An Encounter in the Forest

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This night is full of distractions. The weeping, nitre-scored walls of the library run with water; only the scant remains of some ancient spell of warding keep the volumes here from disintegrating from the damp. Still, he must be careful, so careful, as he turns each page. The slightest tremor would tear the parchment leaves, forever obscuring the secrets they hold. The crypts above seem to be teeming with noisome life, determined, it seems, to prevent him from discovering that which he descended to this level to recover.Ahh! There: just there! The awareness of the knowledge he once possessed tantalizes him, driving him beyond anger into raging insensibility. It hovers at the doors of perception, taunting him with its simplicity. A single word; the secret, the key, that thing he must rediscover teeters there, just beyond his ability to apprehend.

And then, the last of the ghostmoss winks out. It had been the only source of light now for some time; his obsession had imprisoned him here far, far beyond the capacity of his lantern’s oil reservoir. And now, his very presence in this place has drained the last of the life even from the glowing flora clinging bravely to the walls. True, he can still see, but only just. Certainly not enough to read, for there are no higher life forms here to generate that particular warmth which fuels his sight.

With a single, rattling sigh, he stands. It requires all of his mighty reserves of Will to restrain himself from sweeping the moldering volumes and scrolls littering the stained surface of the stone table to the ground in a fit of pique. He makes his way slowly, thoughtfully, out into the passage, seeking the next cache of knowledge, thanking the wisdom of his youth for storing the ancient texts here, where they would remain free from the prying eyes of his erstwhile competitors, now centuries dead, and the casual destruction of wanton infidels.

What… As he enters the passage, a crimson light flashes: something alive has wandered down from above. Doubtless another distraction. He begins to incant the words of a simple spell, preparing to disintegrate the wretched thing. Ah, but what is this? The creature is diminutive, cowering silently, its huge eyes fixed upon him. Upon its back is a small pack. A minion, then, about some task for its master. …Or mistress. “Ah. It is hers,” he thinks. Reaching out to it, he beckons. It ducks its head submissively and waddles over to him. Reaching into the pack and searching through many layers of the bizarre oddments these creatures seemed habitually to collect, he finds it: a small packet, tied with a black ribbon. He gestures to the beast, which retreats with alacrity.

Quickly fashioning a nimbus of magelight which he directs to the tip of his great staff, he unties the ribbon. Within the parchment wrapping lie a single rune of recall and a rolled sheet of human skin: from its dampness and odor, he judges the skin to be recently excised. Upon this simple testimony — for there can be no clearer indication that this communication is from his protege — is tattooed, in black ink, a single word. “Fear,” he reads aloud.

“Of course! Of course! So simple! Just as I thought!” Portions of his face move in a peculiar fashion: it becomes evident that, were the structures still in place to permit him to form such an expression, he would be smiling. He incants the syllables of a spell learned in earliest childhood by all magi, and is instantly transported to a site by the side of one of the less-frequented roads descending from the mountains to the north and west of the great city of Britain. This is a region of formidable crags and vast expanses of unexplored forest; not an area, certainly, where one might expect to behold the scene arrayed before him. A heavy mist has gathered here, formed, perhaps, by the confluence of bitter mountain airs and the warmer atmosphere of the fertile farmlands below.

A fashionable canopy-and-four carriage sits here, squatting by the roadside. The reason for its abandonment is evident: both front wheels have been crushed like so much kindling, and the most cursory examination reveals the accident to be the product of a trench which has been dug across the road. The remains of the horse team lie nearby; sword cuts across each horse’s neck indicate merciful ends. The forelegs of the two front animals have been shattered, obviously the result of the trench-digger’s handiwork. He makes an appreciative grunt at the efficiency exhibited by the tawdry little scene, and moves into the treeline, observing more details of a hasty departure. Several chests lie here, their contents scattered. Essentials for survival have been removed, leaving only a large scattering of flame- and ice-blue-colored gowns in this year’s mode and various other trappings common to courtiers of the haute monde. Bits of discarded, heavy clothing indicate a direction of flight. He proceeds, tendrils of mist swirling about him, deeper into the forest.

Here, before him, lies a discarded handbag. A tattered lady’s fan lies nearby. He pauses, suddenly feeling as if he is watched. Casting about, he seeks the source of the inspiration. Ah. There it is: suspended from the great boughs of two mighty trees by rude cords is a strange construction. Formed from twigs and sticks, it is a simulacrum in the shape of a man. It hangs there, just above the level of the underbrush at the wide path’s edge. Simple enough, and yet it possesses the aura of an ancient, sentient malignance. Delighted, he continues.

He encounters several more of the constructs: at each site is additional evidence of flight. He envisions the passage of those who last travelled this path. The abiding image is one of panic. Of flight from fear which rapidly descends to the level of overwhelming dread. Here he sees an abandoned sword, the scabbard revealing its owner as a court dandy rather than a true soldier. There he spies a parasol. And again: a brightly colored woman’s shoe, its heel broken.

Finally, he comes upon the hideous terminus of this pathetic sojourn into madness. All is silent, here. No bird sings, no amphibian croaks, no insect chitters. The only sound is that of the moisture which drips interminably from the mighty boughs of the forest above. A rude forester’s hut crouches in the swirling mist. From it emanates a miasma of darkest evil; if evil can be said to possess an aroma, surely this would have been a worthy specimen. Cackling, he moves to the door of the hut, and tears it casually from its hinges. Within the hut burns a single taper, and in the flickering light he sees his protege. She crouches atop a crude wooden table, smiling a crooked smile at he who has been her teacher for the last several months. A young woman, her hair is of the palest blond, almost white. She is dressed in somber colors and seems content for him to inspect her work.

Before him is a scene drawn from the ghastliest tales of the deepest hells. Five young people, one male and the others female, have been lined up in a corner of the shabby hut, facing the wall. In the gloom, he can see that they are nude, and have been secured in kneeling positions with bindings of raw animal hide, which has grown tight enough to cause discoloration in the extremities as it has dried. The walls of the hut have been spattered with great gouts of blood, and the floor is littered with offal and a scattering of human organs. The stench is palpable. From the corpses, long, thin strips of epidermis have been removed. One of the women wears a pointed hat constructed from skin obviously sliced from her body. Were it not for the grisly details of the scene, the corpses and their arrangement might have had a comic aspect. As it was, however…

Upon the floor is scraped a pentacle. The lines have been filled in with what appears to be soot, or some other very black powdery substance. Around the edges of this, eldritch sigils and strange runes have been scribed. At the center lies a slowly drying human heart.

He shifts his gaze slowly from the center of the pentacle to his apprentice’s face, and from her face to her eyes, glittering there in the half-darkness. Her eyes… Even he, even he must shudder at what he beholds there. Her eyes seem to encompass the blackest pits of despair, and suddenly he feels small, and alone, bereft of those things which once provided him joy. Rapidly straightening himself, and schooling his mind to the discipline of centuries, he pauses, and lifts his chin: a gesture of harsh command. She alights from the tabletop, and stands before him, head bowed in submission.

“My dear,” he says, his voice reminiscent of the shifting of dry leaves as they are blown by autumn winds into the corners of the boneyard. His student remains silent, waiting. “You have completed your task? Do you… have it? … Surrender it unto me! By our covenant, I do command it!”

The student smiles her crooked smile, displaying the fangs common to those of her… disposition, but stands, resolute. A wave of hatred fills him; he finds that he must resort to the mental exercises practiced in his youth to avoid simply reaching out with his power and stopping that which animates her. “My dear…” he says again.

“My master. Surely you remember the details of that covenant. We have a bargain, do we not?”

Cursing bitterly, he reaches into the rotten tatters of his garment, feeling for the truesilver concealed there. Grasping the hidden article firmly, he rips, downward, snapping the chain which has suspended it there for so many, many years. He flings it to the dirt, his impatience vast, immeasurable, unbearable. “THERE. Take thee thy price, thou wretched Sending, and my curse be upon the agency that directed thee to me!”

Slowly, her crooked smile never fading, slowly, impertinently, maddeningly, she reaches to retrieve the object. It glitters in the candlelight: an inverted pentacle, enclosing a skull surrounded by alien runes. Retrieving the pendant, she withdraws another object from the folds of her robe. His eyes widen as he beholds it. “It is true then!? How… How… You are but my student! Where did you learn… It is no matter…” Greedily he reaches for the precious item, which she deposits in his withered hands.

He strokes the object, this thing, this item he has coveted for so very, very long. Crooning, oblivious to all else, he examines it: a black egg, warm to the touch, seemingly fashioned from the darkest ebon jade, and pulsing with a virulent red glow. Cackling maniacally, then and there, he gathers the might of centuries about himself, and recites the requisite syllables, holding the sphere aloft. The sphere instantly comes to life, emitting an argent radiance so brilliant it would have blinded if the two had not been prepared for this eventuality.

Seconds pass, and he is possessed by some unholy agency. Great shudders of change pass through his frame, and he fights to retain consciousness. Over all, he sees the hellish smile of his apprentice, as if it were ingrained into the new texture of the reality surrounding him, a sickening reminder of his obligation. Slowly, painfully, he feels his body… changing, filling, quickening. Tissues reform, a heart beats where before there was only dust, and he knows… pain. Pain so vast it leaves him as a mewling babe, lying in the dirt at the girl’s feet. He has never known such agony. Never. Slowly, slowly, it passes. He gazes down at himself, fully clothed in the flesh of a young, vital man. He feels weakened… drained… and whole. Weeping, he turns his gaze up to the young woman, his former apprentice. She smiles no longer. Naked, the faded remains of his robe scattered and destroyed, he slowly stands before her. Wobbling, he receives the food she offers him from the leather sack beneath the table: bread, and water, and some kind of raw… meat. “It is done, then?” he croaks. “It is done,” she says, tilting her head in curiousity. He dons the rough ranger’s garb she draws from the sack, feeling stronger by the minute.

“Well then, my dear. You have earned it, I suppose. But you must know: the Tower… will prove to be a harsh Mistress.” He smiles, somewhat ruefully, as he watches the young woman fasten his pendant about her own neck.

She squints at him, appraising. “Perhaps, Azalin. Perhaps. But not, certainly, as harsh as the Mistress I fear you must now face.”

A darkness crosses the young man’s face as he considers her words, recalling the face of his beloved. “Goodbye,” he says. “Goodbye, Cabal Sigrun.”

“Hold, Azalin,” she says softly. “Be warned. If you should die, while in this form, you will be forever as you were… before.” He nods, a little wistfully, considering.

“Of course. Of course, my dear. And… you know I cannot, will not thank you for what you have done.” She nods, her expression hidden in the deep shadows of her hood. He shudders, as if recalling some difficult memory, then shrugs lightly. Softly, he turns, and the mist seems to consume him as he begins his long journey… home.



In the great city of Britain, they say that all things are possible. They say this — the privileged, the wealthy who congregate at the city’s western bank — but very rarely does anything actually happen. This evening, a soft rain falls. A mist lies heavily over the city, and there is no wind. There is little to be heard save the distant hammer falls from the northwestern smithy and the occasional “clop, clop, clop” of some traveller’s horse as its master seeks ale and a warm seat by the fire.

Focus now upon the small, huddled form of the Hunter. It is heavily swathed in clothing of the deepest black. Upon its head, a well-worn hat with an improbably wide brim. Of the face beneath the hat, there is no evidence: the Hunter sits, its back to the wall of the butcher’s shop. It sits, knees drawn up against its chest for warmth, hands concealed in the voluminous sleeves of its robe. Water pours from the brim of its hat in tiny rivulets. An hour passes, and with it passes the day. All is quiet, now. The few remaining citizens have taken their leave of the streets, seeking food, warmth, comfort, companionship.

All save one. She walks, haltingly, up the street, frequently using the damp walls of the buildings for support. She may have been lovely, once, but it is difficult to detect loveliness in the sopping, bedgraggled figure that pauses, finally, almost directly in front of the Hunter, and peers, trembling, into the windows of the butcher shop. Her silver hair has been cut with a blunt blade, and hangs in strings about her face. Her body, barely clad in the remnants of a fine lady’s courtly gown, has skin the color of deepest ebon. She clutches her belly tightly. She is heavy with child.

Suddenly, she sees the Hunter. She gasps, startled. The hunter wipes its lips on the back of its glove and peers up at her from beneath the brim of its hat. “Food…” says the elf, in a voice barely audible. “I can pay.” Reaching into the bodice of the shredded gown, she draws forth a pendant of stunning beauty. It is fashioned from true silver and diamond, and glitters in the failing light. “Do you know… where I can sell this? I… the child… must have something to eat.”

The Hunter nods quietly and rises to its feet. It beckons the elf to come with it and takes hold of her arm, gently supporting her. Together, they move slowly down the cobbled street until they come to a large, dark opening in a wall. There is a passage within, poorly illuminated with guttering torches. The Hunter speaks: “Not far now, princess.” The maiden nods, grateful, and allows the Hunter to guide her into the passage. They follow it for a time, listening to the occasional “plink, plink” of dripping water, and then come to a raised platform. In the platform is a large hole with ladders protruding from it.

The elf turns to the Hunter, doubtful. “It’s just down these steps, my lady,” says the Hunter. Nodding, resigned, the elf begins the descent. The Hunter follows. When they reach the bottom, it is almost entirely black. Rats can be heard squealing in the distance. The elf, mortally afraid, clutches feebly at the ladder, attempting to ascend.

The Hunter draws a strange, sickle-shaped, copper blade from its belt — and deftly parts the elven maiden from her life with a swift stroke across the neck. It pauses to lap the gushing flows of her life’s blood and drinks for a long while. Then, standing, the Hunter wipes its bloodied lips upon the back of its glove and appraises the sordid little scene. It sighs, seemingly pleased with its work.

Gently taking the glittering pendant from the girl’s dead fingers, it places it in a pouch deep in the folds of its clothing. Smiling, the Hunter takes its copper knife and makes a careful incision in the woman’s belly and removes the child, squirming there within the confines of its bloody bag. It cackles softly to itself, cracks the squirming infant’s head sharply against the stone wall, and wraps it in cloth taken from the dead woman’s gown. “The idiot female did not deserve this tiny man. Much better that it did come to us.” Slowly, methodically, the Hunter then slices the woman’s corpse into small pieces and flings these to the rats milling in increasing numbers on the landing just below.

Satisfied, replete, the Hunter climbs the ladder and makes its way out into the street.

Look now upon the face of our Hunter. It is the face of a young woman, nineteen or twenty years of age. She is well formed, of good proportion, and save for the unnatural pallor of her skin, one might almost say she was… beautiful. But the eyes… these eyes… they look up at us from the depths of shadow beneath the brim of her large hat. And in these eyes, black, like the vastnesses of the deepest hells, there is no single shred of humanity. They are the eyes of an animal, full of nothing but purest Malice.

As the Hunter makes her way down the wet street, she is hailed by a guard. “You are about your business rather late, citizen,” he says. “Please name yourself and your errand.” The Hunter turns, slowly, and regards the man. She smiles prettily.

“I am but a weary traveller, seeking warmth and shelter on a dreary night, master Guard. And my name is… Sigrun.”

Last modified: March 27, 2011

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