The Hunt

Reads: 34  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic


Chapter 1: Strangers

Emerald fields of green stretched as far as the eye could see, only breaking upon a sea of deep green to the east. Dotted with rolling hills and thick growths of clover, the lower Emerald Plains had once been a fairly prosperous location during the last kingdom. However, few came this way for the lands south quickly became the rugged steppes of the Scarred Lands, while the Mountains beyond the west brought a stinging chill most of the year. 

Only the lonely little village of Bialow broke the tranquil sea of green, built between two hills only a few miles from the edge of the forest from which it took its name. A single road led up to the hamlet, normally empty this time of night, however this night was peculiar. 

Two figures rode up the road in silence, black cloaks pulled tightly around their form to ward off the chill of the night. Their arrival was unexpected, however they were not the first nor would they be the last strange occurrence Bailow had to suffer that evening. 

Bailow’s twin wooden gates lay broken and twisted, splinters scattered across the village beyond. A deep gouge was taken from the ground just before the missing portals, with veins of seared earth twisting this way and that. It was like nothing the two had seen before.A force of nature trapped within a shell of metal, anger personified; the locals gave it various names. 

Even before the duo arrived at the village word of them had spread throughout. The two were unlike the knights who came ever more irregularly. They did not wear the silver plate armor of the local kingdom, nor did they let down their hoods as they crossed the village’s perimeter. Even their steeds were unusual, large beasts of white and speckled brown, rather unlike the distinctive tan of their own herds.

Already rather superstitious and weary of strangers, most of the village fled at their approach. Even after introducing themselves most avoided them as if they were the harbinger of some plague. Only an older lady suffered their presence, listening as the taller of the two introduced himself as some foreign knight on an important errand. He spoke of a task they had been given to find the demon, what a silly word to them, that had come upon their village. 

She bade them a welcome stay, calling upon an assistant to prepare what she called a feast, knowing the two were their own chance at breaking the curse she claimed had befallen them. The knights graciously accepted, although the village had little more than potatoes and broth to offer. Even the loaves of bread were stale, but they refused not a single bite, using the moment to warm the villager’s to their presence and gain what information they could.

 

“He rode up on a steed of darkness, and with a mighty shout he called down a bolt of lightning that blew the gates from their hinges” one told them through broken teeth. The man was a local drunkard, or some other locals would tell them later.

“Old Leoplod is wrong sir, he had no steed but his armor was black, black as the knight. There was no lightning mind you either, he simply cut the gates in twane,” another said. A boy in his mid teens wearing shoddy leather armor, if it could even be called that. A member of the local guard most likely the duo thought. 

As the feat rolled on into the night the stories continued to come, each varying slightly from the last. Neither took notes, only making an effort to remember the pieces that fit between each story, although that was scarce enough. 

 

At long last the food stopped flowing and the pitchers were emptying the last of what they held. Several villagers lay atop the tables, their bellies full beyond normal. 

“I am Duran, a knight of a foreign land, and I have in pursuit of this...man,” the older stranger said as he bowed, throwing back his hood in the same motion to reveal peppered black hair and a single green eye. The other was closed from a wound suffered years past, the jagged scar snaking down the right side of his face. 

“You came to kill that...thing?” one woman asked, her body shaking visibly in the night air. Her voice dripped with skepticism.

“If it comes to that….but I wish to capture it and take it away with us, to never plague these lands again,” Duran replied, casting a look to his pupil as he spoke. 

“You sure know how to pick them master,” the boy replied with a soft chuckle before casting back his own hood, letting his shoulder length black hair cascade down around his shoulders. He kept it out of the way of his eyes however, which seemed to be deep pools of blue, shimmering with knowledge, although the right one was more a greyish hue then the other. 

“I am his squire, you may call me Nott, at your acquaintance,” the boy said with a smile and bow, “I would like to know when the disappearances started.”

“A few months back, when the sun turned black and the ash fell from the sky. A few of our guardsmen vanished in the fields, their bodies were later found in the forest, drained of all their blood. Their flesh...grey and cracked at the touch,” the elderly woman spoke up making her way to the front of the congregation. 

“Pale and desiccated...that is rather odd,” Duran said quietly to his pupil as the women continued to speak. 

“It does not sound like our target, does it not?”

“So it would seem, but if not why attack the village?”

Nott only replied with a shrug, for he knew their mark less then Duran. As a relatively new member of the Council of Twilight, he was still learning the tools of the trade. Several of their peers did not want him to partake in this mission because of his lack of experience, but Duran had vouched for him, and as a veteran of the Dawn Wars, the man had a rather established reputation few could argue with. 

“My husband vanished a few nights ago while going out to hunt quail,” another piped up. 

Again the townsfolk all started talking at once, fighting over whose tail of woe was more worthy of being heard. Each held bits of information the two found useful, but none shed any light on the motivation of the attack. 

“I thank you,” Duran said at length as the last of the townsfolk began to disperse. They seemed in a better mood, if only for the company. The duo was well aware most of those gathered doubted their ability to handle the attacker, most had openly said so and made no attempt to hide their doubts. 

Only the old lady who had originally spoken up remained before long. From the way she had gathered the townsfolk, she was likely an elder of sorts of some renown and respect. 

“I fear you two are not to return,” she said aloud, her voice wispy in the chilly night air. 

“We shall be fine, but your consideration is most welcome,” Duran replied with his normal nonchalant kindness. 

“I have seen it….the cards showed a Knight of Black, followed by the Hanged Man and Abyss….your mission will end in failure, good knight,” the woman continued, her eyes filling with tears, “you must let the boy leave.”

“I think I can make my own decisions,” Nott replied with a bit of annoyance. 

“Are you known for the Gift?” Duran asked, waving away his pupil’s ire.

“My family has been the seeress of this village since before the fall of Albion,” the women replied, “I have seen it.”

Duran cast his pupil an uneasy glance. He was not one to put his faith in superstitions, but he also knew not to discount the powers of the seeresses simply because they were from some out of the way village. 

 

“She is crazy,” the younger warrior said angrily as they rode out of the village. He hated being judged by his age and not his skills. The Council recognized him as the youngest member as well as his aether as being particularly strong, yet none seemed to care. He was just the boy squire to the famous knight Duran.  

“She meant no harm, besides, if she truly does possess the gift we would be wise to listen to her Nott,” Duran replied, casting one last look at the village. He could have sworn he could see the women standing by the ruined gates...watching them. Still, even if he would not admit it aloud, there was something about all of this that did not sit well with him. 

The two slipped off the paved road as soon as possible, wanting to avoid the unlikely, but all too real possibility, of meeting a patrol from the kingdom at this late hour. Duran almost laughed loud as he thought of how that encounter would have played out. 

Riding eastward they left the small hamlet behind them, lonely in the deep night gloom. Neither spoke, enjoying the night air as the steady breeze caused the tall grasses to dance around them. Even the forbidding darkness on the horizon could not dampen their moods, the deep vast bloch of black that was the vast sea of trees of the local forest seemed to be rejoicing in the wind. 

Duran called for a halt as they neared the perimeter of the trees, "We should make camp this night." 

“Why?” his protege asked. 

“The beast in these parts are likely unafraid of man, having not met many whom they could not take. Besides, we do not know if this forest is inhabited,” the man replied, looking down to a pendant that hunts around his neck, a memorial of his time as one of the knights.

“Master, I think we can handle wolves well enough.”

“It is not a wolf that worries me, Nott,” Duran replied as he gathered all the sticks he could find. 

With a resigned sigh his pupil soon followed and within the next half hour they had a small fire crackling between two tents pitched on the open ground. 

“Rest, tomorrow we bring an end to this hunt," Duran tore at a hunk of dried meat as he spoke. Although it tasted well enough, he couldn't help but think back to the feast of Hi-Brasil, the succulent pig or roasted pheasant. 

“You really think it will be that simple?”

“Not likely.”

“He was your pupil, no? Won’t he listen to reason?”

“You do not understand. The dawn wars took a lot from him...from us all. We will be lucky to be able to subdue him without losing our lives in the process”

“Well if he gets serious, then so will we,” Nott replied with a smile, patting the pommel of the blade at his waist. 

“Nott….you are an exceptional swordsman and none doubt your ingenuity or wit in battle, but hear me well. If Cyrus makes it his goal to kill me, you must flee. Do not cross blades with him, you will not win.”

The boy stared at his master with a mixture of hurt and disbelief. The man had never told him to back down from a fight before, nor to forsake his duties. He thought maybe Duran was holding his former pupil in too high of regard, but a feeling within his gut knew that not to be true, Duran was humble but not one to diminish his own skills nor others. Cyrus was simply beyond him.

Hours slipped by as the two sat in silence, the dancing flames playing wild plays before their eyes. Neither wanted to admit it but they knew tomorrow would be something they would neither forget, in one way or another. The knight went to bed first, retiring with a simple wave to leave the youth contemplating in the night. 

 

 

Chapter 2: Into Bailow 

Nott found what he was looking for by following the flies. Bodies covered in deep cuts and left impaled on low hanging branches. He noted how the tips of the branches were broken, a detail that told him this was done by brute force, not nature magic accelerating the growth of the trees. 

He looked back to his mentor, the older man inspecting some unknown sign he had missed. The early morning had passed them by, the sun’s rays peeking through the thick canopy above, mixing with the stagnant air to create impressive humidity and stench. 

“Oh, how lucky of us,” Nott mused, waving away another cloud of bugs as he passed another dead body, withered and grey. 

“Did you find anything?”

“Just the missing guards.”

“Have to admit, this place is inviting.”

Duran shook his head at the boy's jovial response. He found the forest had little to joke about, even without the grisly massacre around them. The slain guards were untouched by any beast, their desiccated flesh left to slowly rot in the humid air. A sign of dark magic, powerful dark magic, something he knew from experience that his rather prodigious pupil missed.

They had been inspecting this location for several minutes, listening to the sounds of the forest to glean any signs of something out of order. Despite the bodies scattered about, the birds sang freey and the crickets played their violins without care. Oddly, their care free response made the discovery even more unnerving. 

Duran followed a small path, several boot prints in the earth that led off the beaten trail into the overgrown underbrush. He knew his pupil was trailing him, even without looking, Nott had the knack for moving without a sound that most thieves would envy. 

The trail twisted and turned, running up one hill to wind its way down the other side only to backtrack over itself numerous times. He could make little sense of their movements, for they had no strategic value nor were they moving with any sort of grace. Whatever they tracked would be aware of them long before they were of it, he could guarantee it. 

 

“I think we should speed this up,” Nott groweld pulling an axe from his belt as they came across another thicket that grew over the game trail that traveled upon. It seemed to be happening all the more often as they went deeper into the forest. 

Both men shared a glance as the forest grew silent around them, only to suddenly fill with the unnerving noise of bark scraping against bark growing around them.  It was low at first but grew with each step, intensifying as the trees seemed to close in. Without warning the sound grew into a deafening uproar, the trees seemingly moving closer, their roots growing across the ground before and around them.

“Put it away,” Duran demanded, drawing up to his pupil’s shoulder. 

At length the boy did as he was told, amazed that the oppressive racket died away immediately. It didn’t entirely dissipate, but receded until it was little more than background noise threatening to assault their minds once more at the slightest provocation. For the first time in his life he found himself wondering how the trees felt about their trespassing. 

Duran chuckled at his pupils' bewilderment. He knew of forest older than bialow, and much more fey then this one. He also knew of the powers that might reside within them, which was something he’d rather avoid meeting. 

He led them deeper into the woods, following the old game trails that seemed to open up without warning, only to be forced off onto another as the trees emerged to block their path once more. The trees were herding them, towards what he could not know. A nagging feeling in his gut told him it was something he'd rather not know as well.

Minutes slipped into hours, the sun’s light fading away until it was unable to break through the thick leaves above anymore. The stifling humid air was trapped around them, making breathing difficult. It tore at their lungs with each breath, making each step feel heavier, far more taxing than it should have been. 

Without warning, as if a token of good faith by the forest itself, the trees split before them, opening to form a large circular glade at the heart of white sat a massive white stone. No bushes or tree sprouts marred the smooth gross that carpeted the earth, while the birds sang openly above, a sound that had been conspicuously quiet throughout their voyage. 

"Finally," Nott groaned, throwing his pack on the earth and taking a seat on the stone. The burning sensation in his muscles seemed to ease as his lungs filled with fresh air, rejoicing as the stagnation was literally breathed away. 

Duran was wiser, he took the glade as a wolf in sheep's clothing. The forest did not give gifts lightly, nor did it give such luxurious gifts to those who had not given it the respect it deserved. More than once he thought he saw eyes peering at him from the nearby trees, but they vanished as quickly as they came. Too tired to argue, and fearing what would be the outcome of fighting Cyrus with a body that burned at the slightest movement, he conceded his objections and started to unpack.

 

“You think the townsfolk were truthful?” Nott asked, sitting atop the stone. He listened to the renewed sound of the song birds with earnestness. He had never realized how much he enjoyed their song until he had done without, the strange forest bringing a new appreciation to the wonders of nature. 

“This must be the prayer rock of Bialow,” Duran said aloud, obviously not hearing the boy's question.

“Master?”

“Sorry, I was lost for a moment."

Nott repeated himself, this time with a bit of annoyance. He hated repeating himself, one of the few pet peeves the boy had. It would break his normally aloof nature and could replace it with an almost obnoxious ire.

"Yes, I think they were to their own abilities.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, think about it. Most of their stories said that he randomly came to the gates and destroyed them, yet he did not kill anyone within the village. Nor did he stay to enslave them. No, he simply destroyed them and fled into the forest.”

“That is strange I must say,” Nott replied thinking through the information that had gotten, “I also noticed that the village lacked guards. Where do you think they were?”

“It sounds like you already know,” Duran said with a smile, his pupil’s deductive abilities were impressive and one of the reasons he had chosen him.

“Well...taking into consideration no one mentioned them at the gates, and Cyrus randomly attacked the village but left without further bloodshed, I would say...a confrontation broke out at those gates. Most likely perpetrated by the guards themselves. A case of mistaken identity considering the disappearances started before Cyrus was even able to be here.”

“Impressive.”

“So...who really is behind all of this then? Several of the bodies we passed were weeks old yet not a single beast had tried to consume them. No rats, coyotes, or even bugs.”

“A sign of dark magic,” Duran replied, unable to keep himself from smiling as the boy laid bare all he had observed. Nott, although a rather strange fellow at times, was sharper than most, especially then those that followed the trade of the blade.

“Some creature of the darkness?”

“So it would seem.”

Nott sighed, he liked to think of himself as ready to take on anything. However he suddenly found himself unsure of his abilities. If Duran was worried about what might be in this forest, besides his murderous former pupil, what could he do?

“Which way did we come?”

“Huh?”

“Which way did we come from?” Duran repeated, looking around the glade with confusion. Only a single path led away, in whatever direction he did not know, he had lost that sense hours ago.

Nott was going to ask what the man ment until he realized the forest had changed, thorn bushes grew along the edge of the glade while the trees seemed to lean inward over them. The roots of the forest trees grew into a weaving thick lattice over the barren soil, only slithering apart to reveal the single trail of dirt that led inward. 

“It looks like...they crawled over it,” Nott said aloud, shaking his head in disbelief. They had sat there for no more than an hour, not long enough for the tree's roots to grow. Not nearly long enough. 

With a defeated sigh they set off down the only path left to them, the birds having grown quiet without notice. Only the stale humid air remained, weighing once more upon them with each breath. Nott found himself thinking a single thought, one that had come to him several times that day; He hated this place. 

 

The two continued on for hours, the sun setting beyond the horizon although they could not tell. Biawlow hid the truth of time from them, distorting what they knew as time and muddling their senses. It seemed to consume everything around them and within it, returning the world to a time of purity it had long forgotten. 

Neither knew it but in ages past, long before the Dark Ages, the forest was part of a much larger one that stretched from the upper edges of the Emerald Plains all the way down to the Sunken Lands. It had been the cradle of life, fostering growth of all types of animals known to man and not; most having long been forgotten while those that remained were feeble descendents of what they had been. 

As they traveled deeper the aether grew thicker until it became visible, manifesting as a strange fog that hung between the trees and crawled across the ground. It shimmered in the hues of the rainbow although no light existed to refract upon it. At times it spun away, while at others it seemed to envelope them. 

“So...what? The trees are trapping us with magic?” Nott asked at one point as the aether grew thick before them, diverting them down another path. 

His master did not reply, trying his best to try and make sense of the chaos that had found themselves in. The trail that followed had crested a tall hill then plunged down deep into a gulley that had a shallow stream running its length. At that point that had tried to turn around, yet as they continued down the trail which should’ve been the way they came, they found themselves steadily being led further eastward, away from the prayer stone until again they found themselves within another gulley, the stench of damp leaves hanging in the air. 

"It's not even possible," the boy growled with obvious anger as they started up the far bank

“I agree, yet here we are,” Duran replied, his pendant having grown from a soft blue glow to a brilliant point of azure light. 

He knew something was coming. The magic grew around them, running up and down their forms like an electrical charge. He knew the aether was warning them, but he pressed on. He had to find Cyrus, he had to save him and bring an end to this all.

 

They smelled the fresh dew on the grass fresh, the humid oppressive air simply dissipating as the crisp night air rushed in. Even the aether seemed to split around them as the trees gave way once more, revealing a circular clearing before them much like the last, this one illuminated by the brilliant silver hue of the moon overhead. 

“Thank the gods,” Nott said softly, rushing forth into the clearing, the moon’s glow enveloping him like the arms of a waiting lover. 

Duran fought against the fuzziness in his head, the desire to rush forth and put the forest behind him. He wanted nothing more than to escape the confining boughs and dance into the moonlight, however an instinct, a feeling brought him to a halt before he could. He knew something was wrong, his senses honed from years of training and battles detecting what his eyes could not. 

“Master…” 

Duran heard the call but paid little heed as he followed the path back which they had come, a strange white bank of fog rolling down it towards them. The medallions light shone suddenly, dispelling the strange glamor that had been upon his mind.

“MASTER!” 

Duran traced the path back, to the circle of shrooms, the ring of little red fungi that formed around the entire perimeter of the glade. He cursed under his breath as the trap became apparent, they had walked right into it, all too eager to escape the forest. 

“Damn it, it’s a faerie circle!” Duran yelled, rushing to the perimeter of the ring and calling for his pupil who continued to stand at the center motionless, staring into the darkness beyond. 

“I found them,” Nott replied, his voice flat and emotionless, pointing to a lump on the earth before him. It looked to be a small mound, brilliant white flowers blooming upon it. Only the moonlight reflecting on the smooth metal beneath the foliage betrayed the grisly truth hidden beneath. 

Duran saw them then too. Somehow he had missed the small mounds that littered the clearing before him. Dozens of them. 

“You idiot,” the older man muttered, more to himself than his pupil. He had been taught about such things back when he was being trained as a White Shield. It was a known form of Old Magic, a type of magic lost to the academies of the world that was unpredictable and deadly to the unaware. 

“What, I found the guards and you…”

“Look around you!”

The boy’s face went blank as his master spoke, his eyes seemingly registering the mushroom for the first time. The moonlight reflected strangely off the caps of the round caps of the mushroom, the air sweet with the aroma of the strange pale flowers, yet he had stepped willingly into what could only be a trap. He could almost taste the aether in the glade, almost hear the fog as it came rolling in from between the trees. 

 

Chapter 3: Dancing into the night 

“We must break the circle!” Duran yelled, drawing his blade and rushing forth. He had barely taken a step when the fog writhed around his angels, grasping his flesh with numbing fingers and pulling him to the earth. 

Nott did not hear the man, a strange silence settling within the glade, instead his eyes were focused on dark forms shambling between the thick trunks of the trees. He could hear the clinking of their armor before he could see the withered grey flesh of their bodies. Their eyes were hollow, some sunken in while others lacked orbs entirely, devoid holes of naught. 

The fog swirled inward past the mushrooms, the forms following behind. He knew they were the undead, reanimated forms of the slain. Unfortunately he also knew that depending on the type of magic used, a zombie’s abilities could differ greatly. It was going to be a long night. 

Nott dodged the first shambling figure, racking his brain for any ideas. His blade would be of little use, without vital organs nor the necessity of the living, undead corpses were a rather difficult foe. Nimbly he wove his way through the attackers, using the flats of his blades to smack away reaching arms, kicking away any others that slipped past. Still, as more came forth he found himself being driven further and further into the center, and although he could not see them, he knew there had to be others emerging behind.

 

Duran cut one down as it emerged from the trees, severing a withered arm cleanly from its body. Another found a metal plated fist smashing its face in, the blow throwing the undead prone to the earth, flailing helplessly. he worked his way backward, putting his faith in his pupil's skills as he focused on immobilizing those he could 

He knew killing them was impossible, however they seemed to lack the regeneration that some of their kind possesed. So he focused on removing their arms and legs when possible, while others he took away their arms to minimize their threat.

 Again and again he found himself repeating the same practiced moves. Although the movements were easy, the air tore at his lungs, draining him of his stamina. Even without the strange enchantment of the forest, he knew he could not keep up the routine all night.

 

Nott impaled another through the head, tearing the limb free of it’s form which crumbled to the earth. Side stepping another, he used the stuck skull as a hammer to deliver a crushing blow to felled another. He had seemingly started to gain the upper hand, more forms lay motionless around him then were emerging from the fog. 

Still the strange mist thickened beneath them. The burial mounds were gone now, as was any view of the prone undead. Each step had to be measured, for being tripped by a root, vine or grasping hand would spell the end of them. Neither cared for the situation but they knew if they held out, morning would be their salvation. 

Nott never say the thing coming, the massive shape rising forth from the mist just inches behind him, towering over the youth by several feet. It’s clawed hands wrapping around his body, lifting it effortlessly from the earth while pinning his arms to his side. Nott felt the heat suddenly escape him, his life flickering as it fought against a darkness that was slowly creeping in.

At that moment Nott knew a new type of darkness, one unlike that which he had grown accustomed to. This night did not shy away from the darkness, it was not broken by the light. It consumed it, and blanketed all that basked in its glory. 

 

“Lux!” Duran commanded, drawing upon the aether within his form as he smacked another undead away. He rushed forth, outstretching one arm as he did so, coaxing the light aether into a ball that formed within his outstretched palm.

He wished he knew more of the local religions and holy principles, such understanding could help him draw upon the devotions of the faith to strengthen his light magic, even if he himself did not adhere to it.. Normally his own aether was enough for such a spell, but this land seemed blanketed, shunning the light and trying to suffocate it, even as he fought to weave the threads of magic into a workable spell.

The brilliant light burst forth, several rays tearing into the creature’s hide as well as the undead around it. Holes burned into its shadowy flesh as it let out a horrid wail, throwing the shaking youth at the oncoming man as it melted away into the mist once more. 

Nott saw only the light before he hit the ground.

 

Duran dismissed the spell, dodging the limp form, spinning around on instinct to meet the beast once more as it emerged again. The thing’s empty chest cavity was almost level with his face, a dim yellow light emitting from the strange depths. 

The knight knew better than to stare at a willow-wisp, the light of the dead. He dropped, using the weight of his body and armor to accelerate the descent, a massive arm rushing by overhead seconds later. 

He could feel the air from the blow threatening to unbalance him as he adjusted the blade in his right hand. Tucking his legs beneath him, he kicked off the earth with all his might, flipping over the beast’s other arm as he did so, his blade leaving a large gash in the bicep 

Another wail split the night air as it recoiled from the counter attack. Normally it's kind could not be harmed by mortal weapons, none before had managed to even wound it in it’s years of existence. Yet the mortal before him had done so, and he bore the stinging light. 

 

Duran had heard of and met these creatures, shades as they were known, spirits born from those whom were slain in darkness or overcome by it. He had even fought them before, but none like this. He suspected it was a creature he had only heard of in obscure text, a thing known as a dire shade. When one of its kind consumed enough spirits and had access to enough darkness for years it would grow beyond its normal constraints until it transcended its prior form. 

The only document he could find that ever had a confirmed existence of one took several knights and paladin to beat. Duran wasn’t boastful, and although he had been held in rather high regard amongst the knights of his realm, he knew he stood little chance of defeating the dire shade himself. Worse yet, he knew not the effect of the faerie circle itself, meaning their still was some unknown magic just waiting to make itself known. 

“Nott!” the man yelled as he back pedaled away from the razor like claws that would disembowel him. He parried black after blow, spinning away from those he couldn’t, looking for any moment to exploit. 

The land fought against him as he tried to form another spell, the complexity of it hampered by the strange heaviness the darkness brought to the aether. Duran knew then the Shade was the problem, it's vileness was soaked into this land, it had dominion over it, and thus the aether within it was also bent to it's will.

Once more he cursed under his breath, this night was turning out to be one to remember.

 

Nott heard the caller's voice although he did not understand it. Within his prison of darkness nothing made sense. No warmth filled his body, no light gave birth to the world around him, he was a true void of nothingness.

Again the call split the nothingness, pulling at some threat of consciousness that refused to be snuffed out. He felt his fingers twitch this time, the cool grass tickling his prickly skin as feeling returned to his body. 

Nott couldn't help but to groan as the darkness receded a bit, forcing himself upright. The fog wreathed around him, its numerous tendrils slithering across his exposed flesh like leeches seeking the warmth beneath.

"NOTT!" 

He felt the leather of his blade in the palm of his hand, the all so familiar weapon bringing a sense of familiarity back to him as he fought to regain his barring. 

“LUX!” 

Nott pushed himself upright, severing the hand of an undead as it clamped around his ankle. He ignored the strange black marks across his arms, only vaguely recalling where they had come from. Still, the courage in him welled as he saw his master facing off with the hulking creature, diminutive to it’s full 10 foot height. 

Duran growled as a glancing blow knocked him off balance. The light in his palm flickered out, an opening the wraith rushed in with supernatural speed to exploit. 

 

“I think we have a problem” Nott growled as he flew past his master, the wraith’s body turning into dark wisp as he would have collided with it. Rolling across the ground he came up to his feet with grace, his blade readied before him. 

“Really? You think!?” Duran asked, releasing another brilliant flash of light, the spears of energy obliterating several undead that had closed in. He recognized they were forming a circle around them, most likely guided by whatever had created them. 

Another form closed in one to be cut down. Neither cared for the shambling undead, their eyes searching the fog to find any hint of the wraith. It was the real threat, these were mere distractions to contend with. 

“Any ideas?” the boy asked, parrying the feeble grab of another, removing its head with the backswing of his sword. Surprisingly it still stood, it’s hands reaching for him. Nott kicked it squarely in the chest, the form flying backwards into another closing figure and sending them both into the fog beyond. 

“At least they are easy to deal with, unlike the ones I fought on Hollow,” Duran replied with a chuckle.

 

Neither knew what to think when the fog swelled around them, condensing into the form of another humanoid. This one was taller than Duran’s over six foot height but much slimmer, clad in robes of black streaked with blue. It’s skin was an ashen grey while a strange silver mask covered it’s face. 

“So you are the mastermind behind this,” Duran asked aloud, hoping to draw the things attention, hoping against hope it would at least delay the rest of the horde from closing in. 

It turned its face to observe the man, cocking it in an almost inhuman manner as it did so. Both felt a sense of unease as it peered at them, as if it was looking beyond their physical forms and into their minds. Still, they found their eyes fixated on their own, sockets of wispy smoke that bellowed out from beneath the mask. 

“You do not interest me” they both heard it but neither could understand how. It did not come from a mouth but seemed to manifest itself within their mind, forming words as if they were mentally speaking to themselves. 

“It’s a mentalist,” Duran hated mentalists. He steadied his mind, thickening of a devoid wall, preparing his mental defenses to throw the thing from his mind before it could gain a footing. 

“You do not interest me…” it repeated floating away on an unseen breeze, the horde suddenly rushing forth as it did so.

 

Nott danced around his newest attacker, removing both its hands before taking out a leg. He almost rejoiced until the fog before him surged upward, growing until it solidified once more. The shade lashed out quicker than he could react, it’s claws blowing past his guard and clamping around his waist. 

He tried to stab the beast but his form was ripped from the earth with such force he could not mount any means of defense. The world spun around him as his eyes fought to make sense of their surroundings. 

The life within him fought against the vileness of the creature that threatened to overtake him, the putrid smell of death wafting over him as his body hung limply in the air before it. Strength was fleeing his body, his arms growing numb. He felt his fingers grow slack, the cold metal pommel of his sword slipping from his fingers.

Duran bounded forth as he saw the wraith slam the youth into the earth, he could hear the sickly crunch of bone. He knew he wouldn’t make it, although he was only a few yards away. Helpless he fought his mortal limitations as the wraith opened its mouth letting out another horrid scream, before sinking its glistening teeth into the youth’s right shoulder. 

A strange ethereal essence began leaking out of Nott’s form and siphoning into the void of the wretched thing’s chest. 

 

“NO!!!” the knight screamed as his pupil’s form darkened, growing grey and slack. He refused to allow this, he would not lose another one.

He pushed onward, caring not for the wraith’s size, which grew before his eyes. Nimbly he spun around a claw that lashed out, the anger within him forming a barrier around his mind, keeping the draining darkness at bay. 

The knight noticed it not, but as the creature grew, it's shadow spread throughout the glade. Even the silver of the moon seemed to retreat beyond the trees, fearing its voracious hunger. Several small animals keeled over as the energy washed over them, their energy fueling the creature's steady growth as it battled the knight. 

Ducking another strike, Duran called upon the light once more, weaving the strands of aether into his palm. He grimaced as the light tore into his eyes, the brilliance of the spell powered by his own desire and determination in that instant. It was dangerous to use one's own life as a source of aether, but he found himself with little choice. 

The shafts of light spread outward, burning away the fog until they came upon the beast itself, tearing pocket sized holes into its form. It tried to flee, decompressing and slipping into the shadows, but its unearthly power was diminished in the light which tore at its very fabric of existence. 

Duran had found his footing, this was his chance to turn the tides on the creature. Suddenly a mental spike split the man’s mind, his rage peeled away like the outer shell of an onion. He saw the failures of his past, each deed he ever regretted. Gritting his teeth he pushed back against the presence, he knew this trick, he had felt it before as well. 

Whomever the stranger was currently was tearing into his psyche to severe his magical assault, to render him helpless before the shade’s claws. He refused to let that happen, he refused to fail again. 

He felt his knees go weak, the pressure on his mind mounting. Sweat beaded on his brow as he fought to keep the sphere of light from flickering out, his vision blurring as the wraith loomed over him. Even as the light burned away its physical essence, the monster threatened to overwhelm him; far more powerful than the veteran warrior himself. 

Duran felt his second knee touch the ground, his mind clouding over as long spindling fingers grasped his throat. The darkness set in then, consuming the aether he had wove. He almost let go, he almost embraced the darkness. 

Years spent on the battlefield flashed before his eyes; the horde of warriors who had died at his hands materializing before him, welcoming him into the beyond. He felt his head bow as his strength left him, the light going out before he fell forth, caught in the grasp of cold dead hands. 

 

“Yes, your fear is most delicious,” the figure intruded on his mind once more as it descended beside it’s shade, catching the knight in its hands. It caressed his face with it’s long fingers, a nail drawing a thin line of blood down the path it traced. 

Duran could do nothing as it probed further into his mind. He saw everything it did, each moment of his life played in reverse. However he felt not the emotions of each moment, only the quintessential feeling of dread as the thing feasted on his memories. 

 

Chapter 4: The hunter 

A roar split the night’s air, the fog itself washed away before the intruder that came rushing into the glade. The newcomer was clad in black, his armor not reflecting the moon light that washed back into the clearing at his arrival. His blade cleared the horde before him in a single stroke, their vile magics absorbed into the core of the weapon’s being. 

He had fled here to escape hunters as well as track down those he deemed deserving of death. The Council of Twilight forsake his methods, instead wanting to bring justice to those that thought evil, but they could not stomach the harsher truths of the world. No, it was because of this that they now hunted him. 

They were hypocrites, if he had not had the courage to do what was needed, they would not even be here to judge him.

 

Unfortunately they attacked him here as well, thinking him some accursed being at their gates. Arrows had rained down upon him, his armor forming as his anger swelled. He tried to back away but they came forth, until his own ire manifested as a pillar of energy that split the ground in twain. It always ended that way. 

Now he strode through the fog without fear, the aether radiating out from within him, pushing the dark magics away. The strange figure tossed the weakened mortal away before rising into the air once more, commanding it’s wraith forth. It brought itself to its full height, bellowing a challenge at the man. It was unable to tell this mortal was different, a soul unlike those it had fed on. 

He did not care. He met the roar with one of his own, the fog dissipating full as the sheer weight of his response blew the circle apart, the ground cracking as he advanced. Bringing his sword to bear, he readied himself for the creature, the blade was void of color, darker than night with a hilt of strange bluish metal set with a single ruby at the center of the guard. 

The wraith could sense the aether of the attacker now, it feasted on the dark magic itself, swelling each second. If the shade had been able to put a word to the sensation that suddenly filled it, it would have been fear. Willing away its physical form, it slithered forth. 

The black knight slashed through the darkness, the blade tearing the aether that composed the creature apart. Another wail split the night as the creature was forced back into its material form, it’s right arm missing, replaced by a stump that oozed wisp of darkness. 

Impossible” the hovering figure thought, watching the newcomer with interest. It had visited numerous realms, fought thoughts of self righteous knights, but never something as primal as this being before him. It basked in the darkness he blanketed the glade with, it’s draining magic unaffecting him, instead he seemed to be feasting on it, his own aether growing as the spell weakened. 

“Oh did that surprise you?” the man screamed, turning his gaze to the floating figure as he grabbed the towering monster but what could only be called wisp of hair. 

Again the figure found itself thinking the scene was impossible. He was somehow physically interacting with a spirit, even more so, he was tearing its fabric apart with each hit. It watched as the man smashed the wraith’s face into its black plated helm, half of the dark spirit's head caving way, dissipating into the night. 

It had never felt this way before. Even the man’s stinging light was only a minor discomfort for its greater shade, however this was different. The man was killing the shade, blow by blow the aether that composed its form was being torn apart and devoured by the figure’s armor. 

Suddenly the man caught the retreating creature by the side of the cavity of it’s chest, screaming as he pulled with all his might. A wail most unnatural, a tear at the literally mortal fabric of life, split the night as the shade fought to free itself. Again it tried to dissipate, to flee, but found its form unable to do so, instead the dim light in its chest grow brighter as its form started to tear apart. 

 

He felt each of the creatures blows, one after another as he pulled with all his might. He would not let go, channeling all his anger and pain into physical might. He would make this beast feel all the pain it had brought to others. 

As the man pulled he felt the creature grow less and less corporeal, until suddenly its fabric split apart. A blast of energy erupted outward as the shade’s form was destroyed, the wave of necrotic energy obliterating the mushroom circle and killing dozens of trees. 

He turned to the floating figure once more. 

You...are interesting,” it responded, collecting the released necrotic energy between it’s outstretched hands. It would enjoy punishing the mortal. 

It reached out with its mind, willing the fog back in, the water in the air condensing around the knight until it formed a thick sheet of ice around his legs. It knew it would not hold the man, but that was not his intention at all. 

A cruel smile spread beneath the mask as he coaxed the energies of the shade together once more, outstretching a single hand to point at the immobilized figure. It would punish him indeed. 

He saw the darkness launch forth, almost forgetting his legs were frozen in place as he tried to dodge. Cursing beneath his helm he smashed the ice with the hilt of his sword only to glance upward once more and see the darkness closing it. It was too late. 

He had feared the worst until someone suddenly leapt before him, taking the blast fully, their form being blown past the delayed knight. Unable to care about his savior, he lept forth, clearing the dozen yards to the floating figure with ease. 

Impossible,” It found itself thinking once more that night, falling backwards into the wisp of darkness and vanishing. Its attacker's sword tore through the air moments later.

Duran watched through foggy eyes as the newcomer stalked towards him, he knew that armor. The black metal with a bluish silver lining, and he knew the sword the figure wielded, Midnight, a blade crafted for Duran himself. He saw the man’s face as he loomed over him, the searing hate in his eyes. 

Cyrus had found them. 


 

Chapter 5: Farewell

Duran twitched as feeling returned to him. He felt the warmth of the sun on his skin, bringing warmth to his body, pulling him out of the darkness that consumed him. His brain was obscured by a deep fog and his body burned as his muscles twitched. 

It took several minutes before he could orient himself enough to sit upright. He was no longer in the faerie circle, he knew that much. 

“So you awaken.”

Duran forced himself to his feet, fighting off the dizziness that flooded his mind as he turned to face the speaked. Cyrus was several feet away, loaming over the unconscious form of Nott. The boy was bandaged, white linens running the length of his right arm. A pile of blood soaked rags lay on the earth beside him. 

“Is he alive?” the knight asked, feeling his ribs. He had come away from the battle relatively free of injury. Why did it always seem to happen that way? 

“He is.”

“I assume I have you to thank?”

“You saw what happened?”

“A bit...my mind was failing, however.”

“...he needs healing.”

“I can’t. Not wounds like that,” Duran replied, thinking back to the shade tearing into the boy’s form.

“I know.”

Duran looked at his pupil, the boy was breathing shallowly as he saw now. His body was thinner then it had been, as if he had gone a week without food. Only now did he noticed the black runes running down some of the linen of his right arm, hidden mostly beneath the under bandages. 

“What did you do?” Duran asked fighting to remain upright and make himself look imposing as he turned on Cyrus once more. 

“He needed saving. I did the only thing I knew,” Cyrus replied, turning his azure gaze to his former master. For the first time since their reunion, Duran noted the man’s eyes had grown a dull grey. 

“What did you do, Cyrus?” Duran repeated himself, not trying to hide the anger that was surfacing. 

“I made the only choice he had,” Cyrus replied stoically. 

“What are the runes Cyrus!” Duran screamed his rage boiling over. The man simply looked at him, he saw no threat in the man, it was like a wounded mouse squeaking at a passing cat. 

“It is sealing magic. You know this.”

“What did you seal?”

“The stranger...whatever he was, he tried to infuse me with the shade’s aether. Midnight would’ve absorbed it all, devoured it even. But the boy leapt in front of me….what a fool to give one’s life to save another you had never met. We would have been enemies even.”

“Cyrus…”

The duo looked at the unconscious boy on the ground. Neither know if they should slay him there and then or to let fate do its part. Duran thought back to the moment he met the boy, a different time and different place, maybe he should have left him there. 

“Why did you come here?” Cyrus asked, turning to face his old master. 

“To find you.”

“To kill me.” the man asked, there was no hate in his voice. Only a defeated recognition. 

“No. To end this all. One way or another.”

“Is it over?”

“Cyrus, you must come back to the Council of Twilight and explain what happened.”

“No. They have made up their mind. I have already been judged by them.”

“Cyrus, I can help you...the burden does not have to be yours alone.”

Duran found himself at a loss of words as the man spun on him, his form seemingly growing larger as his breathing grew more labored, “I do not have to take the burden? Really Duran? Who would take the burden? You?”

The knight retreated a few steps, his own hand going to the pommel of his blade. He had little hope, especially in his current state, of defeating the man but he would die trying if it came to that.  “I am sorry…”

“Sorry? Really? Are you sorry? If it were not for you Duran, I would not bear this curse, nor would the Council wish me dead!” the man screamed, his voice seemingly coming from a demon deep within his chest.

“I was weak. I know that.”

“You were not weak Duran. You are weak. You do not have the power to do what needs to be done nor will you. You could not save me, you could not save Nott, and you can not save yourself.” Duran flinched at the words. 

“Goodbye Duran, and do not follow again. I wish no part in your war.” 

Before the man could argue the black knight vanished into a small void that seemed to open out of nowhere. Once again the forest was silent, and for the first time since coming to this land Duran was unsure of his next move. Was Cyrus right?

 


Submitted: May 29, 2021

© Copyright 2021 crimsoncrow. All rights reserved.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Add Your Comments:


Facebook Comments

More Fantasy Short Stories

Other Content by crimsoncrow

Book / Poetry

Short Story / Fantasy

Poem / Romance