Greetings, and Happy Halloween! In Tellest tradition, I’m showing the darker sides of this literary universe today with a new short story. I hope you enjoy it!
The Forest of Silence
A Tale by Michael DeAngelo
A skyward glance showed nothing but the boughs of trees, the light long gone from the place. Had he doubled back, perhaps he could have withdrawn from the place before sunset. But he knew that he would never be permitted to leave—not while others braved the same dangers he did.
Instead, Rusen brought his gaze down, spotting other members of the procession. The line was disorganized, but they all moved forward with one common goal: finding their elusive prey.
Besides the quiet crackle of the torches, there were no sounds in the forest. Rusen looked about in the darkness, as though just that act could help him pinpoint some distant noise. But there was nothing, it seemed. There were no chittering rodents, no birds singing charming melodies—the place was as quiet as death.
That thought wrenched him back to reality. He followed the line of villagers ahead of him with his eyes, bouncing from one to the other, until he landed on the man who led the excursion into the frightening woods. Erdath Pendleton walked on as though he knew every step of the way. He navigated gnarled roots, fallen branches and jagged rocks with ease, and all without the efforts of a nearby torch—instead leaning on an old walking stick when necessary. And despite all those challenges, his long robes, draped over with accentuating sashes of red and black, seemed untouched by the hazards around them. The fabric remained pristine, while the rest of the villagers were marred by dirt and sweat and grime.
Rusen wiped his brow then, his movements through the forest and the heat of the torch leaving a layer of perspiration there. He breathed out a quiet sigh, hopeful that the hunting party would abandon their inane quest and they could all return home to Mossley. It wasn’t a spectacular village by any means, especially among all the well-known magics of the country of Ganore, but it was an enchanting enough thought that he overlooked one of the other townsfolk stopping just a dozen yards in front of him.
“I think I see her,” he said.
Though his words were spoken as a loud whisper, in the silence of the place it might as well have been a shout. All eyes fell upon that man, and Rusen watched as one of their closer neighbors hurried to his side. He sent a scowl his way and raised a crooked finger to his lips.
The man who dared to speak—a tanner named Jackdale who Rusen knew—rolled his eyes and snorted at the other fellow’s attempt to chastise him. He lifted his free hand and pointed into the distance. Rusen, close at hand by then, peered through the dense trees and did see an isolated flicker of light in the darkness, but shook his head, as though he already knew somehow that it wasn’t what they were looking for.
None of the other villagers saw that confident dismissal of Jackdale’s claim. In fact, it seemed that throughout the journey, none truly paid Rusen any heed. He scoffed then, considering that perhaps he could simply return to Mossley without anyone being any wiser for it.
He turned to see the villagers continue their search through the forest, but Erdath quickly arrived amongst them. Without saying a word, he pointed in the same direction that Jackdale had, and no one thought to question his judgment.
The villagers clustered together then, moving through the forest a bit more quickly. But any light that Jackdale had seen was lost among the trees.
It soon became clear that Erdath had his sights set somewhere else instead. As the group crept over the thick underbrush, a swath of light could be seen just beyond the trees. Before anyone realized it, their pace steadied, and they made their way to the faraway clearing.
A collective sigh of relief erupted there as the villagers left the dark and dreary forest behind them.
“You can speak now,” the villager who chided Jackdale said once they put some space between them and the trees.
“Relax Valerio,” another member of the party tried to mediate. “We’ve been searching for hours. It wasn’t as though Jack scared her off or anything.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about,” Valerio said then. “You’ve heard the rumors about this place, haven’t you, Artor?”
“The rumors?” Artor wondered. “You mean the legends?”
“What legends?” the last member of their group, a skittish fellow named Sol, pressed.
“You mean you don’t know?” Artor asked. “They say this place is cursed, you know.”
“Cursed?” Sol gasped. “Then what are we doing here?”
While the rest of the villagers teased the man and spoke a bit more about the supposed curse, Rusen looked about at the clearing. It was nearly a chain wide, but only about a dozen yards deep. Rusen, whose father was a carpenter, shook his head when he thought about how useless the clearing would be as a small parcel of land. He shrugged then, however. It served well as a respite from the dark and dreary forest.
A cluster of rocks sat in the center of the clearing, and Rusen could not resist their allure. As Artor continued speaking of the haunted woods, the youngest of them rested his torch within a small pile of stones away from the grass. He then sat upon the tallest of the rocks there and stretched his weary limbs. After a moment, he swung his pack around, and reached inside to take out a chunk of bread he had stowed for the journey.
“Whenever someone goes into these woods, they never come out,” Artor went on. “Or at least, that’s what happens when you go in alone. So, you have to make sure you always stick by us.”
“But that’s not the important part,” Valerio added. “They don’t call this place the Forest of Silence for nothing, you know. They say that if anyone dares to speak under the boughs of these trees, you’re already marked for death.”
Jackdale waved that teasing remark away, but Sol couldn’t help but look about, unable to shield his anxiety.
“We’re just lucky that Mister Pendleton spotted the clearing when he did,” Artor teased then. “You didn’t feel like darkness pulling in closer and closer, like an unwanted shroud?”
While the others teased or diffused the tension, Rusen tore into a piece of his meal, happy for the respite. The others, all older by ten years or more, didn’t seem to pay him any heed.
When Rusen heard mumbling behind him, he realized that he wasn’t the only member of the hunting party under less scrutiny. He spun about, watching as Erdath looked about at the environment, navigating it with as much ease as the rest of the forest. It almost looked as though the man had been there before, Rusen thought, and he looked on with curiosity as the wise older villager studied the ground and continued his odd muttering.
Erdath walked about in a small circle, turning to face the rest of the villagers. It wasn’t until then that he realized that he was being watched. One of his thick, dark eyebrows raised as he wore intrigue on his face. He held his fingers together as though he were ready to snap them at any moment, but instead he pointed to the young man before him.
“You’re Rusen, correct? Marisa’s son?”
Rusen returned the same look at Erdath, then. Everyone knew him as his father’s son, as his mother had passed away years before. “I’m Marisa and Jacob’s son, yes.”
“I knew your mother long ago,” Erdath said. “We both lived in Mossley since we were children. I was saddened to hear of her passing.” After a moment of quiet reflection, he waved the lad on. “Come here, young man. While the rest of them bicker and gossip, perhaps the two of us can make sense of the things we can see in this clearing.”
“What do you mean?” Rusen asked.
Erdath snickered and grabbed the lad on the shoulder, steering him away from the rock formation at the center of the clearing. Rusen couldn’t deny that, though Erdath was older—perhaps nearing his sixties—his grip was strong still.
“I think that there are some clues here that might tell us how close we are to reaching our quarry.” He lifted his hand and gestured at the ground not so far away. A hollowed-out log seemed to point toward the forest, but the villager soon realized that the leader of the excursion had spotted something closer. A circle of small pink mushrooms grew out from the short grass just before them. “Do you know what that is, boy?” Erdath asked.
Rusen looked at him as though it was a trick question. “Are they…poisonous?” he returned.
Erdath snickered. “That may be—and we won’t be testing the notion in any case—but this is a fairy ring. It’s also known as a witch’s ring.”
At once, Rusen’s face contorted to one of intrigue and worry. “You mean…?”
“I believe so,” Erdath confirmed. “I think that we’re close to reaching the witch that defiled the town cemetery.”
He spoke in a commanding, powerful voice, and it didn’t take long for he and Rusen to hear the rest of their group cease their own storytelling.
“Did you find something?” Valerio asked.
When Rusen waved the rest of the hunting party onward, they all arrived and crowded around the ring of mushrooms.
“It’s a witch’s ring,” Rusen explained. “Erdath was just saying that she might use this to travel through the forest faster than we can. There might be other rings like this that can transport her quicker than we could blink.”
“We’re outmatched here, lads,” Sol said then. “We’re out of our fields here and getting farther from home with every step. We should turn around.”
Jackdale sent a scowl his way. “If we tuck tail and run, this witch is going to know that nothing is off limits. We’re all here for the same reason: she desecrated our loved ones. Are you really going to let her get away with digging up the bones of our dead?”
Sol squared his jaw. “I never even knew my grandfather.”
“My father said Mother was already gone from this world,” Rusen mused. “She’d moved on to Golernus, where her spirit waits for us. But her body in the cemetery? Those were just bones.”
“Oh, they’re so much more than that,” Erdath said. As the rest of the hunting party looked to him, he met their gazes with a fierce and confident one of his own. “In the wrong hands, the remains of the dead can be a powerful reagent for dark magic. If this witch did loot the dead of Mossley, it was for more nefarious means than we could know. If we return to our homes without her head, I fear she’ll come after the dead next.”
Valerio stood erect and slammed the butt of his spear into the ground. “Let’s get after her then.”
* * *
An old branch crunched beneath her foot, and she stopped in her tracks, holding out her hands as though she could stop time itself and reverse it. She didn’t hear the snap of the old, dead wood—she didn’t hear anything—but she knew that her pursuers would have, if they were close.
Annabelle looked to her feet, studying the ground nearby her. Though Autumn was moving into the countryside, the trees of the forest never lost their luster. Their leaves never fell, leaving the canopy lush and full, thick enough to block out the sun. She had always found it peculiar, for even when snow covered the grasslands and fields near the town of Mossley, the forest always seemed to be protected from the elements, as though a protective shroud hung over it.
That deep in the forest then, however, Annabelle felt anything but protected.
She closed her eyes, recalling the odd circumstances that drove her that deep into the eerie woods.
It was a brisk morning, and Annabelle rolled her shoulder forward to gather up a hold of the burlap sack dangling across her back. Though it wasn’t an easy burden, she wore a smile—one that grew wider as she neared Mossley and detected the sweet and savory aroma that wafted out from Elagander’s shop.
With a bit more perkiness in her pace, she hurried along, walking on the dirt path that led into town.
Annabelle never spent more time than she needed to in Mossley, and she always arrived early in the morning. That day, she was roused from her sleep later than she anticipated—but with cold days on the horizon, she couldn’t afford to miss an opportunity to collect provisions. She was reminded of why she kept to herself in a cabin not so far away. Some of the town’s womenfolk (along with their children), who were prepared to do some bartering of their own, were up and about at that early hour as well. Whenever their gazes landed on her, they grabbed up their families and quickly went on their way, avoiding eye contact with the stranger as though she had some sort of disease.
She couldn’t hear their hurtful words, but she felt their sting all the same.
She bowed her head then and continued forth until she could scurry into the baker’s home. A set of dangling bells announced her arrival, but she was still caught off guard when she saw Elagander turn from his woodstove without any delay. She snorted then, and looked over her shoulder, spotting the man’s makeshift alarm.
He had explained it all to her before, as difficult as that had been, but she had certainly forgotten by then.
How was she to remember something she would never experience?
She locked her jaw and turned around, shaking her head in mock disapproval. Elagander couldn’t keep himself from smiling at her false display of anger. Still, he knew that there was some true discomfort there. He had an advantage over her in that regard.
Annabelle wasted little time trying to converse with the baker. Instead, she swung the burlap sack over her shoulder and gently placed it on the ground. She spread it open then as well, displaying its contents.
Elagander returned an eager nod. He waited until she was looking at him again and flashed all his fingers at her twice. “Twenty?” he asked aloud.
She raised five more fingers at him and reached into the sack with her other hand. While he nodded his approval at the quantity, she tossed one of the small red items to him.
After a brief juggle, he steadied it in his hands, and expressed his satisfaction. The apples looked to be in good shape too. He studied the one he held for a moment before biting into it. A moment later he closed his eyes, savoring the fruit and leaning back against his counter. He let out a little hum, and then rubbed his stomach when he realized that sound of gratification would be lost on his visitor.
She was smiling when he opened his eyes once more.
Elagander nodded again, knowing the cadence of their exchange well by then. He raised a finger and turned about, retreating behind his display. “You always find the best of these, Anna,” he said, though he knew the words were wasted on her. Somehow it still made him feel better to say it. “You’ve got a good eye for these things, and you always manage to bring them to me at just the right time.”
While the baker worked on his task, Annabelle brought her stock toward him, leaving the sack closer to his display. With their bartering nearing its end, she breathed in deep, almost appearing to mimic Elagander’s enjoyment of the apple.
She didn’t keep her eyes closed as long as he had, but when she opened them, he already had her payment prepared on the top of his display. A mixed set of grains were stacked and tied together, a few onions, a handful of carrots and mishmash of potatoes were there—all foods that would keep longer than the apples she picked.
Elagander bent low though and returned with one more item in hand. He couldn’t help but laugh when he saw Annabelle’s wide and excited eyes as he added one last piece to the payment. He placed the fresh pie onto the display and turned again to her, placing one hand against his chest, and extending one out to her. “Are we okay? Is this good?”
Annabelle nodded with extra enthusiasm.
That was all Elagander needed to see. He fetched another sack, not unlike the one she brought the apples in, and began filling it with the goods they had agreed on.
She took more care to carry the new food, careful to balance the pie in the sack. Annabelle had considered just eating the pastry then and there but thought better of acting out. Elagander probably wouldn’t have cared, but it wasn’t proper, she knew. Though the people of Mossley thought of her as wild, she didn’t need to give them any more reasons to validate those concerns.
Annabelle thought to be on her way and turned to head back down the dirt road she had taken into town, but she caught a sense of something then.
She looked back, toward the village center, where a small well had been fashioned, and saw a man standing beside it. There was something unsettling about his look, she thought. While everyone else hurried here and there, finishing their tasks, he remained in place near the well, simply staring in her direction as though he had all the time in the world.
Others wore their sweat on their brow or had smudges of dirt or stains on their skin or clothes, but he looked perfectly kept, as though he needed not to bother with the toils of common folk. His wavy hair and finely trimmed mustache and goatee were set in place, and his robes fell just above the ground, showing off a fancy pair of cloth shoes.
Even from afar, he seemed to notice her study of him. Annabelle knew that he returned the same review of her. But when he raised an eyebrow, she couldn’t help but feel a chill race up her spine.
She locked her jaw then, and resumed her trek, back to her home.
Annabelle lifted a section of dirt from the corner of the cottage. Burlap was fashioned to the underside, and small slats of wood were fashioned into the inside to keep it from descending too far. More fabric lined the inside of the store as well and kept the produce cleaner than they would have been out in the elements.
There wasn’t a good deal of food there, she knew. But if she could ration it properly, Annabelle was sure that she could make it through even a poor winter.
She took care then to remove the vegetables and grains that Elagander had traded to her from the sack, and one by one she set them in place in her store. She kept the pie out, however, knowing it wouldn’t keep. Truthfully, even if it had that capability, she still would have found some other excuse to make in order to eat it at her earliest convenience. As she set the layer of dirt back on top of her food stores, Annabelle guessed at what sort of pie Elagander had baked for her. Would it have been a sweet filling with berries? Or something tart like apple or rhubarb. Pumpkins were also ripe and ready for picking that late in the season, and she thought that perhaps he might have used one of those as filling instead.
Before she could savor even the first bite, a light filled her old cottage, and she spun about to look at the door. Two men—both unfamiliar to her, but she assumed they were villagers from Mossley—stomped toward her, and before she could even throw her hands up in confusion, they wrapped their arms under her shoulders, and pulled her from her home.
Annabelle cried out then. She had never heard her own scream, and didn’t know how strange it sounded. But as she was dragged out into the light of mid-afternoon, concerned faces looked at one another. Four more men were outside her home, but the young woman only focused on one: the man with the fine hair and manicured mustache who wore the fancy robes.
“What is that noise she’s making?” Sol, the furthest from the cottage, asked uneasily.
“I’ve never heard her speak before,” Valerio replied. The village guard was one of the men who grasped Annabelle, and he was the more forceful of the two by far.
“Maybe she’s trying to cast a spell,” Jackdale, on her other side, speculated.
While Erdath looked on with a hard, cold gaze, the final two men of the troupe glanced at each other in horror. Rusen and Artor knew well that the woman was surprised by their sudden appearance, and that her uneven screams were ones of distress and not any planful reactions. There was no magic there—if she was even capable of it.
“What now?” Rusen asked.
“Let’s ask her where she’s keeping the bones,” Valerio growled. He pulled her away from even Jackdale then, wrenching her further from the house. He tossed her down to the ground beside an old two-rail fence that had fallen into disrepair. Her back thumped against an upright post, and she cried out again—that time in pain and not in fear.
“She doesn’t speak,” Artor said. He realized that his reply came with its own level of distress, and he stood taller as though to combat that display of concern. “She never speaks.”
Jackdale remained where he stood when the woman was tugged from his hands. “When we were in there, she was hovering over by the far corner of the house. Maybe she has some kind of secret alcove or something in there.”
“You think she has the…the remains in there?” Sol wondered.
“The rest of you stay outside,” Erdath finally said. “See to it that she doesn’t catch you off your guard.”
“All due respect Erdath,” Valerio said, “but it might not be the best idea for you to go in there alone. She may have traps in place. If she truly is leaning on dark magic, there’s no reason to think that she wouldn’t have used some of it to protect what she doesn’t want to be found.
Erdath sighed and continued into the cottage. “Very well then. But let us be quick about it. You are the best-equipped person to deal with her should she wrench free.”
When the two men passed into the building, Jackdale drew closer to Annabelle. She huddled on the ground, like a submitting animal, only making eye contact with her captors when necessary. In the meantime, the other three subconsciously withdrew, wary of her alleged powers, and perhaps ashamed of their roles in subduing her.
“You really think she’s capable of this?” Rusen asked aloud then. Sol and Artor looked to the ground, contemplating their answers. “She’s just a girl—younger than me.”
“Perhaps she is young,” Artor considered. “Or perhaps she’s older than any of us, and her magic has made her appear youthful.”
Sol rubbed his shoulder, his eyebrows dropping into a fretful visage. “You’re always making up stories, Artor.”
“That I am. But what’s to say this one doesn’t have some semblance of truth to it, eh? What else could she want with the bones of our dead?”
Jackdale, still watching over her, let out an audible grumble. When the other trio looked to him, he had his arms folded over his chest. “Maybe she was planning on making a stew out of our ancestors.”
Rusen looked away, just the thought of that setting his stomach wobbling.
“I’ll be damned,” the group heard Valerio speak from inside the cottage.
Jackdale turned about and stared at Annabelle’s home. “Everything alright in there?” For a while, it remained silent there, and the four men kept their eyes locked to the building. The bottom layers of the cottage were comprised of stone, with sturdy logs lying atop them. Everything was carefully fashioned together, but that odd amalgamation left the onlookers feeling as though strange powers were at work. The building itself seemed almost alive—two pieces of a whole, lashed together by dark magic, perhaps. “Valerio…Erdath?” Jackdale pressed again.
“We found something,” Valerio announced from within.
Jackdale didn’t realize it, but he hadn’t looked at Annabelle in some time. After every concerning report from inside the building, he stepped closer and closer toward it—and farther still from the alleged criminal.
That fact wasn’t lost to Annabelle. Slowly, quietly, she climbed from her knees, setting her feet beneath her. When the trio of other men weren’t looking, she pushed off the ground, and sprang into a sprint without delay.
Jackdale and Rusen both noticed her at once. She wasn’t quiet in her attempt to escape, but what she lacked in stealth she more than made up for in speed. Whether it was that unsuspected burst of motion or just an inability to properly set his feet beneath him, the tanner lost his balance and tumbled to the dirt, growling at his misfortune as went.
Rusen made no such missteps. He hurried after her, determined to see her stopped. A trial would have exonerated her if she was found to be innocent, surely. But her fleeing? It was certain that she was guilty.
Still, he shook his head. Even if she had torn the ground asunder in the cemetery and taken bones from the graves, she lived a reclusive life. Perhaps that strange way of living left her not knowing what was right from wrong. And her inability to properly communicate left her at odds with the townsfolk of Mossley. They would see her oddities as a means to convict her, without pause.
For Annabelle, perhaps there was no such thing as a fair trial.
He grumbled, knowing that he could save such thoughts for when she was in their reach once more. Far ahead, the great forest stretched wide. Mossley was closer to a lake in the region, but Rusen was able to see the woods from his home. He only realized then that he had never been so close to it. He remembered warnings from his mother before her passing, that he was never to go into the woods. Those warnings grew more and more dire as she grew sick, until he recalled those words more than any others that she had spoken to him. Yet there he was, chasing the girl headlong into them.
Annabelle pushed on without hesitation. Deep, sharp breaths pushed through her lips, the girl unable to hear her desperate rush toward salvation. She knew the area as well, leaping over debris and rocks in the field, and adjusting her momentum as needed to avoid any obstacles in the terrain. Before long, she had put some distance between her and Rusen, and she never looked over her shoulder once before she plunged into the shadows of the forest.
Rusen slowed before he arrived at the edge of the forest. Almost at once, he was taken by the sight of the darkness therein. Annabelle was gone from his sight immediately, and he struggled to catch his breath.
He looked over his shoulder, trying to see how close the other villagers were to him. They would be no use to him, it seemed. The lot of them were still beside her cottage tending to Jackdale or inquiring of Erdath and Valerio.
Rusen squared his jaw, knowing better than to venture into the forest alone. He turned about again and stared into the darkness.
Far within the reach of the woods, Annabelle looked back out. She watched with some relief as Rusen turned and walked away, back toward the others who had come to pull her from her home.
Annabelle breathed an uneasy sigh as she pulled herself away from her thoughts and back to the present. Had that been the end of it—had the villagers of Mossley given up on their pursuit—perhaps she could have returned to her home. But led by the man in the robes, when the other five men approached the woods, she knew that her time there had passed. Perhaps she could make a life for herself on the other side of the forest.
She only knew that with Winter on its way, surviving without her provisions would be difficult indeed.
First, she needed to reach the other side. If the villagers still pursued her, there was a chance she would never leave the forest.
She looked over her shoulder, verifying that no one else was in the vicinity. While she had only let her thoughts slip to the past for a few moments, it could have been enough to give an advantage to those who hunted her.
Annabelle gazed into the farthest reaches of the forest, looking for some distant torchlight or a stray lantern. Only the minutest traces of daylight managed to pierce through the canopy above, though her eyes had adjusted as best they could. Still, she didn’t see anything behind her. Perhaps, she thought, the villagers had thought better of tracking her.
Blowing out a shallow sigh, she spun about, looking at the ground once more. Annabelle carefully chose her route, avoiding the roughest terrain as she went. When she was sure that she was on solid, flat ground once more, she lifted her eyes, and focused on the unfamiliar forest ahead of her.
Far ahead, then, a glimmer of light caught her attention. Though she momentarily hesitated, thinking that perhaps she had traveled in a circle back toward the hunting party, she realized that the light was farther above the ground than a torch or lantern could be.
Annabelle narrowed her eyes, unable to abate her curiosity. Slowly, stealthily, she began her own pursuit.
* * *
The men from Mossley traveled two by two then, huddled close together with fewer lit torches. On Erdath’s suggestion, they kept the others doused, knowing that the farther they delved into the forest, the more difficult it would be to find their way back. They might have needed their torches, he insisted.
Still, even in that softer light, Artor could see the feelings that weighed on his young companion.
“What has you so bothered, lad?” he asked, tapping the man with the back of his hand.
Rusen realized that it wasn’t the first time the scribe tried to get his attention. “What’s the matter?”
Artor let a weary smile cross his face. “That’s what I wanted to know. You seem torn.”
“Is it that obvious?” Rusen asked.
“You’re young. You haven’t learned how not to wear your feelings on your face.”
Rusen shrugged. “I don’t know how much I believe in any of this. Annabelle was always strange, but I never felt frightened by her. Do you really think she could be a witch?”
“I’m not sure, lad,” Artor returned. “I know that I never felt threatened by her. Once I even passed her on the road east of town. She smiled at me while I sat in the carriage taking us to Jebrel. I thought then that she was just misunderstood. Maybe I was just bewitched by her.”
“What are you two on about?” they both heard then. Though he attempted a whisper, Rusen and Artor winced to hear it. He was unable to quiet himself much, it seemed. “Well, go on then,” he said as he drew close, his torch in hand.
Artor silently shushed him, lifting his hands before gently sweeping them down. Between the two groups, he saw the darkened silhouette of the man who was meant to travel with him carefully move through the shadows. Sol hesitated every few moments, looking over his shoulder, his eyes catching a glimmer of light from the torches.
“We’re just debating whether or not Annabelle could have really done it—dug through the graves and torn up the old bones,” Rusen said.
“You know what Valerio said,” Jackdale replied. That time his whispers were a little more appropriate. “He claims he saw the bones, same as Erdath.”
“We never had a chance to see them for ourselves though, you know,” Artor mentioned. “As soon as we heard the claim, the girl bolted for the woods.” Jackdale narrowed his eyes as he looked upon his fellow villager with dismay. “I meant no offense by that,” Artor continued. “None of us expected Annabelle to go running off like that.”
Clenching his teeth, Jackdale shook his head. “Truth be told, I don’t know what I believe myself. I’ve never seen someone so scared as when Valerio threw her to the ground. If she was a witch, couldn’t she have just turned us all into pigs or something?”
Far ahead, the most distant torch swung about in a wide arc, as though Valerio meant to whip it through the trees like a blade. He and Erdath stopped progressing farther into the forest though, and before long it became apparent why. The oldest among them, the well-dressed Erdath, looked on at the trio, his bushy eyebrows falling, leaving him looking quite disturbed.
Artor nodded and placed a hand on Jackdale’s shoulder. “That may well be his last warning for us.”
“You know what he would say,” Rusen whispered in return. “It isn’t him we have to worry about. It’s the witch.”
“Or worse,” Artor added. He looked at the other fellow with the torch, and gave him a nod, sending him back toward his hunting partner.
Jackdale began his slow return, only letting go of some of his anxiety when Erdath and Valerio spun back around. A dozen feet ahead, Sol also made his way forward once again. Away from the torchlight, he should have been careful with his footfalls. Away from the torchlight, there was no telling where obstacles might have been.
Sol’s foot hooked along something as he went, an old gnarled root, perhaps. As he stumbled forward, he couldn’t catch his balance. When he stomped his foot down, it landed in an uneven patch of grass and it rolled sideways with a sickening crack.
Despite what would surely have angered Erdath, the poor man let out a harrowing cry as he fell to the ground.
Without pause, Valerio spun about, that time passing the torch to his companion. Erdath remained there, far from the injured man. He even seemed to drift further from the commotion, his torchlight diminishing as the others converged on Sol, who writhed in pain on the ground.
Valerio approached with a low growl leaving his lips, but by the time he arrived there, the other three surrounded Sol, and they wore haunted expressions. It didn’t take long for the village guard to understand why, either. In the light offered up by the torches, the hunting party from Mossley could see the mix of crimson and white that displayed just how untimely the man’s accident was.
His companions’ silence finally reaching him as he struggled against his anguish, he too looked at his injury. Somehow seeing it only made his pain more tangible. He screeched like a banshee and attempted to reach out to his battered leg, but even that subtle movement sent the muscles and tendons in his limb against missing and torn bone, escalating the agony further.
Valerio looked at his fellow hunters, his eyes gone wide in fright. “We need to leave, now.”
“But Sol,” Jackdale returned in a harsh whisper.
“He’ll kill us all,” the guard said.
Artor shut his eyes, but that only served to pound Sol’s scream into his mind louder. He shook his head and immediately nodded, heading away from the shouting fellow. Rusen was close behind him, suddenly very aware of the superstitions that surrounded the forest.
Though Valerio moved on as though his commands were heeded, Jackdale remained behind, his mouth contorted into a crooked frown. He reached out to his injured friend, but couldn’t bring himself to touch him, as though Sol bore some terrible disease that would spread by contact.
A moment later, Jackdale moved on as well. All alone, Sol tried to put to words some semblance of a plea for aid, but it only served to break his crying into awkward, ineligible syllables.
Together, the other five villagers ran through the forest, beyond careful of watching their steps. Sol’s crying became distant, and they finally stopped to catch their breath.
Perhaps nothing was as frightening, then, as when the poor fellow’s crying abruptly stopped.
* * *
Against all odds, the light seemed to flutter in the air, weaving between trees like a large firefly. Though her life had been upended less than a day earlier, there was something about the unnatural luminescence that seemed to lift Annabelle’s spirits.
Despite the distance between her and the unknown glow, the rest of the forest seemed brighter then as well. Drawing her forward, the airborne spark drifted deeper into the woods, but not quick enough to dismay her. Rather, it seemed to slow, allowing her better and better looks at it.
It was not long before she saw the strange light with more clarity. It held the tincture of a flame, a bright yellow or vibrant orange, but it did not flicker forth like a crackling fire. Instead, the light trailed behind every shift and pitch, like a phantom shroud that echoed movement rather than sound.
As Annabelle drew closer, she realized that the light was higher up than she had first anticipated. The terrain descended somewhat, but whatever glowed in the air there was higher up than she could reach by far.
That skyward gaze made one more thing clear: it was not the only light. Half a dozen or more shifted and danced in the air, looking as though stars had come to life in the forest.
While the one she trailed remained far away, another was much closer. And unlike the first, whose light shimmered like a lit torch, the one above and to her side glowed with an otherworldly cerulean. It was as though it were perpetually trapped in a summer storm, a bolt of lightning setting a flash in place above a still lake.
Unlike the one which steadily lead her deeper into the forest, the one closest to her seemed to flutter overhead, drifting this way and that, leaving traces of its cyan glow behind it wherever it went.
As Annabelle drew to a halt though, it began to descend upon her. Together, the two became more aware of one another, and the strange being lowered until it was nearly close enough to touch.
In that proximity, Annabelle could see the peculiarities of the other creature. Its wings kept it aloft like a hummingbird’s, rapidly beating with movements that were so quick they could hardly be detected. The wings weren’t feathered, instead membranous, like a butterfly’s wings. But it was no insect that floated before her. She had features not unlike her own: fair skin (though it was awash in the cerulean light her wings produced), long blond hair that was pulled into braids that hung over her shoulders, and a curious, interested gaze that grew as she drew closer.
The sprite braved the unfamiliar sight of the human, drawing close enough to illuminate the woman’s face with the magical glow of her wings.
Annabelle couldn’t hide her own intrigue, or her smile. She lifted her finger then, wondering if the diminutive being would dare to land on her finger.
Though her movement was subtle, it urged the sprite to put some distance between them. Still, it didn’t flee entirely, and even descended closer toward the ground.
Once more, Annabelle found herself following after the strange lights of the forest, all the fear of her pursuers gone from her mind.
* * *
The three men sat there, unmoving, covered in the filth of the forest and doing nothing to alleviate their discomfort. For once, Jackdale fell silent, haunted by the screams of his friend, which echoed in his mind.
“We should just leave, eh?” Artor whispered then. As he spoke, he drew closer to the ground, as though the volume of his statement held less weight there.
“We’re so deep in the forest that I don’t even know how to leave,” Rusen replied. “And I’m not seeing any regret or remorse from Erdath. He seems more incensed than ever to track the witch down. Do you think he’d simply let us go?”
“And what right does he have to make us stay? He holds no power over us.”
“What was that?” Jackdale suddenly interrupted. All eyes turned to him, but he didn’t make eye contact with anyone. “That wasn’t a witch or some foul magic or anything of the sort. One moment Sol was there with us, screaming his lungs out, and the next—”
“We don’t know what it was that silenced him, Jack,” Artor replied. “Could have been the witch, could have been whatever curse is said to run rampant in these woods.”
“All he did was make one wrong step,” Rusen considered.
“We should leave,” Artor insisted. “We should leave and make sure that we never come back to this foul place.”
Jackdale still would not dare to look at either of his companions, but he nodded, ready to be far from the forest.
Before they could gather up to tell Erdath of their decision, they could hear the crunch of sticks and twigs near them. Rusen reached for his hip, and the hammer that he kept there, but he soon realized he wouldn’t need it. Valerio approached then, no torch in hand, and as quiet as his heavy armor would allow him.
“We see her,” he whispered then.
“What?” Artor wondered.
“The witch. She’s in the woods just ahead. Now’s our chance to get vengeance for our ancestors—and for Sol.”
Rusen and Artor exchanged glances, as though they were considering abandoning the task altogether, even with the woman found.
“Let’s meet back up with Erdath, and together we’ll go after her,” Valerio ordered.
Despite their better judgement, Valerio’s commanding presence had the men following in his footsteps. Before long, they arrived in an even darker part of the forest, barely able to see their companions. Erdath’s eyes almost seemed to glow in the shadows, though, and when he turned about to see the rest of the hunting party, he almost seemed eager for their arrival.
“Look there,” he whispered, as quiet as they had ever heard.
Though they couldn’t see where he pointed, they knew what he indicated. There, some fifty feet in front of them, a flicker of blue light caught their attention. Still too far to see just what it was, the villagers huddled low and remained as silent as they could.
“We’ll surround her from all sides,” Erdath instructed. “You three circle around that way. Jackdale, you and I will head off toward there. When Valerio and the others spook her toward us, we’ll be ready.”
If Jackdale even heard the plan, he didn’t acknowledge it. Still, as the other three carried out the plan, Jackdale remained behind with Erdath, who began leading him away from their place in the forest.
Valerio’s pace was sluggish. He worked hard to stifle the sound of his armor, leading Artor and Rusen around in a wide arc. None of them said a word to one another, only following the guard and awaiting further instructions from him.
The two reticent villagers positioned themselves furthest from the strange beacon in the woods, worried about what other foul tricks might have been in store for them if the witch caught them—if Annabelle even was what Erdath suggested of her. Valerio drew his sword though, eager to put a stop to the woman who desecrated their dead.
Artor followed suit, if for nothing else to be prepared if they were attacked. He plucked a small dagger from his belt, prompting Rusen to shake his head. If they were attacked, he doubted the witch would be held off by that paltry weapon. He shrugged a moment later, realizing that all he had was his carpentry hammer.
“Come on,” Valerio whispered once they arrived at the point that he was comfortable with. He waved them on, and together, the three of them crept through the woods, remaining low to the ground and readying themselves for the fight of their lives.
As they drew closer, they saw the odd sight of the beacon for what it was. A torch was thrust into the ground, its flames burning blue rather than orange.
Rusen and Artor exchanged wary glances, certain by then that foul magic was afoot. If Annabelle knew they were close by, they hesitated to think of what dangers they would face.
They only hoped that Erdath and Jackdale were ready to flank her on the other side.
Erdath walked about with confidence and poise, as though there were no fear within him at all. He made no attempts to shroud himself from sight, moving toward a point in the woods that he designated for himself and his companion.
“Aren’t you afraid she’ll see us?” Jackdale whispered then. His question came without disdain, as though he were already committed to being discovered by the witch.
Rolling his eyes, Erdath spun about, meeting eyes with the tanner. “You talk too much,” he said. “You’re a liability to us, you know.”
Jackdale squared his jaw then. “Fine. Then I’ll be on my way.”
“Oh, no,” Erdath swore. “You’ll do nothing of the sort. You can still be of use to me. Just not in your current form.”
Folding his arms over his chest, Jackdale arched an eyebrow. “And what is that supposed to mean?”
The typically dour Erdath let a devious smile curl his lips upward. He stared at Jackdale like that for a moment before he turned and butted his head against a tree. Erdath winced and breathed in through gnashed teeth, already feeling the sting of the air against his bloodied wound.
“What are you doing?” Jackdale asked, hopping back at that frightening sight.
“I haven’t found what I’m looking for yet,” Erdath grumbled. His voice sounded lower, more sinister than before. “But you’ll help me find what I seek.” As he spoke, he reached into the folds of his robe, retrieving one of the acquired bones that he and Valerio found at Annabelle’s cabin. He held it out before him, almost like a wizard would hold a wand.
Jackdale held up his hands, desperation on his face as he realized Erdath was not what he thought he was.
A blue mist seemed to surround the outstretched bone—the same color as the flame that danced further in the woods.
Before he could protest or plead for mercy, the bone darted forward like an arrow, piercing through the man’s throat and tearing through the other side. Erdath listened intently as he heard the missile crunch through a tree further ahead.
Clutching his wound in futility, Jackdale felt the blood rushing past his throat. He gurgled when he tried to scream, and before he knew it, he had fallen upon his knees.
“You talked far too much for my liking.” Erdath’s smile grew more sinister then, and he placed his hand on the man’s head. A pulse of energy seemed to pass between them both then, and in that next moment, Jackdale collapsed to the ground, lifeless.
As the trio neared the torch, they let out a collective gasp. All at once, the flame extinguished, leaving the way dark before them. They drew to an immediate stop, throwing up their hands as though they were ready for the horrid witch to rend the flesh from their bones.
When nothing further came of the strange light or its sudden extinguishment, the three looked at each other in confusion.
They were not left to question the odd circumstance for long, for a pained cry resounded in front of them before abruptly ceasing. Too afraid to venture any further, they soon discovered the cause of the yelp regardless. Erdath stumbled into the area, holding his forehead. He collapsed to his knees, and faltered to the side, only catching himself on an outstretched hand.
Valerio was quick to reach his side, and that near to him, he noticed the tremendous amount of blood on the man’s face. He swept Erdath’s hand away and saw the injury to his brow. “What happened?” he asked.
It took some time for Erdath to meet his companion’s gaze. When he did, his focus seemed empty—distant. “It was…it was her,” he claimed. “She was upon us in an instant. My head felt like it was cracked open, and by the time I could see straight once more…”
“Erdath,” Artor whispered when he drew near, “where is Jackdale?”
The injured fellow stared at the other villagers for a moment longer before he turned about to look deeper into the forest.
In the poor light, it was difficult to see anything clearly. As the quartet crept closer to where Erdath indicated, however, the grisly sight became apparent.
Jackdale lay there on his back, his throat torn open. He looked up at the forest canopy with lifeless eyes, his time on Tellest ended.
“That bitch,” Valerio snarled. “Enough. We’re not leaving without her head. We owe it to Sol and Jackdale now. While she still stands, all of Mossley is in danger.”
“Please, Valerio,” Artor whispered. “You cannot mean to stay here. We’re already—”
The guard from the village was hearing none of it. He began off, in the direction he believed the witch headed.
Erdath, on the ground still, grunted as he attempted to stand. “As much as I hate to admit it, he’s right. If we leave her alive in these woods, she’ll come back to the village, stronger than ever. And I…I don’t want you two to leave. I was a fool to separate us before—staying together might be the only thing keeping us alive.”
Rusen cast a wary glance toward Artor then, but they both gave a nod, and helped to stabilize the wounded fellow.
Together then, they followed the village guard, leaving another of their dead behind.
* * *
The mud beneath her feet seemed to pull at her shoe, and she stumbled forward more than once to catch her balance. Her hands were filthy with the muck of the mire, and more than one streak of it was on her cheeks from when she wiped away her perspiration there.
Every few moments, the fairy who led her forward spun about, watching her struggling to make her way through the murkier portion of the forest. Annabelle’s breaths were deep and ragged then, every attempt to gain some momentum sapped away by the harsh terrain.
Finally, the fairy drew close, hovering just within reach, and at eye level. The woman could see her small guide’s irritated expression. There was something else there, Annabelle realized as well. Was it worry, perhaps?
It didn’t matter. While she stood there, trying to infer what the fairy’s concerns were, Annabelle’s breathing softened, and she took solace in the brief respite from her exhausting march forward.
The fairy whipped back around, drawing closer to the ground then. It seemed to mark a better path for Annabelle, across clumps of grass that seemed drier and firmer than the muck she trudged through.
As the fairy made that slow course across the area, Annabelle spotted a peculiar glimmer near to the creature’s waist. She narrowed her eyes, squinting to understand what it was. There, hanging from a cloth sash strapped around the fairy’s waist, was a needle that was smaller than a blade of grass. The woman smiled, considering how similar it was to the way a human would carry a sword.
She also noticed a loop of thread hooked to its opposite hip—an odd sight considering its wings. What would it need rope for if it could fly?
Annabelle shook her head, happy for the reprieve as she climbed onto the bank of the murky creek. As she continued, she realized that she and the blue fairy were not alone. Once again, the forest was speckled with lights. Though the canopy grew thicker there than anywhere else, she felt somehow safer beneath the shimmer of all the other fairies.
As her guide led her on, she began to detect a strange aroma in the forest. An almost sickly-sweet smell, she wondered what it was. The area was filled with strange phenomena, like the leaves that never seemed to wither. She pondered what other strange magics the fairies had instilled upon those trees.
As she passed beyond the forest mire, more light became apparent in the distance. She noticed, then, that the trees were farther and fewer between, but they grew tall and wide, their branches covering everything above. It was like a clearing within the darkness, with soft moss growing along the forest floor.
On the horizon, a beacon of many colors stood sentinel in the Forest of Silence.
The blue fairy spun about, looking at Annabelle’s enthralled gaze. Even the fairy let a smile crease her lips then, and she waved her strange guest onward.
* * *
Far behind the floating lights of the forest, four men huddled low to the ground, their bodies covered with mud and foliage. Valerio, his once shining armor layered in dirt and leaves, held up his fist, halting the others who followed him.
The other three crept behind him, only coming to a stop when they neared the guard. He made eye contact with each of them, one by one, and brought their attention to some distant point in the forest. Once Artor, Rusen and Erdath followed his gaze to that position in the forest, they spotted what he did.
A blue light hovered in the forest, slowly moving this way and that, until it drew close to another figure. As the glow illuminated her features, they knew that it was Annabelle.
Erdath nodded with enthusiasm. There was the vindication that the woman was a witch. She congregated with magical beings of the forest.
Together, he and Valerio resumed their trek forward.
Behind them, Artor and Rusen kept their eyes on the distant woman. Though it was difficult to see in the darkened forest, they watched as she held her arms, nervously proceeding through the quiet woods as if it were for the first time.
* * *
It did not take long for Annabelle to realize that the beacon in the forest was a massive tree, standing sentinel among all the other fauna and wildlife that surrounded it. The lights were produced by hundred—perhaps thousands—of other fairies, and rings of bioluminescent mushrooms dotted the landscape. Even more of the fungus speckled the outer trunk of the tree, rising far higher than she expected.
As Annabelle drew further into the home of the fairies, the small fae creatures took note of her. Swarms of them began descending on her, but the blue fairy before her danced about in the air, communicating in her own way. The other fairies gave them a wide berth then, and Annabelle felt as though she had fallen under the protection of her guide.
For the blue fairy, the travel seemed effortless, but the long approach toward the tree took a long while for the human. As she neared it, the strange smell became almost too much to bear. She kept her eyes trained toward the elevated lights in the boughs of the scattered trees, and she realized that the fairies congregated there among strange objects fastened against the trunks of the trees or the thickest branches.
She froze in her tracks when she realized what they were. Bodies—human bodies—were fixed to the trees, slowly left to rot. They weren’t lifeless husks though, she realized, for other creatures of the forest seemed to use what remained as best they could. Strange bugs and birds that made no sound fluttered about, only illuminated by the light of fairy wings. They used the bodies as perches or as shelter from any rain that dripped down from the distant canopy.
Everything in Annabelle told her to run, but as she spun on her heel, the blue fairy was there. She fluttered at the woman’s eye level, sending her a pleading gaze and raising her hands to placate her. The fairy opened her mouth and pointed to it before shaking her head and throwing her arms out wide.
Silence, Annabelle realized. That was what the fairy wanted. As her guide pointed toward the unfortunate victims in the trees, Annabelle realized that they weren’t killed out of malice or anger or some other nefarious reason. There was something else there, beyond her understanding.
Somehow, the emotional reaction from the fairy left the woman feeling safe once more. She offered up a solemn nod and allowed the fairy to loop around her and lead on once more.
After walking for what felt like forever, Annabelle finally arrived near the base of the massive tree. Though she could see how tall it was from afar, its humongous trunk reaching up toward what seemed like the verdant heavens, she was surprised by its breadth. At first thinking it would have only been as wide as her cottage, Annabelle soon changed her opinion, believing it to be able to have surrounded the entirety of Mossley.
No, not surrounded, she soon realized, but encompassed. At least at its base, an opening left the tremendous sentinel hollow.
Together, Annabelle and her fairy companion proceeded onward, straight toward the opening. As they traveled forth, she was stricken by the sight of other fairies. They walked along the forest floor, their wings gone dim and tucked beneath their shoulders, transparent enough that they couldn’t be seen except by the most scrutinous gazes.
But as the human visitor drew near, they unfurled their wings, summoning new light there. They took to the air, and flew into the tree hollow in droves, illuminating the inside, and creating a visible path for the woman and her sapphire-tinted guide.
Though the wooden lip at the top of the hollow was still a dozen feet above her head, Annabelle lowered her head as she passed into the tree hollow. Once inside, she saw where the fairies congregated. They fluttered and hovered about the inner walls of the tree, revealing an ancient mural drawn with a beautiful reflective material. Against their multicolored glow, the mural came to life, depicting the forest in a stark new beauty.
But it was not all beauty, Annabelle soon realized, and it was not all that they were trying to point out to her. In the center of the tree, among all the other designs and depictions, was a central part of their history. An illustration of a giant winged creature, highlighted in the strange substance that glowed within the tree, rested at the top of the mural, looking sinister and fearsome. Lines were drawn from the monster’s mouth though, giving the image more presence. As the fairies shifted this way and that, those lines almost seemed to dance.
While Annabelle looked at the mural, she considered that perhaps it had frightened them with its terrifying screech—something she couldn’t have begun to understand. But then she looked at the fairies that congregated there, reverent to their past and the lore that was instilled there. None of the fairies parted their lips to speak as the humans of Mossley did. They communicated with one another the same way her mother did with her: a glance this way or that; a smile; a gesture of their hands.
The fairies lived in a world as devoid of sound as she did.
Catching her attention once more, the blue fairy guided her along the mural. It depicted the fairies educating the other fauna of the forest, putting their fingers up to their lips to protect birds and tree-dwelling rodents.
The quiet was what kept them alive.
As Annabelle continued her turn about that hollow, she was brought to face another odd image which the fairy hovered in front of. A strange collection of shapes looked like nothing to her at first, until she realized she was considering it through the wrong lens. When she considered how the fairies saw the forest, it became apparent. It was a map, as seen from the air above the forest.
The blue fairy grasped the wall of the tree hollow where the map was, and pointed toward the far side of the forest, where she could find safety from the legendary monster.
She noticed, too, that another large clearing existed in the woods, large enough to keep several towns, and a castle as well. But as she stared at that area, the fairy drew close to her and shook her head, waving her hands to steer her away from there. Annabelle couldn’t wrench her attention away entirely though, and she noticed the cluster of color at the center of the huge clearing.
All at once then, the fairies withdrew from the tree, their urgency apparent. Annabelle turned and fled from the hollow as well, but a veil of light stood before her as the fairies gathered together.
Finally, they rose higher into the air, and she saw something far ahead. Together, the band of fairies approached the strange light—not unlike the color of the blue fairy’s glowing wings. Unlike her wings though, the light looked somehow faded, a duskier color.
The blue fairy remained there beside Annabelle while she watched the fairies investigate. She thought she detected the flickering of a flame, and she stood on the tips of her toes to get a better look.
As fixed as she was on the distant oddity, she never saw the man sneaking up behind her.
Valerio sprang from his spot in the darkness, tackling Annabelle to the ground. Though she was caught off her guard, she struggled against his firm grasp, pushing him away from her as best she could. He wrapped his hand around her throat then, ready to squeeze the life from her.
Gasping for air, Annabelle reached for his face, and raked her fingers across there, leaving deep scratches in his skin. He growled and pressed harder on her, locking her into place on the ground.
The angry noise that left his lips was deafening in the silent, hallowed place. While many of the fairies still moved forth to investigate the strange signal at the entrance of their grove—an odd blue flame, it seemed—some of them stopped and spun about.
As Annabelle’s vision started to go dark, she watched as littles flashes of light circled above her.
Valerio was determined to squeeze the life out of the witch, so blind to what had really transpired in the forest.
The fairies cared not for his lack of hindsight. One by one they dove toward him, bringing their needle-swords to bear. When the first of those tiny blades pierced his skin, he felt as though he was being stung by wasps. He attempted to swat them aside, hitting more than one and watching them sail across the area. But there were too many, he soon realized, and they were more determined to stop him than he was to stop Annabelle.
One brave little fairy dropped to the ground beside him and leaped into the air once more, driving her needle into his neck. The shock of that sudden pain had him jolting upright and pawing at his newest injury.
All at once, as she breathed burning, lifegiving air back into her lungs, Annabelle’s vision returned to her. With a desperate push, she threw Valerio off-balance, and wriggled free from him, scrambling to safety.
He couldn’t focus on her though. As he rose to his feet, plucking the needle from his throat, Valerio realized that a score of fairies had focused on him. They soared in at him, their tiny blades leading the charge. He cried out as if preparing for battle, but he was overwhelmed in moments, the needles carving through his flesh. He collapsed to the ground, writhing against the pain of the dozens of new wounds.
The fairies were there with him in an instant, bringing their needles to bear once more. That time though, the needles were strung with silken thread. Working in tandem, the fairies quickly pierced the skin around the village guard’s lips. Before he could understand what was happening, the fairies had sewn his mouth shut.
While the horrific act unfolded behind her, Annabelle shuffled from the ongoing battle. Her fairy companion, the blue-winged beauty she had met earlier, danced around in front of her, frantically attempting to gain her attention. Annabelle nodded, acknowledging the minute guide.
At once, they moved from there, the fairy leading her far from the tree and from the light. Though Annabelle couldn’t hear a thing, the fairy could, and she spun about more than once, urging the woman on.
Annabelle couldn’t help but glance over her shoulder then. Even in the darkness, she could see the other two villagers who pursued her.
With her gaze averted, the woman wasn’t prepared for the sudden shift in the terrain. Annabelle lost her footing then, and tumbled head over heels, landing back in the dirt a moment later.
As Rusen and Artor reached her, the blue fairy spun about frantically, trying to drive the other humans off. Rusen held up his hand though, to placate the agitated sprite. He and Artor reached down and helped Annabelle to her feet.
Their sympathetic gazes were not lost to her, or to her guide.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Artor whispered.
Though she couldn’t have noticed how loud he talked, Annabelle still knew he spoke. She stepped forward, lifting a finger to her lips.
Rusen nodded, already realizing the effect that noise had on the fairies of the forest.
While the three of them tried to converse as best they could without words—and in the darkness of the place—the blue fairy circled around them, trying to better gain their attention.
Annabelle shifted her focus there, offering a weary smile to her little guide. The fairy waved them on, and the woman chose not to hesitate. Without delay, she sped after the flying fairy.
Artor and Rusen exchanged glances, and simply shrugged before giving chase.
They were unable to venture far, however, before a wall of blue flame burst to life before them, separating them from the thicker gatherings of trees beyond the fairy grove. Though the barrier was fierce and tall, they noticed that it didn’t give off any notable heat, instead seeming to give off an icy aura that left that area feeling frigid indeed.
Artor grumbled and spun about, spotting the final member of their group. Erdath Pendleton was faintly illuminated by the cyan flames that danced to life behind his targets. Though he still stood far enough away for many of his features to remain hidden by the shadows, Artor, Rusen and Annabelle could see his mischievous smile.
“And where do you think you’re going?” he asked, his voice sounding like a low rumble. “I can’t have you returning to Mossley to tell them what we’ve found here—of what you’ve found out about me.”
Rusen saw him reach into the folds of his robe, then, and more of that faint blue magic seemed to come alive around his hand like living mist. As soon as the item was in his hand, the villagers could see that it was same color as Erdath’s teeth: the bones that he and Valerio allegedly discovered in Annabelle’s cottage. Rusen’s eyes went wide, and he looked to Artor, who answered his glanced with a nod.
By the time Rusen looked back to Erdath, the mist encompassed the bone completely. Even with it disguised behind the haze though, the young man spotted it as it launched from Erdath’s hand. Rusen gave Artor a fierce push and hopped back the next second. The bone missile soared past them, disappearing beyond the cold flames.
Artor grabbed Rusen and Annabelle then, steering them away from Erdath and past the wall of fire.
It mattered not. The flames moved with them, slithering along the ground as though they burst from the back of a gigantic snake.
Erdath’s deep laughter resonated from the darkness, and they turned once more to face him.
“It may be better for you to simply submit to death. Futile hope is a terrible thing to cling to.” As he spoke, another blue flame burst to life at the top of his walking stick.
Rusen squared his jaw, remembering the appearance of the strange torch in the forest just before they lost Jackdale.
As Erdath lowered his staff, the flame that danced atop it seemed to point out at the other three humans. With a low rumble, a pillar of fire burst out from the head of the staff.
As the cold rush of the blue flame came toward them, the villagers thought to risk jumping through the barrier behind them.
It wasn’t necessary, though. Their small companion, lost in the sea of otherworldly blue magic, charged through the darkness, her wings alight once more as she reached Erdath. The fair stabbed out with her needle, piercing the hand that wrapped around the staff.
The flame sputtered out as the walking stick fell away from him, and the villagers and Annabelle were spared for the moment. They were not left to breathe easy though, forced to watch as the blue fairy continued her assault against the menacing human.
Again, and again, Erdath tried to swat at her or grab her, and she was always just out of reach. Every time he missed his opportunity, she soared back in, slashing or stabbing him with her needle.
Having had enough, Erdath roared, opening his hand and summoning forth another wave of mist, just as the fairy dove toward him. Lost in the fog, the sprite couldn’t see as he drove his other hand forth, reaching into the unknown.
When his hand was visible once more, Annabelle gasped. He held the fairy in his hand, and she struggled to wriggle free. She managed to wrestle an arm and her needle free and stabbed the soft spot between his finger and his thumb.
Erdath grimaced but pressed through the pain. He gnashed his teeth together and squeezed his fingers together as hard as he could. The fairy let fly a tiny cry—one not heard in the forest in some time—as the life was pressed from her body. When he was done, Erdath tossed her motionless body to the side.
Annabelle stepped forward, reaching out for the fairy, but Rusen grabbed hold of her, and pulled her back. Together, they watched as the blue light faded from the fairy’s wings, leaving her in darkness.
“Enough,” came Erdath’s cruel voice. He reached down, plucking his staff off the ground, and prepared once more to put an end to the residents of Mossley and their new companion.
Even he could not have expected the sudden luminosity that surrounded him. Hundreds of fairies lent their light to the forest then, looking down at the evil man who had just murdered one of his kin. Faced with the magical aura, Erdath’s sinister smile faded somewhat. The villagers could also see the depths of his magic begin to erode. Erdath was older than he seemed, but his dark magic seemed to sustain him.
The fairies cared not for his magic, darting toward him en masse, ready to make him pay for his murderous ways.
Rusen reached for his hammer, ready to join the fray, but Artor held him back. He would never be able to reach the necromancer, for the fairies enveloped him almost completely.
A fierce roar rang out then, and a cerulean burst of magic erupted from Erdath’s body. All at once, the fairies were flung this way and that, and the man was free of their cruel stings. But as the flame atop his staff weakly crackled, the other three humans could see all that he endured. Dozens of stab and slash wounds speckled his face, and he looked significantly weaker, and older than he had just moments before. He leaned heavily on his staff, his weariness apparent even in the darkness.
It was Annabelle who realized just how dark it had become. She looked over her shoulder then, noticing that his wall of blue flame had smoldered into crackling blue embers. At once, she tugged on the tunics of the two men who had turned their backs on Erdath and pulled them along.
At first, Annabelle proceeded along in the direction that the blue fairy had been leading them. She recalled what she had seen in the hollow of the tree and knew that the other end of the forest was far to the northeast. But as she ran forth, she knew that they would never be able to outpace Erdath. The necromancer would find some way to catch them.
Instead, she changed direction then, heading east along the tree line. It did not take long for her and the villagers to spot a new distant light. As they raced along, they realized that it was not some magical flame or a pair of illuminated fairy wings, but moonlight cast down into an open area.
They charged into it, and once they reached the clearing, they looked skyward. A bright, full moon shone that night, and the trio realized that they could see far into the distance. As far as they could see, the clearing was free of trees, only grass and stray flowers speckling the ground. In the center of the clearing though, a jagged rock face sat as well, as tall as a castle, and wider still.
“Are we out?” Rusen asked. “Have we left the forest behind us?”
Annabelle, running beside him, hit him with the back of her hand. Once she had his attention, she covered her mouth, indicating that he should remain silent.
Even if they did, it seemed not all the people of Mossley intended to.
Like a crack of thunder, Erdath’s voice boomed across the clearing. “There is nowhere you can go where I will not find you!”
The other trio of humans stopped, and turned about, looking at the necromancer as he stomped forward. Behind him, the forest loomed in its darkness, but they could see the lights therein. The fairies didn’t dare to venture from their sanctuary, and Annabelle once more remembered her time in the hollow of the giant tree.
“When people began to notice the desecrated graves, I thought that was it for me and my time in Mossley,” Erdath went on. “How could anyone understand my hunger for the power over life and death? But when I saw that fool of a woman in the town, I knew that anything I said would be trusted over whatever she pled and promised.
“It was easy enough to trick everyone into believing she worshipped the darkness. She couldn’t even defend herself if she knew what was happening. But when she slipped right from your fingers, that offered up a new opportunity. With a dangerous witch rushing into the forest, it gave us cause to search the forest. We’d all heard the rumors of untold magic within. If I could get my hands on it, I’d be able to bend the river of life to my whim!”
As he spoke, darkness seemed to encroach further around them, and Annabelle slowly crept behind Rusen, daring to look up into the sky.
“Now I know where the fairies live, and I can use their magic to enhance my own.” Erdath scoffed. “I don’t even really need to stop you here. Before long, I will have the power to wipe the village out in one fell swoop.”
Annabelle tugged Artor and Rusen to the ground then, as the shadows looming overhead became darker and clearer.
Erdath’s eyes grew wide as he realized why the false witch acted so strangely.
The creature that the fairies foretold of in legend—a giant, ferocious bat, descended from the sky then. It opened its mouth and let fly a terrifying screech, ending with a strange series of clicks and chitters.
The necromancer reached out with his staff, summoning the blue flame upon it once more. He cried out as the bat came barreling in, but even he knew it was too late.
As Rusen, Artor and Annabelle ventured a glance toward their foe, the bat filled their vision. With one bite, the monster had Erdath in its grasp. The bat took to the air once more, leaving only the dark wizard’s staff behind.
The rest of the humans, once feeling brave enough, sat up then, watching as the monster of the silent forest circled the clearing. As big as a dragon, the bat seemed to block out the moonlight at some points. It was clear, then, why the forest had become so quiet over the years.
Rusen slowly brought his gaze to Annabelle, who already held a finger to her lips once more. He mirrored her gesture and nodded for good measure.
She pointed back to the forest then, knowing that if they remained silent, just as the fairies and the other denizens of the forest, they would live to see another day.