The Sanguine Forest
Can you hear it? It sounds like thunder.
The beast is out there with a savage hunger.
We can’t stay at home, and we can’t go to sleep.
We’re on the bloody trail into the jungle deep.
~Excerpt from The Witch’s Songbook
Today marks the end of your hunt in this world. Now, you can begin your hunt in
the next one.
~ Excerpt from The Provenance (Chapter One)
The Sanguine Forest in the Year 841 Human Recorded Time (HRT)
(One week away from the King’s Celebration)
Yori steadied his bow and took aim at the big buck. Isse quietly looked on, hardly breathing. Yori let the arrow release with a twhip! Swiftly it found its mark deep in the animal’s side with a lethal thunk! As the arrow struck right behind its front leg, the deer startled. But rather than drop, as it should, the big buck lurched and turned to run.
“Oh no, no!” Yori yelled at it. The buck darted through the trees, still under its own power.
“You missed him, Yori.”
“The hell I did, Isse, I got him all right.”
“Not good enough.” Isse motioned with an empty hand. “Now there goes dinner. Tell me again how well you got him.”
Yori squinted his eyes. “Yes, sir, I got him all right. He won’t get too far.”
The buck left a trail of blood, and the two followed it. It led away from the tiny brook and through the trees. For a full two hours, they were on the buck’s trail. But all the signs were there that the big buck was not through yet. They followed the path deeper into the forest until the shadows grew long.
“There’s no quit in this one,” Yori said, stopping briefly to wipe his brow with a dirty kerchief. “Must’ve had a big heart.”
“You think he’s close?” asked Isse. “I don’t want to be out here after dark.”
“Just a bit,” Yori said. “He can’t get much further.”
Just then, they heard a guttural scream.
“What was that?” Isse asked. “Was that the deer?”
“Never heard a deer sound like that,” Yori remarked. “I think he’s down. But look alive! Might be that a bear got involved.”
“You go ahead, Yori,” Isse said. He took a step back.
“You’re not turning back?” Yori turned to look at him.
Isse did not answer. He was trembling.
“Look here, Isse, you mean to leave our little hunt? You know that Leopold paid you seven metros to assist the senior archer, and you know who the senior archer is? Me, Isse, that’s who. You can’t just turn tail and run.”
“It’s not safe here. Come on, Yori! I’ve heard the stories, and so have you.”
“You believe the ghost stories?” he laughed.
“You know it’s not safe to be in these woods after dark.”
“You believe the stories of the haunted Sanguine Forest?”
“Forget the buck, Yori, please. We’ll say we didn’t see anything this trip.”
“But we did see something, Isse. We saw a great big strong buck, at least eighteen points! Fit for His Majesty’s celebration table. Why, that stag’s got my arrow in him, stuck in his side there. And there is nothing wrong with being in the forest after dark.”
“King Leopold’s five-year coronation anniversary is not worth losing our lives over, Yori.”
“What is this, Isse? You’re scared of the stories old women tell around their washing basins? The Sanguine Forest? Why, it is nothing but trees and leaves out here, and look—it is certainly not haunted.”
Just then, Isse’s eyes widened, and he grabbed Yori by the arm. Out in the trees, a figure of a man walked some distance away from them.
“Look there, Yori! Who is that? A ghost?”
“The hell it is a ghost! Probably another hunter about to lay claim to our buck! And without so much as taking a shot. We cannot give up our prize, Isse, now come on! Be a man about you.”
They continued tracking the blood trail again, but then, after just a few more steps, Isse stopped again.
“Oh, Yori, I can’t explain it, but I am so scared. I don’t know why.”
“Courage, Isse.” Yet Yori was feeling it too. Isse’s fear was getting the best of him as well. “Stay close to me.”
Isse held Yori by the arm, fighting against his desire to run. Quietly they went through the underbrush, following the mysterious figure. Then, the trail of blood ended. The big stag lay on its side in front of them. But the deer was not right.
“Is that my buck?” Yori said as a whisper. He saw his arrow sticking out of the deer’s side. But this could not be his deer.
“It can’t be,” Isse replied. “Look at it.”
The deer was in a state of advanced decomposition, moldy brown hide, torn and rotten, stretched across ivory bones. Its head had no flesh and the dried skin had been drained of blood. Yet sticking up high and prominent was Yori’s red-and-blue arrow of Leopold’s First Archer.
“This is impossible. That is my arrow, it’s a fresh new one, but this deer has been long dead.”
“Oh, Yori!” Isse declared. “This forest is haunted. Look!”
Isse reached down and wiped the dirt away from a half-buried human skull, covered only by a dusting of soil. The skull’s dark eye sockets and open jawbone seemed to mock the hunters.
Yori looked around the area and found more. There were further skulls and other bones, buried just inches in the ground, or lying fully exposed on top. Skulls and spines, feet, hands, legs, and ribs. Yori and Isse had wandered into a sea of human bones.
They dropped to the ground and crawled on all fours behind a bush. They looked aghast at each other with pale faces, afraid to stand in fear of being seen by the man who walked in the woods.
“Who is it that walks in this forest?”
“And where is he now?”
They both raised their heads up over the bushes to see where the man had gone and what he was doing. Soon, they could see him. He wore all black, and his adornments were fresh, but still odd, like maybe from some another time. Upon his head he wore a jeweled crown as if he were royalty.
He continued to walk away from the two behind the bush. But then, abruptly, maybe sensing their eyes upon him, he stopped in his tracks. He lifted his head, appearing to sniff the air, and he stiffened.
“Oh, Yori, I don’t like this. That is not a fellow hunter or a companion,” Isse whispered in growing anxiety.
They watched him scan the area, first to the left, then to the right.
“Oh! Damn you, Yori. I’m so scared!”
Yori was scared too. Their hearts beat faster as fear seized them.
The man slowly turned in their direction. Yori and Isse got their first look at him now. The decayed skin of his face stretched taut over his skull and an enormously pronounced chin. Unable to close his mouth, rotten teeth lay bare and exposed. The gristle of his nose, long since deteriorated, left uncovered bare nasal passages as two open, long slots. Darkness filled his hollow eye sockets, except for the fiery lights of two tiny yellow orbs, with which he used to stare directly at Yori and Isse.
They dipped behind the bush, but it was too late. They had been seen.
The Skeletal King raised his hands, lifting them in front of his yellow eyes, and blue-and-silver energy crackled, arcing between his hands. With a sudden flash of blue light, some shadowy movement spilled from the man in a blur, causing a commotion in the bush, like a noise of a hundred sticks clicking against each other. The sound got louder and rustling in the leaves got nearer. Then, like a wave riding through the underbrush, suddenly it hit them: cockroaches! Hundreds, if not thousands, of cockroaches charged them in waves, attacking Yori and Isse ferociously.
The force knocked them backward as the cockroaches smashed into them. They both ran away, trying to swat them off their bodies. Yori dropped his bow and ran as fast as he could. Isse was already far out in front. The cockroach horde jumped on their backs and crawled on their heads. They swarmed in piles and tangled their feet; it was everything Yori and Isse could do to keep from falling.
But then as suddenly as they had appeared, the cockroaches disappeared in the same pale blue mist that had created them, not that Yori and Isse took the time to notice. They continued to run wildly. When the blue fog cleared, and the cockroaches were gone, they soon discovered something even more dreadful; they had lost each other. They had run haphazardly in different directions and were now standing alone in the dark forest.
Yori looked for him, but Isse only wanted to get away. His fear finally overwhelmed him. He ran as fast as he could back in the direction they had come into the Sanguine. Isse had scratches from the thorns of the forest, and he was bleeding from the cockroach attack. For several minutes, he ran until he was almost out of the Sanguine Forest. But then, much to his horror, he stopped as he realized he had run directly back to the Skeletal King, back to the very place he had just left.
The Skeletal King had been waiting for him to return. Now, he stepped closer to Isse. Crackling blue energy emanated once again from his bony hands. But this time, having been successful at separating the men, there would be no more cockroaches; they would not be needed. Isse suddenly felt weak as the blue energy filled his body, and he fell to the ground. He fell in front of the Skeletal King. His life force was being pulled out of him. Being drained of power, he could only lay there trembling, trying to get up, trying to run but unable to. The skin on his body started to tighten and open with his blood steaming through the ruptures. The golden-clad boots of the Skeletal King approached and stopped in front of him. The lich allowed Isse to look upon his face, and then to let out a loud scream.
“Isse! Isse! Oh, where are you, Isse?” Yori said in a whisper, trying not to yell. He stood behind a tree, shaking in fear. He had dropped his bow while escaping the cockroaches, losing most of his arrows when they spilled from his quiver. Taking the now useless quiver off and throwing it down, he tactically traversed from tree to tree, being cautious not to remain exposed for very long.
Then he heard a loud agonizing scream.
Was that Isse? he wondered. The scream sounded so terrifying there was no way to be sure who it was. Yet, he was sure; he knew it was Isse. This was not a time for false bravery. For now, it was every man for himself, and Yori strategically moved between trees desperately trying to find his way out of the Sanguine Forest.
Peering through the trees, the dark figure was moving again with no discernible connection to the ground, rapidly closing the distance separating them. Yori turned and ducked behind the tree again, breathing heavily, knowing the Skeletal King was getting closer.
Then, the Skeletal King called out, in a calm, raspy voice, “Come out, oh Noble Archer. Come out and see my magnificent Castle Orlo.”
Yori did not move, could not breathe—the voice paralyzed him with fear.
He felt a heavy movement on his boot, and gazing down, saw a snake crawling over his feet. But the snake soon became larger and larger, until it grew in size to form the bottom half of the demon Langula. Her lower serpentine body slid around the tree and revealed her womanly upper half, complete with shapely form, sharpened black fingernails, black hair, and two large horns. Looking at him with her sparkling silver eyes, she opened black lips, revealing pointed fangs.
Yori’s mouth screamed soundlessly in terror. Impulsively he tried to run away from her, and he pivoted from the cover of the tree. But there, the Skeletal King stood in front of him—they had him trapped.
The hideous figure wore a crooked golden crown and a black uniform buttoned smartly to his chin. There, in the dark woods, he stood in front of an enormous castle with seven tall, spiraled towers and a domed roof over its walled stronghold, a massive castle that was not there mere seconds ago.
“I see you have met Langula,” the Skeletal King said to him. “I am the Zorn.”
A large dark-haired demon covered in yellow-and-brown spots appeared with them. He approached Yori from behind. Upon seeing the third demon, Yori collapsed in the spotted one’s arms. The monster did not let him fall or moved to harm him. Instead, he dragged him off toward Castle Orlo.
“Welcome to your new home,” the Zorn said, flashing his teeth in what could only be his way of trying to smile.
Langula sang sweetly to the unconscious Yori.
Your days are gone, never to return!
In Zornastic fire your spirit will burn!
“We are going to get very acquainted with the king’s First Archer.”
Their laughter filled the forest as they made their way into the castle with Yori. Once the heavy doors closed behind them with a loud clang, the castle was gone, and only the Sanguine Forest remained.