they could, eager to make the best of every last minute of daylight. Carek spent much of his time digging drainage trenches around the fort. The channels all ran through a hole in the perimeter wall, and down into the moat. As soon as the real rains started, the moat would surely overflow its banks. Carek hoped that the fort would remain solid as the ground slowly began to wear away underneath. The careful decisions that they had made early on in the construction were now reaping their rewards.

Tarok spent most of the time reading and studying, as the days grew steadily shorter. Carek followed suit as soon as he had he finished the drainage system. He had a lot to learn, and the sooner that he could learn it the better. The winter months were an ideal time to spend learning new skills inside. Carek was used to the winter season by now, but this year would be the first for many when he would finally have some company to help pass the long, cold months. Tarok was already hard at work improving his powers so that he could begin to conjure up slightly more appetising meals using his magic. If Tarok really worked hard, then his meals would really lift the spirits of the group. If they didn't get much better, however, then the winter months would certainly test the resolve of the four friends.

Doragon spent some time drawing up a plan for the coming year. He had agreed to stay on with the group for as long as they would let him, deciding that forest life actually suited him quite well. He had no further need of money after the find at the monolith. Although he knew he could now return to Tarnadon and live quite a wealthy life for a while, he somehow preferred living exactly where he was - not having to worry about taxes or thieves. In the forest, he didn't have to take orders from anyone, nor live according to a set of meaningless laws. The freedom of the forest was more than compensation for its obvious perils. Now at least he knew that he was as safe as possible in the fort, and that the group were strong enough to defeat all but the most deadly of enemies the forest could muster. It was not at all like a halfling to actually enjoy living in such an inhospitable place, which is probably why Doragon enjoyed it so much. He was already planning the first chapter to his latest book, "Forest of Danger!" He liked the thought of returning to his homeland in a few years' time, once more a hero to his people. The title alone would probably scare off at least half the population of his village.

Athena actually spent as much time as she could find practising her sword techniques in her room. She tried to learn new moves, and perfected her timing and co-ordination. She also worked out a fitness programme so that she didn't get out of shape during the rainy season. That was most important to her. She was a fighter, and as such, she had to keep her body in top condition. Every extra ounce of strength would help her in a fight, and all the endurance she could build up would help her to last just that little bit longer, and maybe swing that one last, decisive sword blow.

As the rainy season began, the skies darkened, bringing with them the beginnings of the promised darkness and rain to the valley. It was a sombre time, and tested the usually cheerful spirits of those living in the fort. Even Doragon, who was normally the one they turned to for a sure source of amusement and optimism, was beginning to lose his usual wit under the monotonous downpour.

The ferocity of the rains surprised even Tarok, who thought he had experienced some bad weather back in Tarnadon. In the valley, the rains persisted for rather longer. Some days were mostly dry, but always by the late afternoon, the skies had turned black once more, preparing for an evening downpour. The moat was overflowing but fortunately, Carek's drainage system and careful planning meant that the courtyard remained mostly free from flooding.

About six weeks into the rainy season, the weather seemed to be drying up slightly. Carek and the others knew that it wouldn't last, but decided to go out for a while every day to check for flood damage and re-dig the overworked drainage system. The first day was fine all day long, and work was completed quickly so that everyone could spend time looking at the winter scenery.

The forest was quite a different sight now that it had shed its warm autumn hues. The deciduous trees had lost their rich splendour of leaves, and the pines and conifers looked out of place in the bare, fragile landscape, adding bright specks of green amidst a sea of grey and brown. From the top of the tower, the view was glorious. Now that some of the interposing tree tops were gone, one could see for miles around, and the four friends took regular advantage of this opportunity to explore the beauty of the surrounding area.

The fort, as Carek knew, lay in the middle of a wide valley with a river nearby which meandered through the middle. The river was mostly rather easy to wade across. None the less, it was usually well stocked with fish, frogs and various other harmless creatures. No doubt it was flooding with all the rain, spilling out onto the marshland surrounding its banks. Fortunately, it was downhill from the fort, so posed no immediate threat. Carek could remember the occasional rainy season from his youth when the river would flood vast areas of the valley floor, but he could never remember it approaching anywhere near the village. That was perhaps why his ancestors had chosen such a spot to build on in the first place. The village was near enough to the river to go fishing when it was dry, but sufficiently far away to be safe when it was wet.

Over the other side of the hill, across the stream and past the western horizon, lay Tarnadon, the nearest town. Carek remembered the busy streets, everyone rushing to get from some place to another and then rushing to get back again. When faced with such a picturesque view as he saw that winter's day, it was a wonder more people didn't venture into the Eastern Forests. One breath of clear forest air could entice anyone away from the damp, mouldy streets of the town for a lifetime. Sadly, a lifetime in the Eastern forests might not be that long.

The valley itself stretched out in both directions as far as anyone could see past the intervening trees, and the gentle slopes on either side did not seem dead in the gloom of winter, but somehow dormant in peaceful tranquillity. They were sheltered in many ways - the cold winter winds seemed to pass more or less over their heads thanks to the valley sides. However, the warmer autumn breezes seemed to pick up and flow through the valley, whistling all the more as they passed by. The trees acted as a shield from the winds, which was sometimes useful, but tended to leave the valley uncomfortably humid over the summer months. Every benefit the forest gave seemed to have some negative effect to cancel it out. However, the inverse was also true. In this time of great rains, the low-lying areas of the valley were enriched by silt from the flooding river, and in the spring, a carpet of bright green buds would burst forth into a floral tapestry of unparalleled vibrancy and colour.

For a few days, the weather held out, and Carek was beginning to wonder if the rains had stopped already, but was rather disappointed to see on the horizon a great mass of grey cloud that would inevitably bear down on them within the next few hours. The rains had returned, just as he knew they would. The rains never stopped altogether. Sometimes they came a few weeks later than usual, and finished a week or two early. That was about as good as anyone could expect.

As Carek looked out over the denuded forest canopy, he saw a small dot on the horizon moving towards the fort. It circled gracefully, swooping down to tree-top level, and then climbing rapidly up into the sky. Intrigued, he looked more closely as the bird came ever closer, and began to take form. This was some kind of large, winged creature, but Carek couldn't see too well as it was still far away. Quite rapidly however, the creature flew closer and closer, until Carek noticed a flash of light reflecting off its red scales. It was then that Carek realised what he was watching. With the rains came dragons. It was at this time of year that the young dragons, eager to prove themselves in the wild and to find themselves a lair, left their parents and flew out into the wide world.

Carek beckoned to the others to watch the creature as it flew around, surveying its territory. Tarok wasn't at all pleased, "It's a red dragon. I've heard tales of these things, but I've never seen them. Let's hope it keeps its distance. I hear these beasts are ferocious carnivores. They breathe fire from a long range until their prey is dead, and then swoop in and snatch it with their powerful jaws." It seemed quite a daunting foe. The group stood perfectly still, watching as the beast flew nearer and nearer, presumably searching out a suitable place to call home.

Tarok walked back down the tower and began to prepare some spells. Carek rushed to fetch his spear and bow. Athena already had her sword, but ran to fetch her crossbow too. If the beast attacked then she wanted to weaken it as much as possible from a safe distance. Doragon got his sword and held it ready by his side. As they watched nervously, the ominous dark red mass flew ever closer. It seemed to spot the group, an altered its course to examine them. It was now less than half a mile away, diving ever closer. Now they could pick out the deep red scales, the mighty wings and the long, spiked tail. The dragon covered the ground quickly, and was soon upon them. Tarok held out his hand towards the two archers. "Don't fire unless it attacks. It might just fly over our heads." He doubted it.

The dragon swooped downwards. As it opened its mouth, a burst of flame shot out. Tarok ducked behind the battlements as the fireball whistled narrowly overhead, crashing into the far wall of the fort with a thud and a bright conflagration. Carek and Athena let fly the first barrage of arrows towards the winged beast. Carek hit twice, but one shot bounced off the creature's tough scaly hide. Athena hit once, her bolt sticking deep into the dragon's neck.

Enraged by the attack, the dragon flew downwards swiftly. Carek managed to hit it once more in the torso, and Tarok conjured up a ball of flame, which raced towards its target, and exploded on impact in a huge burst of heat. The creature screamed in pain, and turned back, to prepare the rest of its attack, enraged.

A few moments later, the dragon flew back above the tree tops and hovered over the fort, his evil eyes surveying the scene below him. An evil cackle emulated from his mouth, laughing at the group's imminent fate. With a scream it swept down once more, diving towards the tower.

The creature's mouth opened, and a bolt of flame shot out towards the battlements, narrowly missing Tarok and sending the poor wizard to the ground. Tarok felt a sudden pain down his side as the dragon's fire reacted with the magical energy that he had been trying to control. The two forces merged, and surged through his body. The pain was intense. Tarok collapsed to the floor, blacking out for several moments until the biting pain subsided and the surge of energy dissipated into the ground. The dragon screeched again and sent another bolt at Carek, but the half-elf managed to jump out of the way in time as the fiery blast thudded into the tower, smashing into one side. The tower still stood firm as the solid posts absorbed the power of the explosion.

Carek and Athena realised that they were easy targets up the tower, and were also in danger if the structure collapsed underneath them. They ran down the ladders and out into the courtyard. The dragon circled round once more, then flew down towards its prey, hovering only a few yards above the ground, and finally landing and looking over the scene. Doragon had dragged Tarok's weak body to the side of the enclosure, and helped him to stand up. Tarok cast a healing spell on himself, and managed to shuffle down the ladder and out into the courtyard, ready to fight.

The group split up, trying to confuse the beast. Carek and Doragon went round the back, and began to stab at the creature's undefended side. Most shots were either parried by the dragon's tail or deflected by its tough hide. Carek managed to damage it twice, however, piercing the thick, armoured scales. Tarok began to chant a few words to one of his spells at the front of the creature and his body began to glow. All of a sudden, pulses of electrical energy emulated from his fingertips, and began to wrap around the creature's head like rope. The foul beast roared and shook his head viciously, dispelling the powerful electrical bonds in a bright flash of counter-magic. Tarok gulped. Clearly the dragon had powerful abilities of its own.

Athena stared into the dragon's eyes, and drew her sword. Skilfully she thrust at the creature, her blade smashing through one of the dragon's delicate neck scales and drawing blood. Carek noticed that the dragon was pre-occupied, and stabbed at its side with his spear. The great creature roared in pain, and turned towards Athena. With one skilful blow from its front right talon, he knocked her to the ground and lunged forward with his jaws, the sharp teeth only narrowly missing Athena's side as the struggled free, swinging her sword in defence.

Tarok began to draw some more magical energy, and concentrated it towards his hands. This was another spell he had learnt from Kalarr's book. His fingertips began to glow. He had to summon and control some truly dangerous magic, designed to paralyse its intended target. The great danger was that the magician might accidentally release it on himself. Tarok had been practising this spell for some weeks now. He reached out and tried to create a channel to the creature through which he could pour the magical energy, but the beast managed to dodge all of Tarok's thrusts. In despair, Tarok abandoned that spell and stepped back. He managed to salvage some of the energy, instead forming it into a different shape, and sending a bolt of crackling electricity towards the dragon's scaly hide. The creature reeled in pain once more, the bolt striking home with a flash and a loud thunderous shock.

Carek and Doragon hacked at the dragon's body with all their might while it was distracted, breaking several scales and exposing the weak flesh of the creature's underbelly. Athena by now had managed to stand up again, and stepped forward to confront the dragon head on. Confused, the beast spun round, and began to realise that it was losing the fight. As it spread its wings for flight, Carek thrust his spear into the creature's unguarded side, no longer protected by the thick red wing armour. The dragon roared in pain, and struck Carek with its claws, throwing him onto the ground. Summoning its last energies, the creature whipped its tail and sent Doragon tumbling to the floor. Slowly it rose up and flew back into the skies. Carek fired two more arrows at it - one hit, but the other fell short, blown off course by the wind. Athena managed to hit the fleeing creature with her crossbow too as the dragon flew clumsily away over the tree tops, and out of view.

Just as the four jubilant adventurers were beginning to celebrate their victory over the dragon, there was a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder in the distance. Dark clouds were pouring into the valley once more, and they knew that the rains had returned. The four friends rushed back inside, excited about the battle, but still a little disappointed that the dry spell had been so short-lived.

Tarok lit a small fire inside the hut, and the others asked him to tell them about dragons, now that they had successfully defeated their first. They were all eager to learn from the wise wizard, and always enjoyed his little stories. Quite how he had learnt so much amazed them, but they knew that Tarok had spent a long time studying. The wizard sat quietly in front of the leaping flames for a few moments, and then began to speak in his favourite, authoritative but mysterious tone. "The dragons of this world, so I hear, are mainly vicious and evil creatures intent on destruction. They can live to be well over one thousand years old, and become extremely powerful. Few people have ever seen any of the really venerable dragons, and most that do never live to tell of their encounter. Younger dragons, by that I mean those of about two to three hundred years old, tend to be those that are heard about most frequently, marauding homes and whole villages in packs, stealing valuable items and causing death and destruction. There are also tales of dragons stealing people and animals, presumably for food." He paused for a few moments to sip on a mug of piping hot tea.

Tarok started again, "However, most encounters are of the most common kind. That is to say red dragons, like the one we fought today. They are amongst the most powerful, and certainly the most evil. They are not, however, the only kind. Dragons are not all evil, for there are also good dragons that struggle continuously with their more malevolent brethren for true possession of the skies. Another thing, as I'm sure you'll know, is that dragons tend to hoard treasure. It's unlikely that our young friend today would have had any, but the older dragons are said to have piles of treasure with gold and silver beyond our wildest imaginations. Some own more than the richest of merchants, while some have collections of jewels that are beyond comparison. A large dragon may own hundreds of thousands of gold pieces - this is what makes them such favourite prey for adventurers. Many people have risked their lives to find treasures that they could only have dreamed of before, but unfortunately, few have ever managed to succeed. Those are the foolish ones who consider gold and silver more valuable than their own lives."

Tarok stopped as the three others were just beginning to think of more questions to ask. Athena was first. "I have heard also that dragons scales can be fashioned into armour. I've heard that they are remarkably strong." Tarok nodded. "Indeed, this is probably true. I have certainly read that the dwarfs of the northern lands are amongst the few people in the whole world who could fashion such an item. If we could find our dragon friend, then we could kill him and take his scales to the dwarfs and presumably pay them to create us some armour." Athena seemed intrigued, and relished the prospect of dragon-scale armour. She spoke again, "The dragon that we fought today won't be far away and he'll be very weak. We could easily beat him if we attacked soon."

She looked around. Tarok smiled and spoke, "I agree. The dragon is most probably dead already - we wounded him pretty badly. He wouldn't have been able to fly more than about a mile, and we saw the direction that he flew in. I say we find him, kill him if he's still alive, and then head for the northern lands and try to find the dwarfs." There followed a short pause of contemplative silence. This was a big journey that Tarok was proposing, but it seemed like just the kind of thing they needed.

"I agree!" said Doragon and Carek in unison. Carek took over, "We can't let this dragon survive to adulthood, as he will surely grow far more powerful, and will probably attack the nearby towns, killing many. If we finish him soon then we'll be doing the people of Tarnadon a great favour." They had already done them plenty of favours without their knowledge. The battles against hobgoblins and ogres had surely made the town a safer place. They would never see any reward for their troubles, but that was what true heroism was all about.

It was decided therefore to set off the following day, regardless of the weather, and search for the wounded dragon. They realised, however, that it would be best to wait until the rainy season was over to go off on any long expeditions. That would give Tarok enough time to finish converting the fort walls into stone, protecting against attacks and fire. It was clear now that the spell that he had cast many weeks ago had not fully worked, much to his disappointment. He obviously hadn't fully comprehended the required incantations, and was going to have to get very wet doing the job the long, tedious way. Several of the fort walls were beginning to turn to a dark, grey stone, but many of the posts had been missed. Moreover, there were some that had only been converted partially, and some which appeared to have changed to different shades of grey without gaining the hard, resilient nature of the stone that Tarok was hoping to achieve.

Tarok reckoned that it would take about eight weeks to finish off the walls and the tower. The rainy season would be over in about four or five weeks, which gave them at least three weeks at the end to prepare for the coming adventure. What an adventure it would be too! They had never been anywhere near the northern lands before, and in fact few travellers journeyed in that direction. The known realms ended at the foot of the Northern Mountains, which were at least as legendary as the Eastern forests in terms of adventurers who ventured inside, but never returned. This was also getting dangerously close to the orc lands, where barbaric raiding parties often charged through the valleys, killing many before being repelled by a valiant legion of human soldiers. Indeed, it was a dangerous place.

The next morning soon came, and it was raining. Not much of a surprise, but a small hindrance as the wet muddy tracks were slippery to walk along, and even harder to fight on. If they found the dragon alive, they were going to be in for quite an interesting struggle. They set off to the north in the direction of the dragon's hasty retreat of the previous day. They managed to navigate the slippery paths quite well, but were getting constantly wetter as the rain relentlessly poured down upon them. The greatly thinned-out forest canopy offered little protection from the downpour, so they just decided to keep going and get the job done as soon as possible.

After about twenty minutes, the group noticed that several of the tree-tops had been smashed down above them. Obviously, the dragon had grown weak from its injuries and could not summon the strength to remain in the air. They knew that he wouldn't be far away, and surely enough, they found him a few minutes later. The creature's majestic body lay in a wet, muddy mass beside some trees, which had been crudely smashed in its fall. The beast's body was more than eight feet in length, and its tail was at least as long again. The creature's wingspan must have been sixteen feet at the very minimum.

Carek stepped forward to check that the dragon was dead. He prodded it a few times, but there was no movement. It had probably died shortly after it had left the group the previous day, the exertion of its panicked flight evidently proving too much. A small trickle of blood had run from its wounded side down the valley slope, but had been mostly washed away by the pounding rain. The dragon's wounds were severe, and it must have been in great pain as it fled from the fort.

Athena stepped forward with her sword, and tried to lever off some of the dragon's thick, armour plated scales. It was hard work, but eventually she managed to break one off, exposing the creature's hide underneath. Once they removed one of them then the rest were a lot easier. They worked there for the best part of an hour, realising that they weren't going to get any wetter, so there was no sense hurrying back to the fort.

In all, they got over fifty undamaged scales, but many were small so were eventually discarded. They ended up with twenty-seven, all neatly piled up beside the lifeless corpse. Tarok also took the dragon's horns as a trophy, thinking that they could maybe be used for something later on. He didn't quite know what, but they looked impressive anyway. As the group left the plundered corpse, Carek turned back to pay his last respects to the reputed king of the skies.

Their backpacks heavy with a good day's plunder, the return journey took nearly twice as long. It didn't help greatly that the fort was uphill, and their route took them along a number of narrow, treacherous valley paths. The rain had lightened slightly, but was still pouring down upon them and there was no sign of it stopping. They were glad to get back into the safety and relative comfort of their fort a while later, and unloaded their backpacks onto the floor of the hut. Carek re-kindled the fire to keep warm, and they hung up their soaking wet clothes above it in an attempt to dry them off, changing into something drier and more comfortable for sitting around indoors.

Tarok spent a while looking over his wood to stone spell. He had managed to discover a slightly more powerful version of it, which he reckoned would save about a week on the conversion time. He learnt the spell, and went out with Carek to cast it, returning about five minutes later, soaked through once more. Tarok's next spell research would be some kind of magical umbrella, he had decided, to keep him dry when he was out casting magic. That would be a most popular discovery.

Carek spent the remaining daylight hours learning, and practising new spells whilst Doragon and Athena helped each other to practise their fighting skills. The next day went past much the same, and Tarok spent many hours just studying his books in near-total silence. Then, reluctantly, near evening he went out to continue with his magical conversion of the hill fort.

The next few weeks passed with the same routine; Tarok would go out into the rain, cast the latest version of the wood-to-stone spell a few times on the fort, then return and read for the rest of the day to preserve his energies. After a few weeks, he had also managed to devise his umbrella spell which was, it turned out, ready just in time to use for the last few days of rain. Athena and Doragon spent most of the days practising fighting techniques or exercising. Athena wanted to keep fit, and Doragon, who had never been particularly fit before in his life, was eager to try. Carek spent his days reading, practising new spells and working on his fighting techniques. This was the ideal time for the two spell casters to work on their powers, study hard and develop their minds as much as possible. Now that Tarok was at such a high standard, he was now more eager to learn than ever as more and more exciting spells came within his grasp. He was also able to help Carek to develop his meagre powers so that he would be of more use to the group.

As the days grew ever shorter, Tarok was beginning to come to the end of his project, with only two weeks left. The rains had now begun to leave, and the weather was becoming steadily drier. Eventually, the days began to lengthen again, and the group celebrated New Year's Eve as always. New Year was one of the few real festivals of the year, and as Tarok had kept a careful record of the passing days, they knew precisely when to hold it. It was at times like this when the group realised how little time meant out in the forest. They had no festivals or markets with which to keep track of the changing seasons, and Tarok's crude tally chart was the only link they still had with the calendar system of the rest of the kingdom. Not that it really mattered to them - their life was run by necessity now.

They would occasionally have a chance to check the accuracy of Tarok's timekeeping when they saw by night a few bright flashes coming from way over in the direction of Tarnadon, normally a good indication of miscellaneous wizards giving a fireworks display to mark some festival or other. Tarok remembered when his teachers used to give those displays at the New Year's Eve and Midsummer festivals. They seemed so impressive to him then, and indeed, they probably still would - his teachers were all powerful wizards, still more powerful than he was. However, he knew he was catching them up. He didn't have the solid foundation of training that they had, but he had something far better - experience. He began to wonder how many of his old teachers had been adventuring in the Eastern forests, or had battled orcs and ogres with their magic. Not many, he expected. As it happened, he guessed wrong. Old wizards seldom enjoyed talking about their youth. For most of them, their early days were filled with a great deal of unpleasant and often painful memories.

One week after New Year's Eve, Tarok announced that he had finished his task, and the group wandered around the fort to see what their magically protected outer wall now looked like. Tarok was the only one who had been out much as the rain had continued almost without ceasing, but recently they had all had a chance to follow his progress as he converted the last few posts into stone. It seemed that their valley home attracted more than its fair share of bad weather during the rainy season. Tarok could never remember winter being this bad before, although that may have been because he was sheltered inside his warm, comfortable house back in the town.

Tarok pointed out the hole in the wall where the drainage system lead out into the moat, and the block of wood that once plugged it was now stone as well. He showed them Carek's steps, which lead up to the rope bridge over to the hill fort. They were all stone now, and were a great deal more sturdy. The hill fort itself was stone, and the surrounding posts had been chiselled to sharp, spear-like points before their transformation had been performed. Tarok liked to take pride in his work, as ever. Everything was now completed, and the whole fort was much stronger than it had ever been before. There was no more risk of the whole lot burning down in a fire, that was for sure, and if any more red dragons came their way, breathing fire at them, then the tower would no longer be in danger of collapse.

It was now time to look to Athena's idea of searching for the Dwarfs of the northern Mountains. They were going to have to be careful, but the prospect of dragon armour inspired them to prepare for their long journey ahead. Tarok knew a little of the geography of those realms from his school days, and planned a crude, but sufficient map. The others examined it, generally not knowing anything of the lands so far to the north.

Little did they know of the adventures that lay ahead, nor indeed the dangers and troubles that they would face. The northern lands were a completely different place to their forest, indeed even to Tarnadon, which now seemed so alien to their way of life. They were going to have to be prepared for many surprises, not all of which would be pleasant. Nevertheless, they knew that, if they could find the dwarfs then their reward would be truly great.


WILDERNESS : Book 1 - The Forest Chapter 16 - The Visitor © Colin Frayn

Migrate Wizard: 
First Release: 
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