Jedrek’s robe kept getting snagged as he ran. He kept tripping over stones as the small branches of the trees he ran past pushed up his sleeves and left shallow scratches on his arms. The forest was overrun tonight with preternatural enemies. They were unwisely summoned by his peers who found, but weren’t ready to use, the forbidden texts.
Now blood slicked the walls, and flames burned it black and boiling into them. As they received their branding as a monument to this unholy, bloody night, the piteous screams of dying men pierced the night. Smoke rose like corrupted praise and stale incense to the Sovereign, who seemed deaf to his servants’ cries for deliverance.
The horror of it all flushed him out like the last besieged soldier coming to surrender.
He tripped again, fell, untangled his feet from the ungainly robe, and rededicated his focus, pushing all other thoughts out of his mind. He would have taken the scratchy, patched thing off to run faster, but mountain cold was sudden and unforgiving.
Escape, and survive. One leads to the other.
His hunting knife was a comfortable weight, but he realized it might serve him better in his hand; he’d just have to be careful not to trip.
Deeper into the woods now, night forest noises surrounded him as he took it out, scanning the trees that yielded nothing of anything they could hide. The creatures of habit that survived here were well versed in camouflage; he was good, for all the wood lore that he knew, but he forgot what to do sometimes, and it had cost the men a few dinners where he’d been the last to eat, the butt of their jokes, and received threats that covered everything from mutilation to cannibalism.
The flames engulfing his monastic home in shades of orange and yellow flared, brilliant against the night sky. The falling stones echoed like unnatural thunder, and then he was beyond the noises and sights of his forced exile.
No one ran with him, caught up to him, or shouted his name. He hoped some of them managed to escape, but he wouldn’t go back to find out.
There were other noises about him now; they were small and subtle, but definitely there, and gradually getting closer.
His next thought seemed to make his heart quiver: You need to see.
A tear escaped his right eye, and he rubbed it angrily away with the heel of his hand.
“I’ll not invoke that spell. I…I can’t.”
Then they will find you first, and tear you limb from limb.
In spite of himself, he whimpered at the thought.
Life, or death, Jedrek. Choose. Did you not flee to live, to not die in the fire and become a puddle of boiled blood? They were the ones who gave you the gift, foolish boy, Use it.
Even as the thought crossed his mind he said the words, felt his muscles and sinews grow warm, felt the heat between his brows increase when he closed his eyes, the incantation spilling in sibilant whispers tumbling desperately from his lips.
He opened his eyes.
They were all around him, almost upon him, snarling and slavering.
They had no eyes to speak of, just slits or circles of light: the red from the underworld, the blue for the night spirits, and green for the day ones, and they were all focused on him.
He was shaking, but knew if he bolted he was lost.
They seemed hesitant, however, now that he wasn’t trying to run.
Watching them, he realized that since he stopped them, he had no plan, and the only reason they didn’t attack was because of the knife in his hand. His skill with it, marginal at best, was an unknown quantity, so they kept their distance.
The knife itself was etched with a curse, one that would either seal them inside or cast them out. He didn’t know for sure. The runes would surface when the enemy was close.
As far as Jedrek knew, the curse had never been used, and would’ve likely died with him had it not been for this attack.
And the attack happened because of a person that didn’t know how to keep their feuds secret.
The dead don’t want to die again.
If he stabbed any of them, their souls would be locked away and destroyed.
They were still watching him, wary, but patient: he was human, and right now his senses were overloaded. Soon he would grow tired, cold, hungry, thirsty, and weak.
Strike, Jedrek. You have no choice. The killing can’t come too late.
The moon ascended over the clouds of black smoke. He wondered if the moon drew power from such things. From what he saw of the macabre circle around him, their eyes seemed brighter.
The runes on the knife blade began to smoke and glow with a ember colored light of their own.
The creatures saw it too, and began to close in.
Jedrek’s muscles bunched and tensed, but he was tired now and fighting all of them would be difficult.
Slay the leader, and the rest will fall.
He looked them over, but a leader was indiscernible.
He had nowhere to go; the trees behind him would only slow him down.
From the rear of the semicircle, a single voice spoke a one-word command, and the moving circle became a macabre tableau.
All motion ceased, as if everything had grown where it stood, putting down roots.
In the center was a parting, and out stepped a human female of some sixteen summers. Jedrek didn’t know how he knew, but there was an aura of centuries lived emanating from her. Whatever age she looked like, she’d seen it over several lifetimes ago.
She’s the leader. Kill her.
He thought he had the element of surprise, and when he tried to move toward her, he found he couldn’t move.
She smiled at him, and came to him, standing close. She smelled of rotted lavender and wet dirt, and he knew then that she’d come out of her grave.
She took his face in her hands, and chilled him with her gaze.
“Hello, Jedrek. I’m Melanthe. Your foolish friends summoned me, thinking to make sport of me.” She looked back at the skyline where the monastery’s dome was no longer visible, then turned back to Jedrek.
“They were wrong.”
“What h-h-happens now, Melanthe?”
She smiled again, and took her finger away.
Jedrek found he could move, and all the familiars that had surrounded him were disappearing.
“Follow me,” she said, and led him away, deeper into the trees which now seemed to shift and close behind him as tendrils of fog oozed up from the ground.
There was no guiding voice now, only the ancient young witch in front him, hypnotically swaying, leading him like an old horse to the slaughterhouse. Although he knew it, he was more frightened of the fact that he didn’t mind.