Silence permeated the lifeless, gray stone forest that stretched out before us. Only the wind could be heard as it whistled between leafless, gnarled branches that knitted together so tightly that they choked out the sun.
I looked over at my partner, Aiden, wondering if he was as creeped out as much as me. He just walked silently beside me, his face unreadable.
The Sleeping Forest. That’s what we were walking into. North of the Xalea Mountains, it was the site of a battle with a supposedly possessed witch a few years back. I don’t know exactly what happened. I don’t know whether the witch had won or lost. Rumor had it, she was still haunting the forest.
The Cihndaren Governing Council, as well as the Laborian Keepers of Valnecara Hall have been very tight lipped about the whole matter. Whatever had transpired here, the Cihndar have long since barred entry into the area. It was no easy task getting in. That told me that there must be something to what I’d heard.
“Whatever are we doing here?” I asked.
“We’re looking for treasure, Jovan,” came the reply. “We talked about this.”
He knew exactly what I meant, and we indeed have talked about it. I knew the rumors before coming to this dark place. But talking about somewhere you’ve never seen just isn’t as real as actually being there.
“Yeah, treasure hunting in a haunted forest,” I replied. “I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.”
He sighed, shaking his head. “Why? Because of the rumors? You think we’re going to encounter some witch?”
That certainly was a possibility that we couldn’t ignore. Even if we didn’t encounter the witch herself, the evil spirits that possessed her might still be here. And of course, if there was a witch, there would in all probability be… monsters. Witches often used them as their guardians, or their soldiers; at least, that’s what I’ve heard.
“What if there is something to the rumors?” I asked. “Maybe you should take this more seriously.” He waved a hand dismissively.
We continued to walk forward, and the stone trees continued to pass us by, spaced sporadically about the hilly landscape. I didn’t know how far the forest stretched on, wherever the edge of it was, it was far out of sight.
The only light was what little sun managed to seep in from between tightly knit branches above. It was just enough that we could see where we were going.
“You have to admit,” I said. “This is very strange. Trees made of stone?”
“Pay it no mind,” he told me.
“And what of the guards?” I asked, referring to the Cihndaren patrol outside this accursed land. “We barely made it here! Do you honestly think that they would be keeping such a tight lid on this place if there was nothing to the rumors?”
“Oh, come on,” he said irritably. “You know how governments work. The rich and powerful control the people by any means that they can. You’ve seen it in the streets of Kreymore every single day.”
I had to admit, he did have a point there. Kreymore, the capitol of Saricea and my home, was plagued by corruption. The kingdom had long been ruled by lies and brute force; all for the benefit of the ruling class. It was all I’d ever known my entire life.
Maybe it was wishful thinking that the Cihndar were any different. As rich as Kreymore was, Bethsaendur was ever richer. Was it even possible that they acquired their wealth without at least some corruption?
I suppose I didn’t know the answer to that question. It didn’t seem likely. Though, I couldn’t help but hope that were are genuinely good people in the world, even if it was wishful thinking. Of course either way, there was one point that I couldn’t dismiss.
“You know,” I brought up, as we continued forward through the lifeless forest. “If the guards find out that we were here… well I’d hate to think of what they might do.”
“They won’t do anything,” came the unexpected reply. I looked over at him in shock as he continued. “They’re a bunch of bleeding heart Cihndar. We might spend a little time in a dungeon, but they won’t hurt us.”
Wait, what? They use manipulation and force to get whatever they want, but they won’t hurt us? Quite the contradiction, and that lent significant substance to the idea that they were definitely guarding this forest for a reason.
“That does it,” I said. “I’m out of here.”
“You’re really going to go? Leave all of that treasure? Don’t you want to be free from a life of poverty?”
Just as he said, the belief that what we would find here would give me a better life is what brought me here. I could move away from the horrible slums of that city. That was my weak spot. He knew how desperate I was. The hardship, the broken pride, the absence of hope; these are things I deal with everyday. All the while, I see the nobility living in luxury, drinking from gem studded gold goblets while others wondered where their next meal would come from.
I’d long been trying to work my way up as a merchant. Make a good deal here and there, slowly finding my way to bigger deals. One day, I would buy some land, and get a share of the profits with those working it. That would open the world up for me. It was a good plan, but it would take years, if not decades. Well, under normal circumstances.
I say that because the thieves guilds had been growing more and more bold. Bold enough to pay me a visit, in fact. I lost everything; including some inventory that wasn’t mine.
I don’t know, perhaps I could make an arrangement with the owners, but more than likely, they’ll demand payment. The city guard didn’t seem overly enthusiastic about helping me, and without them, there’s no way to recover the lost valuables.
That means I was pretty much out of options. The most likely outcome was that I would be sent to the Kreymore dungeon, which wasn’t far from a death sentence.
If what Aiden said was to be believed, a witch who had been living in this forest had left a king’s treasure behind. It would have been more than enough to solve my problems and make me a land owner over night. I couldn’t refuse; even if I had to risk life or limb.
Aiden didn’t know about my woes when he invited me to come along. He simply told me that he needed help, and was willing to split the profit evenly. We talked it over, discussing the operation, as well as the risks and reward. As desperate as I was, though, I decided long before we’d gone over everything.
When he finished telling me about the deal, I raised my glass in a toast. “To our prosperity!” I said.
“May it find us quickly, and last a lifetime!” he added.
We then spent the night laughing and celebrating. Life had been nothing but struggle and disappointment, and I was so certain that our fortunes were about to change. I was so certain that everything was about to become so much better.
Being reminded of that forced me to question my hesitation. Still, something was wrong, and I needed to know that there really was something worth taking such a risk for. Aiden had managed to get me to Cihndara. I could stay in this land and lay low. I could never go home again if I chose this option, but I’d be alive. My instincts were telling me that if I pursued my current course, things might not work out so well.
“Do we even know that there really is treasure here!?” I pressed angrily. “What is it you’re not telling me?”
“Yes! Of course there’s treasure!” he insisted. “They wouldn’t have sent me if there wasn’t.”
I stopped then, staring. I was under the impression that he paid for this information. He was sent? “Who are ‘they?’”
“Never mind!” he snapped. “Let’s just get this done, alright?”
The realization that he’d been lying to me hit me hard in the gut. Yet, in spite of everything, I really wanted to just get this done. I wanted that money. I was desperate for that money. Still, this was wrong. Who knew what he’d gotten me into? Who knew what other surprises lay ahead. I knew right then that I needed to let it go. I listened to that inner voice.
“You get this done,” I declared. “I’m out of here.”
I spun about, and began my march right back out of this dead place. That’s when I heard a click. It sounded like…
I turned again to face my partner. He had a crossbow leveled right at my chest. “You’re not going anywhere.”
There was a moment that I swore my heart stopped. As I looked upon the fury of Aiden’s face, barely visible in the low light of this cursed place, I could tell that he meant to fire.
“Are you a murderer?” I asked him.
“I’ll do whatever I have to do.”
What could possibly drive him to act like this? “Look,” I pointed out. “If I leave, you won’t have any help carrying anything out, but you also won’t have to share anything. Can’t you just let me go in peace?”
“I wasn’t going to share anything with you to begin with,” he said.
“You heard what I said! I need your help, so get moving.”
I couldn’t believe this. “You were planning to take advantage of me from the beginning,” I stated the obvious.
“I don’t care about you,” he said.
“Yeah, I see that.” All of the sudden, my hope in the goodness of people seemed completely unrealistic. This was my friend, or so I’d thought. He lied to me, and when that failed, he was forcing me to work without pay at the point of a crossbow.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he added. “I don’t care about me either.”
Had he completely lost his mind?
“They have them,” he blurted out.
“They… have them?”
“My family!” he shouted.
It took me a moment to process what he just said. I knew he had a family. Pretty Ava, and little Lance, barely a toddler. If someone took them, it was probably one of two parties. It could have been a thief’s guild, or it could have been a dragon cult. Neither was above kidnapping for ransom or to conscript labor; such as treasure hunting on their behalf.
The former would probably sell them to the Vlad, who would march them off to Chaldemoth and subject them to a life of cruel slavery. The latter tended to keep children, brainwashing and training them in order to later add to their numbers. Older abductees were typically fed to the dragons that they served.
Their was no point in us being there. Either party probably would have already done whatever they were going to do. They would probably abduct or kill him when he returned to them, successful or not.
Still, I found myself wanting to give him whatever hope I could. I didn’t owe him anything; certainly not after all the lies. But then, I supposed that if I were in his place, I would have done the same thing. I supposed that I also had an opportunity to demonstrate the goodness I wanted to believe in.
It was risky, and the chances of everything working out were slim. Still, just maybe when we got back, he would find his family safe. It wasn’t very likely, but just maybe.
“Alright,” I said, my anger fading. “We’ll go find this treasure.” As I was speaking, an alien looking, green luminescent butterfly landed on his crossbow. That was the only sign of life that I’d seen since entering the forest.
He lowered his weapon, ignoring it. “After you,” he said, motioning with his head. I nodded, and walked past him on our previous heading.
He was the one who knew where we were going, so I just assumed that he would give me directions. He never did. We marched on in silence.
After a few hours of walking, the sunlight was dropping off. What small amount that was making it through the tree branches was fading. My eyes having adjusted to the dark, I could still see, but barely.
“Maybe we should call it a day,” I said, looking back. He was nowhere to be seen. “Hey!” I shouted. Nothing. “Are you there!?”
Just then, I saw another glowing butterfly. I can’t tell if it was the same, or a different one. Regardless, it occurred to me that I saw one of these the last time I saw my partner.
It was just then I felt a slap on the side of my neck, with a lingering sting. I instinctively reached for the wound, and pulled away blood and putrid, green slime.
Almost immediately, I started feeling weak; too weak to stand. The faintly lit world began to spin, faster and faster, and the faint sound of wind had become like the rumble of a ground quake. Weakened and dizzy, I fell. When I hit the ground, it was like my whole body had been smacked by a giant hammer.
Then, what had to be a steel cable tightened around my ankle. There was so much pressure. I wanted to scream, but my mouth no longer functioned. I could breathe, and I could move my eyes, but nothing else worked.
The cable then began to pull. It wasn’t moving quickly by any means, but it still felt as though it would shear my leg off. The ground beneath bit into my flesh as I was slowly being dragged. And it was so very loud…
A blast of hot, moist air hit me. The stout, fetid odor made me want to vomit, but that function didn’t seem to work either. I managed to get a look at where I was going; it was a cave that I hadn’t noticed before.
But then, I noticed some viscous ooze drop from the cave ceiling with a wet smack. A couple of antennae, each bearing a spherical eye, rose above the dark entrance. That was when I realized that what I was being pulled into wasn’t a cave.
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