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10 min 
Fiction & Issue Four

Creatures of the Forest

By Michael Stracke

Darkness surrounds you. You can’t remember how you got here, or even where ‘here’ is. A soft glow appears before you. Silver light begins to form and suddenly you are joined in the darkness by a spectre of sorts. A well-dressed man with a long winding moustache and a friendly grin floats towards you. His body seems to be slightly transparent, and he emanates the same soft glow that was just in front of you.

Welcome, my friend! It has been far too long since I have had guests!

Come, come, I have a tale to tell.

Somehow, despite everything being black, the world around you blurs and you find yourself floating above a broken stone path.

This is a story of strong warriors and smart wizards. A fable of heroes fighting villains. A saga of love, life, and death

You’re going to love it.

The ghostly figure leads you along the path, gesturing to the surroundings as he begins to tell his story.

Our tale begins in this very forest. The bare tree branches stretching high above us, blocking out the sun with their dark canopy of twigs and cobwebs. Purple vines wind their way around the ancient wood, choking the trees. Jagged talons, foot long thorns, protruding from the vines, threatening anything that would come close.

As you follow the storyteller, you start to get the sense that this is not the first time they have told a story about this forest.

Few animals make their home here; too easily, they fall prey to the beasts that live here. Giant spiders, which poison and paralyse, keep their victims trapped within their web for days, or weeks, until they finally decide to eat them. Or too often they encounter the dead who guard the land. And when I say the dead guard the land, I’m not being fanciful with my words. I literally mean the corpses and ghosts of lost heroes roam the forest. Don’t get me wrong, not all of them are bad guys. Some are quite nice actually.

But of course, the threats don’t end at giant spiders or undead, the forest path is constantly moving, and ancient spells twist the minds of anyone who cannot maintain their mental fortitude.

So it should come as no surprise, dear friend, that within this dark place, having passed so many ruins, and spells, and traps of all kind, that we find our band of adventurers, tired and thigh deep in mud, about to stumble upon a place none of them expected when they left the comfort of the inn’s warm fire three days ago.

But a flashback is cliché; we are starting our tale in the forest, not the inn.

As the ghost describes the setting, despite it being clearly in front of you, you begin to look around. You try to make out any light, or sign of life. Instead you come face to face with the pincers of a giant spider. Once again the world fades and you find yourself floating alongside a small group of travellers, dried mud up to their waists. You get the sense that some time has passed.

Your ghostly guide shakes his head knowingly.

I told you to focus. Why do my guests always look at the spiders?

Beneath you, the group seems to be arguing amongst themselves, one of the travellers begins yelling at another.

The one speaking is Joseph. He’s young, and likes to tell people he trained with the paladins at the great citadel. Personally I think he’s full of it. He’s carried by natural talent, but has no form.

But I digress.

 

‘Kelris, aren’t you a trained tracker? I thought you could find your way through any forest. Where in the seven hells are we?’

Resting his bow against the trunk of a tree, Kelris rolls his eyes and climbs the jagged spikes of a nearby vine, ‘I am trained, Joseph,’ From his vantage point up the tree, Kelris looks around carefully, ‘And if you had any training in forestry, you would know that this is no natural place. Regardless, I have in fact found our next destination. There is light up that way.’

Returning to the forest floor Kelris picks up his bow and gestures for the rest of the group to follow.

 

Unlike Joseph, who is human, Kelris is a half-elf. He is light on his feet, and grew up amongst the forest elves, training in the use of both bow and knife. He’s an expert ranger. How he ended up with this group is anyone’s guess, but the most plausible answer is his past infatuation with Joseph’s older half-sister, Kat.

Kat is human, like her half-brother, but about 13 years older. She is attractive and, more importantly, a trained and practiced warrior. She doesn’t speak about it often, but fought in the gladiator pits for a few years.

The world blurs as the group of travellers make their way through the forest in a manner similar to that of a travel montage.

Alongside those three are Nila, a gnome cleric, Mokan, better known as Treebreaker, a half-giant barbarian, and Vaeri, an elf magician. But we don’t need to delve into their backstories just yet, I think.

 

Climbing over the roots, Kelris leads the group to a clearing.

Before him he finds a glade of neatly trimmed grass, empty but for a stone tower which rises high above the canopy of the forest. The glade itself forms a perfect circle, the trees and branches never growing closer than exactly 10 meters away from the structure.

Following Kelris, Vaeri slides down the final root. A gasp escapes her lips as she looks up at the structure. ‘Magic,’ she whispers, smiling to herself.

‘I tend to agree with you,’ Joseph states, drawing his sword and stepping into the glade, scowl across his face.

 

As the adventurers enter the clearing, they draw their weapons in preparation and begin to discuss how to proceed. Joseph, always weary of the arcane arts, wants to avoid the tower, or tear it down brick by brick if he can. Vaeri, on the other hand, wants to search it, and learn from it.

You watch as the group continues to debate and plan their next course of action. Around you the sky shifts quickly from day to night, to day, to night, and finally to day again as they continue planning. You start to get the feeling that the ghostly storyteller might be taking some artistic license with how he decides to present the story.

Eventually, as the sun begins to set on the second day, the debate ends.

 

Kelris and Treebreaker make their way up to the tower’s entrance. Resting his battle axe on his shoulder, the half-giant reaches forward and raps his knuckles against the door. Kelris stands beside him, bow slung over his back, and hands by his hips guarding his assortment of daggers.

The pair wait as the rest of the party begins to slowly spread out around the glade. Suddenly they hear a voice from inside.

‘What is it?’ An old man’s voice calls back. The voice is frail, and seems to quiver, but grows louder as it seems to get closer, ‘I don’t want whatever it is you are selling.’

After a moment’s thought, Treebreaker responds, ‘We’re not selling anything.’

‘Then why come here?’

This time Kelris replies, ‘We’re travellers, and this is a dangerous area, we’re simply seeking shelter for the night.’

The tone of the voice changes as the person on the other side of the door begins muttering, ‘Simply seeking shelter… Sally sells sea shells… Simon’s scimitar struck Sebastian, submitting him to sizeable scaration…’

As they listen to the muttering Kelris looks up and gives Treebreaker a quizzical look, who shrugs in return.

Suddenly the door swings open and before the pair stands an old man in long gray robes. Hunched over, he holds a gnarled wooden staff. His face partially hidden beneath a large wizard’s hat and long gray beard.

A cruel smile creeps across what is visible of the old man’s lips ‘Unfortunately I have no room for guests tonight.’ The wizard thrusts his staff forward and sends Kelris flying across the glade.

 

Pain shoots through your body and you suddenly can’t breathe. Which is a strange sensation considering you are pretty sure you weren’t breathing beforehand. You look down to see a welt in the middle of your chest.

Another sensation of tremendous pain shoots through your body, this one originating from your back

Kelris collides with a tree, his bow breaking in the process.

 

 

Kat and Treebreaker both leap into action. Sprinting across the glade Kat draws her sword as Treebreaker launches his battleaxe down towards the old man. A puff of smoke replaces the wizard as he dodges the axe strike and relocates to the centre of the tower’s first floor. He grins and stands a little straighter, his eyes flashing with a green light.

Outside the tower, the gnome cleric Nila gives a yelp of surprise. From the tree line several undead beings begin to emerge, their eyes flickering with a green glow.

Vaeri turns and releases a spell, launching several bolts of arcane power into the undead as they reach for Kelris. At the same time, Joseph thrusts his sword forward to lop off the head of another.

Kat and Treebreaker enter the tower to face the now cackling wizard. His figure shimmering as his grey robes became tattered and black, his body straightening and his beard disappearing. The man’s skin turns deathly white and pulls against his gaunt figure as his feet begin to rise off the ground. Kat pulls her shield over her shoulder and prepares herself as Treebreaker grips his axe tight in both hands.

 

Your body begins to ache as you watch Kelris climb to his feet. The world around you slows down as the storyteller lowers you to the grass.

Outside the tower, Kelris pulls himself to his feet. He can see the concern in Vaeri’s eyes, and the anger in Joseph’s. More undead emerge from the tree line, a green glow pulsating through their bodies, slowly surrounding the group.

And that is when you feel it.

 

Vaeri’s voice cries out in horror as a rusted iron blade emerges from Kelris’ chest. Over his shoulder, a skeletal figure growls and hisses.

Nila lowers her hammer down on the skull of one of the skeletons, sending a shockwave of divine magic through its body, causing the skeleton to explode. Looking over she watches as Kelris falls to his knees.

Striking down another foe with his longsword, Joseph looks over his shoulder at the source of the scream, but grits his teeth and maintains focus on his targets.

Inside the tower the battle continues to rage as Kat and Treebreaker engage the wizard.

The life leaves Kelris’ eyes and he falls forward off of the skeleton’s jagged blade.

 

It’s a strange thing, life and death. For normal folk it’s pretty simple, you die and that’s the end of it. But for heroes and adventurers with enough coin and magical prowess, it doesn’t have to be. That’s never the thought of an adventurer when they come to face it though. They think about the people they care about. They over analyze their final moments. And they wonder what they would have changed.

I don’t know if that’s emotionally healthy, but hell, it’s their death. Why should they have to be rational when it comes for them?

You watch Kelris as time slows even further. Your chest now burning like fire as blood seeps from the same hole in the figure before you.

‘That’s me, isn’t it?’

And finally he finds his voice. Yes, my friend, you are Kelris.

The ghost places a hand on your shoulder and gives you a meaningful look. His smile is as warm as ever.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You are, after all, an experienced listener-of-tales. Surely if I were a talented bard I would follow the structure of ‘The Hero’s Journey’, and wouldn’t fall into such clichés as the one we are about to.

What kind of tale is this when I start it right in the action? Well, the truth is, this is only the beginning. The call to action, as it were. You still have many decisions left to make.

As I said, for an adventurer with coin and magical prowess, death doesn’t have to be the end.

So make the right choices.

Around you the world begins to blur once more, the ghostly figure in front of you smiling before your vision fades to black.

 

 

 

Veari’s hands erupt as she sends a fireball towards a group of skeletons. She kneels besides Kelris’ still body, placing one hand on his arm and giving Nila a hopeful look. Nila kneels, letting her hammer fall to the grass. Uttering a few words her hands begin to glow with golden divine light.

After a moment Kelris gasps and coughs, life returning once more to his body. Beside him Veari smiles, quickly withdrawing her hand.

Kelris looks up at the darkening sky and smiles at something invisible. ‘I thought flashbacks were cliché…’

 

Artwork by Rebecca James.