Chapter 10 ‘A Forest Full of Evil’
South Gardenia, orange plantation, 7th day of the month of the swallow, 754 AD
The three thieves hid from the knights who were looking for them. Two were about 40 years old, and the third was a young man of some 18 or 20 years. Tall, thin, and bald was Herlin, while fat, short, and curly was Burley. The young man's name was Perle. He was thin and almost as tall as Herlin. As a boy, he never thought he would be a robber, but his life turned upside down when the daughter of a rich man accused him of rape after enjoying wild sex on the straw hay on her property the night before. It was not clear to him why she did this, until Herlin explained to him that the young whore only wanted sex, so she later accused him of rape so that people would not think that she was voluntarily fucking with some serfs or sons of grooms like Pearls. Because, she is a lady after all and she has her own level. All the women are whores, told him Burli one night. But Perle doesn’t care – he always had enough money for a brothel, and there they fuck which one they want, no bullshit and romantic shit. He really like the thief’s life with Herlin and Burli, because for eight months they were everywhere he even saw the Isaia Ocean, something he thought that he never see. His father was boring would not leave their village, while mom always agree with him and everything. Before he escaped from the village, he waited for his drunken father hid behind a tree, attacked him and beat him up so that he could not stand up. He did it for his mother, because he still loved her. Maybe he killed him, because he did not notice that the he attempt to get up even when he was away.
Hidden in a thick bush, the three of them were now waiting for the danger to pass.
‘But where are these white shitters going, did their dogs sew us on them?’ Burley asked.
‘I do not know. Check, shit! They are coming here, we have no other, we have to go to the forest,’ said Herlin.
‘We can't go there, you know very well what happens to those who enter Strigorov's forest!’ Perle exclaimed excitedly.’ Haven't we heard hundreds of stories about it?’
‘Either we go into the woods or all three of us grease the rope before the sun goes down, so you choose,’ Herlin replied. Burli reluctantly agreed with him and all three ran towards the forest. Although it was spring according to the calendar, the sun was scorching like crazy, because here in the south there was only one season, summer. Endless fucking summer, sometimes you have the feeling that your brain will boil in your skull. Most people who live in these parts have never seen snow or ice, and most probably will not for the rest of their lives. Here and there the lord would hire a wizard to create some ice for him, but not every wizard knew how to make quality ice. The plantation ended with a shallow canal filled with water and about a meter deep, on the opposite bank of which, just in front of the forest, were black stone pyramids lined up next to each other, covered with lichens and creepers, and with some incised runes. They crossed the canal; The water reached Perle and Herlin to the waist, and Burley almost to the throat. Since the pyramids were over two meters high, they hid behind one and waited, because Herlin told them to do so, and he is always right. Perle's heart was pounding like crazy because he didn't know what to expect. Soon their pursuers appeared. Six knights and four hound dogs. They wore milky white armour that had the sign of the Strigorov family on the chest plate. They stopped as if buried when they saw the tracks leading across the canal into the woods. The dogs sniffed something and started barking scared. The leader of the group swears something and everyone goes on.
‘You see, they never come in here because of some superstition. ‘Let's see what we stole,’ said Herlin.
There was everything: a bracelet, silver coins, silver clasps, even a knife for opening letters, richly decorated with silver and semi-precious stones. Herlin finally managed to open the box. Instead of gold or jewels, there was a metal object on the lining made of white silk, similar to a carriage, but different. Except for some parts, it was made of metal, and it was of high quality, most likely made of brass or bronze, Herlin assumed. The metal wheels were connected by some kind of rod and moved together whichever you moved, on both sides. Almost entirely, the object consisted of a metal cylinder with the tube facing up, which was all the way forward, while at the back there was a cabin without a seat, and something like a trailer. In the cabin he saw various handles and valves, a door resembling that on wood stoves, and a spatula. Everything was done in detail and beautifully painted in green and black, while some numbers were drawn in white and something was written in a language that Herlin was not familiar with. Herlin was not exactly a literate man, but he could recognize the difference between human and dwarf writing, and this did not look like any of them. ‘Maybe it's an elven letter,’ Herlin thought. It must have been some of their imagination or some ancestor of a man since he stole it, he married an elf and this was a gift. As if it mattered, he would find some fool to buy the strange thing. He put the strange object back in the box and closed it.
‘Whoever we sell this thing to, we will say that he must buy with a box or nothing from the agreement!’ But we’ll think about that later. Now it would be best to look for some wood and twigs and light a fire. It will not be cold, but for safety, who knows what lives in this forest.’ They managed to find enough dry branches and twigs, while Herlin peeled the bark of a tree and set it on fire. The sun was slowly setting as the two of them sat and ate by the fire. They ate mixed cow-sheep cheese, olives, and dried beef and boiled eggs. They stole it all from the same lord they broke into the house.
‘You know, I've heard everything about this forest, much more than Perle. ‘People said they saw all kinds of dead people walking, and ghosts,’ Burley said.
‘Yes, people claim everything, especially when they eat all kinds of mushrooms from the forest. They usually say that no one came back alive from the forest, but then where did all those stories about ghosts and the walking dead come from? They lie and invent, that's what it's about. ‘If all people are prone to something, then it's lying and fabricating, it's so simple,’ Herlin replied.
‘I once met an elderly witch, I think she was about 35 years old, who told me, while we were lying naked in the straw, that only someone who is versed in the skill of a necromancy can revive the dead,’ said Perle.
‘As far as I know the last necromancer greased the rope 750 years ago, so the chance that some of them were involved in all this is zero.’
‘Why did Veron sentence all these people to death?’ Perle asked.
‘Who will know?’ ‘As Herlin said, they have been gone for about seven and a half centuries, maybe the whole story of reviving the dead is just a story and nothing else,’ Burley replied.
‘It really never occurred to me.’
‘Because you are young and inexperienced. But don't worry, you'll learn to recognize liars in time,’ Herlin said.
The sun was already slowly setting, so they agreed on who would keep watch and who would sleep. The first to guard was Perle, who will wake Burley in a couple of hours, and he then later woke Herlin, and so on until dawn. Herlin and Burli fell asleep very quickly and began to snore. Perle listened to the breeze and the buzzing of insects and some birds. Despite being afraid of this forest, he had to admit that it was very beautiful in a way. He also saw the stars, millions and millions of bright dots in the sky, constellations, and of course, two moons and rings in the sky were a wonderful sight. When he was a boy, he promised a girl that he would take the stars off the sky, he even climbed a tree in an attempt to reach for the stars, but he fell and broke his arm. When his father found out what had happened to him and why he was on the tree, he beat him not caring about his broken arm. ‘Now that shit can't do anything to me, he's probably dead, too,’ he thought.
He added wood to the fire and noticed that Burley was not grumbling in his sleep. He mentioned some whores or something. Nothing new, he talks about whores and when he is awake, it is not surprising that he mentions them in his sleep. They had a small mechanical watch that they stole from a spice merchant at the base of the Dragon's spine. He looked at what time it was and saw that it was time to wake Burley and go to sleep. He just started waking him up when something caught his attention, something colourful and beautiful. It was a beautiful butterfly, like a breath thin wings that were in all the colours of the rainbow. Moreover, he seemed to notice a new shade of some colour at any moment. A strange calmness and serenity permeated him as he watched the butterfly resting on a branch and moving its beautiful wings. He forgot about his companions, the stars, the fire, his father he had just thought about. He was mesmerized by the beauty of the butterfly's wings and just sat in silence on the trunk of a fallen tree and watched the butterfly and its miraculous wings. The butterfly took off slowly and headed deeper into the forest. Perle no longer felt any fear and without thinking he got up and followed the butterfly to continue to enjoy its beauty. It was only when he left the small clearing where the three of them were encamped, that Burley, who was already half-awake, woke up completely and noticed that the young man had disappeared. He ran to Herlin and shook him to wake him.
‘Friends ! Perle is gone! I don't see him! Beads, call me, where are you!’ yelled Burley.
‘What do you mean, he's gone? Didn't he wake you?’ Maybe he just went to pee.
‘He woke me up, but when I got up and looked: he is nowhere to be found! Why isn't he answering? Pearl, boy, where are you?’ Herlin stood up and looked around. He noticed Perle's footprints on the forest floor. He showed them to Burley, and they both made torches and headed in that direction. The sun had not yet appeared and, despite the light of two moons, stars and rings, it was quite dark in the forest, because the canopy of large trees, interconnected by vines and creepers, created a kind of natural roof over the forest. It was a good protection from heavy rains and showers, but in some parts of the forest it was as dark as a grave. A kind of fog appeared, which further reduced the already poor visibility. Luckily, they had torches. They followed the tracks for about fifteen minutes in silence, because they did not want to attract any carnivore. A couple of times they heard something rustling in the bushes, but they didn't see anything. Their hearts pounded like crazy and they both drew their weapons - Herlin his short sword and Burley his axe. The hard hilt of their weapons and the glare of the steel gave them a sense of security, along with the torches. The tracks led to a hill and a small cave. They found Perle sitting inside on a black rock. There were strange and so beautiful butterflies on him. Herley shouted:
‘Perle boy you scared us! What the fuck are you doing in this cave!? Can you hear me? Hey!’ Perle turned slowly, as if in a dream, and looked at him.
‘Are ... are not they beautiful?’
‘Yes, they are beautiful, let's get out of here now, now it will dawn. Come on, get up!’ Pearls angrily pulled her hand back.
‘I won't, leave me alone, it's so beautiful here!’ I will not leave this cave. They ... they sing to me; O Herline, my friend, don't you hear their beautiful song?’
‘What a fucking song! Are you crazy, boy?’
‘Shhh, don't raise your voice… they don't like it.’
Then Burley interjected:
‘Herline, look at the walls ...’ He looked and saw thousands of butterflies. They all looked the same. Their wings were in all the colours of the rainbow. Herlin began to feel calm and serene, and indeed - as if he had heard some strange pleasant melody. Somehow, however, he broke away and tried again to make the young man get up. He paused as if buried when he took a closer look at a butterfly. At first glance, it seemed as if it was drinking sweat from his right hand. He has seen that some much smaller butterflies sometimes do this with their tubes, which coil in a spiral when not in use. These also had similar tubes, only they consisted of segments of the same size and the butterfly did not drink sweat, he noticed in horror! His tube was stuck in the young man's skin and he drank his blood like a giant mosquito. Three butterflies were on him, and the other two were also drinking blood - the second from the neck and the third from the hole in his pants. Their body was at least ten centimetres long and horrible. It was black as tar and covered with some kind of black-grey bristles, similar to those worn by bees and bumblebees. He even saw a butterfly's ass swell from the blood. Without thinking, he swung the torch to scare the butterfly, but it just jerked and clung tighter to the young man's arm. Only now did he notice that their legs ended in black hooked claws, which he dug deep into the young man's skin and flesh. The scariest thing was that Perle didn't show any sign that it hurt him, he just smiled and watched the butterflies. Out of desperation, Herlin brought the torch to the nearest butterfly, taking care not to burn the young man. The fire burned his wings a little and the butterfly began to buzz furiously like some horrible, disgusting giant fly, but it neither started burning nor let go of the young man's hand. The fire irritated him more than it hurt him. When he realized that there was no use in the torch, Herlin pushed the blade of his sword between the butterfly's legs, intending to take it off the Pearl.
‘Come on, Burley, help me!’ We need to get these damn things off him! Burli !?’ He turned around and saw his short friend watching the cave vault in horror. He followed his gaze. The butterflies that covered the vault of the cave began to fly straight towards them, thousands of them. Herlin instantly gave up tearing the butterfly, slung the young man over his back and began to run like never before in his life. Burley was closer to the exit, so he flew outside first, and then Herlin with the young man on her. Butterflies flew after them like a huge glowing swarm, illuminating the forest in front of them.
‘What now - they don't give up, they aren't afraid of fire?’ Burley shouted. ‘There are some ponds! Jump in the water! We have no other options! ‘They ran to the pond, hoping it was deep enough to dive. It worked with bees, but they couldn't know if it would work with these monstrous insects as well. They had no choice and jumped into the pond, which was about a meter deep. Herlin plunged the little boy into the water, hoping the damn things would drown. Immersed to the throat, they went into a thick reed, just as the swarm flew to the pond. There must have been ten thousand of them, and they all buzzed in sync as one. Suddenly it began to rain; the butterflies jerked and stopped buzzing. They went back to where they came from. Very quickly it began to rain as if the sky had opened. They stood like that in a cane up to their throats while the rain was pouring, waiting to see if the butterflies would return. After a few minutes, it was clear that he would not. Burley noticed three butterflies, with shrunken wings, climbing the reeds and branches of a tree that had fallen into the water, and struck the nearest of them with an axe. But instead of killing him, he only tore his wing a little and angered him, because he retaliated with a furious buzz and continued to climb the branch.
‘Of what are these fucking insects made off!? Iron? I hit him with an axe, and instead of splitting him in half, he just got angry and left,’ Burley said angrily.
‘I don't know, the only thing that matters is that they left. Perle, how are you? Can you hear me?’ He looked at him strangely, as if asleep, and said:
‘Butterflies ... they're so beautiful ...’
‘He will come to himself ... I guess, when the action passes.’ We have to get out of the rain, it looks like those shining bastards don't like her. ‘It would be best to leave the forest,’ Burley said.
‘I never seen before these fucking butterflies, and twice I was in this forest. Let's get out of here!’ Herlin continued. They came out of the pond, while Herlin was carrying Perle, because he did not want to walk, but simply staggered his legs and kept repeating:
‘Butterflies are so beautiful …’ They walked through the forest like that, until they came across a rock under which there was enough space to get away from the rain. Herlin lowered Perle to the ground and slapped him lightly, trying to reason with him. It didn't help, he was still enchanted. They had no choice but to wait for the rain to pass, there under the rock, so wet and squatting next to each other. Burley looked at the young man's wounds and found that they were not terrible and that they had found him in time. He took out a piece of cloth and soaked it in homemade brandy from a small glass bottle, which he always refilled. He made an improvised bandage and bandaged his wounds. The two of them drew their weapons and watched cautiously that there was nothing in the woods. The rain had been pouring for hours, as if it would never stop. Suddenly it stopped abruptly, just as she had begun. Perle came to his senses to some extent and I managed to get up. They cautiously left the cave. Herlin climbed a nearby tree to determine their location.
‘How far is the canal?’ asked Burli.
‘About half the league, more or less,’ Herlin replied. ‘If we hurry, we will be there in ten minutes. Let's go!’ Herlin got down from the tree, when Burli noticed how some people silhouettes moving toward them through the fog that suddenly appeared, seemingly - out of nowhere.
‘Someone is coming!’ .
‘Someone? Who else is crazy enough like the three of us to go this deep in the woods !?’
‘How do I know! It would be best to give in to the wind and get out of here.’
‘Let's ...’ he paused at mid-sentence when he noticed that the fog appeared in front of them, and with it the mysterious people. They drew their weapons and shouted at the strangers in the same voice:
‘Who are you!? We are armed and we will defend ourselves if necessary!’ They did not receive any answer. Soon one of them came to light, and when they saw him - their blood froze from the sight. The man was wearing some strange trousers, a faded and dirty green vest, which they had never seen before, and a metal helmet on which were fastened with a rusty object of a cylindrical shape, the upper part of which was conical, and the lower flat. In his hand he held a long, partially rusty knife whose shield had a metal link on it. But what scared them was his face. At first it seemed to them that he was grinning like a fool, only to realize that he had no lips! Almost all the skin was missing from his chin and around his mouth, almost the entire jawbone was visible, and the peeled flesh was black as tar. He didn't even have a nose, there were only two holes in his place. The eyes were as dead as the eyes of a dead fish. He didn't blink, he didn't let out a voice, he just stood there and calmly watched them with his dead eyes. They soon realized that his chest was not moving, that he was not breathing… A moment later, six more figures appeared in front and five behind them, each with a different injury, more and more horrible than the first one.
One of the newcomers, who had metal armour and a metal helmet, was almost a skeleton armed with a spear and a short sword, while his left hand held a rectangular shield that was once red. Another appeared wearing a plate-shaped helmet and he was armed with a small rusty axe. There were two more with green vests; one was holding something like a crossbow, except that there was a barrel in front and a knife hanging below it, similar to what they saw at the first one. This one was wearing a helmet and his jaw was torn off, while the other was armed with an axe and was missing half of his head. They could see the rotten inside of the skull where the brain used to be. The others were some knights armed with swords and battle hammers, who wore metal armour and a chain mail, so rusty that they wondered how it still stood on them, and a rotten tunic.
‘The dead ...’, whispered barely Herlin himself, ‘dead men walking.’ All his hair was stitched as he watched them and waited for their next move.
‘Herline, what are we going to do now? What do the dead want from us?’ Burley whispered.
‘I don't think they will tell us. I'll grab Perle and when I say ‘Now!’ We run to the right as fast as we can, straight to the canal, is that clear?
‘Now!’ He did as he said: he grabbed a half-conscious young man and so the two of them ran as if the devil were chasing them. They would have escaped if one of the dead had not aimed his weapon at them and fired. The dead soldier fired four shots - one hit Burley in the leg, the other in the ass, one hit Herlin's arm a little, and the fourth missed. Burley fell and two knights marched on him with drawn swords. He realized with horror that his destiny was sealed, so he broke through:
‘No, comrade, I will not leave you!’ Herlin was just a few steps away from his fallen friend, when one of the knights stabbed Burley's in his back. Blood flowed from his mouth, and with the last atoms of strength he exclaimed: ‘Ruuun!’ Before another knight stabbed his sword into his head and finished him off. They both drew their swords from Burley's body almost simultaneously and headed for Herlin and Pearl. Herlin began to flee. The dead soldier fired again and accidentally hit the knights who were chasing them. The knights simply continued walking ignoring the wounds. Herlin ran like crazy, thinking his heart would jump out of his chest. Suddenly he felt something grab him and lift him off the ground. It was a troll who was missing a part of his face together with his eye and his skull was visible. He grabbed his right arm so hard that he broke it in two places. In pain, Herlin dropped Perle, who slammed to the ground like an empty sack of potatoes. The dead troll did not loosen his grip and held him by the broken arm and watched with his dead eyes, while Perle, who was lying half-conscious, suddenly said enthusiastically:
‘Butterflies! They're back! They are so beautiful - Herlin heard a buzzing and noticed out of the corner of his eye a glowing swarm of butterflies - bloodsuckers.
‘Leave him alone, you damn piece of shit!’ Suck my blood, damn you, leave him! Heeej !!’ Butterflies did not pay any attention at all, but started landing on the young man one by one and stabbing their snouts, and then drinking his blood. Some even pierced his clothes, not looking for the uncovered part of the skin at all. Herlin, not knowing what else to do, cut off his broken arm and screamed at the butterflies, trying to drive them away. By then, twenty of them were already on him and they all drank his blood like crazy. He left the sword for a moment, pulled out his belt, and used it to squeeze the rest of his arm so it wouldn't bleed. He then continued to try to repel the butterflies, without any success. After a few moments, he realized in horror that there was no way out for the young man, because he noticed that the butterflies did not give up and that he was losing his normal skin colour due to the intensity with which they were sucking blood from him. He noticed that the other dead were approaching. Although he felt indescribably awful because of that, he decided to run away, because, in spite of everything, he was still alive. He turned with tears in his eyes and ran in the direction of the canal. He could hear Perle's last words:
‘Butterflies ... ah so ... are beautiful ...’ After all, they gripped the rails; he heard only his breathing and the roar of the wind. He stopped only when he reached the Black Pyramids. He paused and looked at the stump where his right hand was. By some miracle he squeezed hard enough and stopped the bleeding. Suddenly he heard the buzzing of a swarm of butterflies again, turned and saw them fly towards him. He ran again and for a moment found himself on the other side of the canal. He turned to look at the butterflies once more and noticed that they were standing by the pyramids and that the symbols on them were dimly lit. Soon, the walking dead appeared, but they did not continue further, but stopped at the pyramids. They just stood there and looked at him with their dead eyes, that is, those who still had eyes. Then, one by one, they turned and left where they came from, and a swarm of butterflies went with them. Herlin dropped his sword, sat down on the ground and began to cry like a small child. He sat and cried for hours. Then he somehow recovered, took his sword, and headed for the plantation.
A couple of hours later, he came to the house where the workers kept their tools. He lit a fire and burned his wound with a red-hot log to cleanse it. He found a clean T-shirt, tore it off and made an improvised bandage. He even found some dried meat and one orange, and ate them to regain some strength. He lost his arm, but he is still alive and did not intend to ever step into Strigorov's forest again. He would rather pour that damn thing on kerosene and set it on fire, even if the walking dead tore him alive. He would gladly die knowing that the whole forest would burn. But the forest was too humid and wet, especially during the rainy season. Some smaller rivers overflowed due to heavy rains and flooded nearby fields and villages. The locals solved this problem by building houses on poles above the ground, so that when the water comes, the houses remain dry.
He thought about where he was going; it is possible that Strigorov's knights did not completely give up on the three of them, he just needs to run into them without one arm and alone. Life is wonderful, isn't it? He decided to follow the canal, but never cross it. The first two times he was lucky, but he learned the hard way that all those stories he heard about the forest were true. He had to lose his two best friends and his right hand, but that is a lesson he learned for the rest of his life. The next day he hid in a barn to get some sleep. Unfortunately for him, a boy noticed him. He tried to escape, but the locals caught him, threw a metal net at him and stunned him with a club. Someone woke him up by pouring a bucket of cold water on him. When he opened his eyes, he saw the same knights who were chasing him two days ago.
‘Look, look, the bird woke up. Hmm, where's his hand? Did you cut it off?’ The black-bearded knight asked the peasants, but they shook their heads.
‘We find him like that, my lord; we don't know how he lost his arm, Sir Irina,’ said one of the peasants.
‘It doesn't matter. Do you have a name, two-legged lice?’ He asked Herlin.
‘Herlin is my name, sir … Now I understand why you didn't want to follow us into the woods, you knew what awaited us, didn't you?’
‘You know, did you meet them?’ You know, there is a saying among the knights here: 'Never follow a butterfly, no matter how beautiful it is'.’
‘I did not follow them, but my friend. I know you will kill me, so at least tell me what those butterflies and walking corpses are…. Don't tell me there are still necromancers?’
‘You are not as stupid as you look, but, as you said yourself, we will execute you. Where is Lord Jenkins' box, you dog!?’ Immediately after that, the knight squeezed him by the stump of his right hand. Herlin tried to hit him with his left, but only then did he realize that he was tied to the tree on which he was leaning.
‘If you know where he is, we will execute you quickly, if not, you will die slowly, I guarantee you that!’ Herlin spat in the knight's face and said:
‘I left that shit somewhere in the woods, look for it yourself, and tell that fat piece of shit to blow it for me, sir!’
Sir Irene wiped her face with a handkerchief and angrily kicked Herlin in the stomach.
‘Send a golem to look for the damn box. Let the search begin where the three of them crossed the canal, now!’
The other knights ran to the golem, who was standing inactive in front of a house. They put a heart-shaped crystal in his chest, activated it and explained to him what was required of him, and together with him they headed for the forest, while the two of them gently drove Herlin away. They put a rope around his neck and tied him to the saddle of a brown stallion. It turned out to be Sir Irina's horse. So the two of them slowly set out on the same path that the knights had taken with the giant.
As he followed the knights on horseback, the villagers told him all sorts of simple things, spat on him, and a couple of them threw mud at him. He didn't even have the strength to drive them away . It was only when he saw the endless greenery and palm trees that he realized that they were leading him to Strigorov's forest. He let out a low sob, realizing what he was going to do to him. They stood in front of the canal, dismounted and made him cross. One of the knights threw his sword at him, but he didn't even pick it up. Because, how to kill something that is already dead…? It may be possible by magic, but he is not a wizard, so it is not worth it. He walked, going deeper and deeper into the woods, crying, wondering what would kill him. After an hour, he could no longer walk and sat on a stump covered with red mushrooms. He was sitting like that for a while, when he suddenly heard the footsteps of someone approaching him. He turned, expecting knights, skeletons, or those in green vests, but it was his friend Perle, that is, what was left of him. His skin was streaked with butterfly stigmas, he was as pale as lime and shrivelled as a prune, but he still recognized him.
Tears welled up in Herla's eyes, and she cried and said,
‘You do it, come on, what are you waiting for, ...’ I interrupted him in mid-sentence, Perle his throat. Herlin choked, trying in vain with his remaining hand to stop the blood, and fell to the ground. He heard footsteps approaching and, dying, saw Burley approaching limping, his head torn. The last thing he saw was Perle's dry face, trying to say something. He didn't have a voice, but he recognized the word on the young man's lips: ‘butterflies’ . Herlin died so lying on the forest floor, slaughtered by his dead friend, while butterflies slowly descended on his now dead body to drink his warm blood.