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A Tale of Sentinels and Men

Short story By: Saket Kant
Fantasy



The gripping first link of a story set in a Universe where there is no God, just his Regents. Get engrossed in the struggle of mankind as it fights to protect its identity from the Sentinels.


Submitted:May 12, 2013    Reads: 23    Comments: 1    Likes: 0   


A Tale of Sentinels and Men

"The prospects of such a finding are bleak indeed." The old man drawled nonchalantly, "For three hundred years, since the time of the Black Ages, this mysterious Forest has been swallowing those foolish enough to enter its depths . . . Not that I believe the tales myself. If you ask me, it's just some group of bandits loitering about. I don't think there'll be anything left of those travellers . . ."

"Don't matter what you think Serrion. Yer too dull to be thinkin' about anythin'." The peasant standing beside him answered.

"What! I . . ." Serrion started to retaliate, but another peasant cut him off, "Kirdan's right y' know, all ya've ever manag'd in yer life wuz to hang on to dat job of cleaning Harv's cowshed."

Serrion puffed up like a bullfrog and croaked imperiously," I'll have you sods know that I'm also the apprentice of the Great Haden . . . Bah! Why do I bother ? You idiots won't get anything."

Kirdan stated solemnly," We understand mor' than ya know, Serrion. Of course, yer the 'pprentice of Haden. . .as ya were two decades ago."

Having said this, Kirdan burst into peals of laughter along with the other peasant, holding their bellies, as Serrion turned a dark shade of red.

Suddenly, Serrion stiffened. Kirdan noticed, and still chuckling, said," What happened? Too much to swallo' ?"

Tense, Serrion put a finger to his lips and told them to be quiet. Kirdan fortunately noted Serrion's frightened expression and signalled his friend to stop giggling. As if on cue, a strange sound emanated from the trees, not far off, it seemed. It sounded like . . . cracking ice? But . . . there hadn't even been a snowfall recently and the ice would take hours to freeze. Serrion whispered,"Did you hear that?" . The peasants nodded, anxiety clearly etched on their faces.

Serrion was suddenly aware of how silent The Forest had become, and how far they had come from the village. Dusk was about to swallow them, half an hour, give or take, and the tall, dark trees loomed forebodingly over them, as if already mourning their loss.

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The torches were burning low, and night was almost upon them. Ieana carried a small copper pot to the flames and blew out the torch. Dusting off the ash and burnt hay, she pulled some strips of twined hay from the oil-filled pot and wrapping them around the wooden stick, repeated the process with the other torch next to the entrance of her hut. The small village had fallen silent, the day's hustle-bustle fading into the songs of crickets and other invisible creatures.

Ieana could see the village blacksmith, rushing home in the fading light, wiping his hands on his greasy apron. As he neared her hut, Ieana called out," Uncle Jord, have you seen father? He's not back yet." The bulky blacksmith raised his head, and slowing his pace, called back," Serrion? No . . . no, I don't think so. He wuz there with Haden at noon, buyin' somethin' at Nurea's hut. Haven' seen him since . . . he migh' be out at Harv's cowshed. . ."

Ieana's anxiety started to grow. She'd already paid Harv a visit, and the old farmer had been cross that Serrion had taken yet another holiday. Her father couldn't have gone near The Forest, could he? No, no, he wasn't THAT stupid. Jord could obviously sense it too, and came up to the hut," Shall I go and look for 'im?".

"My father would yet again be under your debt Uncle . . ."

Jord nodded resolutely and wheeling his huge frame away from the hut, started towards his smithy. It had grown dark by now, and the sun was a mere sliver of copper showing on the horizon.The air had grown colder, and the village deathly still. For a moment he was afflicted by that common malady of reassurance, that, for all he knew, Serrion might be lying drunk at Kirdan's house. Taking a deep breath, he shrugged off the feeling and, reaching his smithy, pulled open the wooden door and went inside. Looking around, he picked up a huge blackened hammer from the array of tools arranged neatly on a workbench and stepped outside quickly, lest the warmth of the hut weaken his resolve. He hung the hammer on his belt and trudged on towards the village proper.

At every hut, he asked the same question and made the same reply to the same inquiry.

" 'ave ya seen Serrion?"

" No. Why? Is somethin' wrong?"

" Its Nothin'. Don' worry."

Pretty soon, there was a small crowd of villagers including Ieana, following Jord. They went to every hut, about forty-two in all, and having received a negative response from every single one of them, their apprehension continued to grow. Finally, they reached the last hut at the end of the village. The crowd made a great hubbub as The Forest came into sight. In the dim moonlight, it looked even more menacing than usual. The villagers drew closer together for comfort and the words, 'poor' and 'Serrion' could be heard quite often.

Jord stepped up to the hut, situated a bit away from the village on a grassy slope, and knocked loudly on the flimsy wooden door. The crowd waited expectantly, but there was no answer from within. Jord banged harder on the door and this time, it swung open. Puzzled, Jord tentatively stepped inside, and the crowd, having assumed him as the leader stood fast at the base of the slope and muttered and chattered with concern.

A minute later, Jord stepped out and returned to the base of the slope, shaking his head. Once in earshot, he said quietly," Kirdan's gone too." The crowd burst into uproar. In the entire prodigious history of the village, such a thing had never been heard of. Two, grown, sensible men, vanished without trace. Someone at the back yelled out," Call Haden ! ". The villagers took up the chant," Haden ! Haden ! Haden ! Haden ! ". Jord glanced at Ieana, who was trying hard to stop herself from sobbing. Her moist eyes were full of silent appeal.

Jord made up his mind and beckoned to a small boy barely ten years old. The villagers had started discussing a plan of action by now in loud whispers, seemingly unaware of The Forest's foreboding presence. Jord promised the kid a sweet later, and sent him running to call Haden from his hut, a quarter mile from the village.

Meanwhile, the unending front of The Forest looked on menacingly as its tall trees swayed in the night breeze, glistening in the pale light of the silvery moon.

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It had been half an hour since Jord had sent the boy running. The villagers had fallen silent by now and were sprawled on the grassy slope. Someone had lit torches here and there among the mass of bodies. Jord was pacing restlessly at the base of the slope. His mind was conjuring up horrible images of mutilated dead bodies, when he heard a commotion from the fringes of the village.

He could hear the people chanting 'Haden' once again. Grimacing, he made his way through the crowd and met the man mid-way. Flowing purple robes, long black hair with flecks of gray in it, a clean-shaven face and an overpowering presence that made everybody stand four feet clear of him. Haden raised a long ivory staff, with a head of gnarled wood, and there was immediate silence. Personally, Jord disliked Haden.

He didn't trust any man who worked with spirits instead of hardy metals tools, and Jord wasn't really sure that this one was a true wizard either. But unusual circumstances called for unusual men, so Jord took a deep breath and without betraying his anxiety, said in an even voice," We 'ave three men missin'. Most likely they're in The Forest. I ain't sure 'bout leadin' a search party in this pitch blackness, but we can't sit 'ere doing nothin' 'n wait for mornin'. So . . . what do you suggest ? ".

Haden raised an eyebrow incredulously and said in a silky smooth voice," Two grown men cannot just vanish like that, there are mystical powers at work here . . .". " More like the mystics of a mug of ale. ", Jord muttered. Haden smiled, and motioned for the crowd around him to make some space. He bent down and laid his staff on the grass. Standing back, he muttered a word, and the staff came to life. The ivory melted into dark shadows, deeper than the night. The wooden head dissipated and merged with the shadows, seemingly pulling them together. Before the enthralled eyes of the villagers, the black wisps melded into one another, taking the likeness of a slender wolf, with shoulders coming up to Jord's waist . Black vapours drifted off its jet black body like steam from boiling water. The phantom wolf turned around and stared implacably at Haden with eyes as white as the moon.

The villagers gasped and stumbled away from the apparition. Jord made the sign against evil, and cursed under his breath. Meanwhile, a deathly silence had fallen over the crowd, disturbed only by Haden's whispered commands to his ghostly wolf. Even as the terrified villagers looked on, the wolf turned around, quiet as death, and loped away across the grassy plain towards The Forest.

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" No . . . no, I d-don't want to die today ", thought Serrion as he stumbled through the woods. There was not even a sliver of moon left and it had become pitch dark. His breath was coming in short gasps. Sweat was running in rivulets down his forehead and into his eyes, obscuring his vision. His eyes were large and wild with fear, his mouth babbling incoherently.

Suddenly he felt the cold on his back, and he knew he was going to die . . . just like Kirdan and the other man. He shuddered, not because of the cold, but because of the realization that Kirdan's fate was soon going to be his own. Still, he ran, as all desperate men will fight to the very end, right up to their doom.

He felt the icy tendrils creep up his neck, and down his arms. His movements were becoming sluggish now. Every action seemed to be done under the weight of a thousand horses. He knew it would not be long before his pursuer overtook him . . . , but no . . . no. He would not run anymore. If this was it, then let it be. As he came to a stop, he took a laboured breath. He was shivering now, the cold was so intense. He could feel his fingers going to the frostbite. His muscles felt like shards of ice under his skin. But still he turned. As impossible as that movement was, he did it. This last bit of courage from a doomed man. He squinted at first, unable to see anything in the dense fog that was spreading like an encroaching wave behind him. And then he saw it.

' My God ' were the last words he ever said.

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Silent as the night, a creature exuding black mist approached the deformed corpse of the man once known as Serrion. The unholy wolf lowered its head, running its snout through the air over the dead man's body. It seemed to sense something. The dark vapours around its body grew even denser and the white, moon-like eyes blinked once. The spark of an alien intelligence seemed to light in them. Even as the grass around its razor sharp claws developed a thin sheen of ice, tiny ice crystals began forming on the leaves of the tall, dark trees. A dense, pearly white fog began leaking through the trees, grasping its way towards the dark wolf with hundreds of bony white wisps, as though it were a living being possessing some strange sort of intelligence . . . or being controlled by one.

Slowly, leisurely, the wolf turned its great, black head. There off to his left, about ten feet away, right in the heart of the white mist swirled up a maelstrom of tiny ice shards, each one thin and sharp enough to make a clean passage through a man's body. The dark wolf turned now, bringing his body around to face the threat. A low growl emanated from its throat. Muscles rippling under the jet-black fur, it bared a tiny fraction of its great white fangs. As if on cue, the veils of icy mist and shards parted . . . and She emerged. The White Goddess.

The Sentinel of Fear.

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[ To be Continued ]





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