by Matt Spencer

OVER THE FOLLOWING days and nights in Sarilla’s cabin, Caglar’s sense of urgency slipped away. Over the last few years, he realized, he’d found only hurried, impersonal, mediocre sex on the trail, with women who had as little or even less of a soul left than he did. He’d almost forgotten how it felt, with a woman who rutted with such raw, wanton hunger, a blend lady’s passion, all the untamed fury of the wilderness made flesh. Whenever he stepped outside afterwards, the glowing spectral trails still taunted him through the trees, with their echoes of home, of redemption, of a new beginning he didn’t deserve but would still take if he could get it, like he took her, like she took him.

Then came the morning when she shook him awake, staring down at him sternly. ‘Get dressed. I’ve washed and mended your clothes. Your wounds are healed. We both know your strength has returned.’

He squinted at her. ‘Already in a hurry to get rid of me, huh?’

‘I will miss you, Caglar. If I let you linger any longer, I’m afraid it will become difficult to be rid of you when I do tire of you. You’re already too close to telling yourself that you love me, even though we both know that’s not what this is about. I could never return that love, even if it were real, not in the way you need. Eventually, your infatuation will fade and you’ll long to be rid of me, in favour of your true dreams. Just like everyone else. By then, the mists of this forest may no longer offer you what you truly desire. Then you’ll really be dangerous. I’d have to poison you or kill you in your sleep before you went mad and cut my throat. Then my ghost would be stuck haunting you, and neither of us wants that. So let’s part as friends instead, after settling our debts to each other.’

As he gazed at her, his protests died on his lips. He dressed and strapped on his sword, along with his new Spirelight dagger.

Through the morning mists, he set off down the trail she pointed out to him, towards her false hearted lover’s village. When he looked back, she no longer stood outside. Through the twisted branches, the cabin looked like a lonely, deserted ruin. When he next looked back, it had vanished entirely through the trees.

Stay on the trail, she’d said over and over. The blend lady of his boyhood home had always told the youngsters the same thing, especially to young warriors yet to be blooded. That wise, withered woman had spoken figuratively, of a trail that quickly ceased to exist once you strayed from it.

Abominable beasts lurked and growled and gibbered through the twisted, mossy branches, taunting him with clicking claws and stony eyes full of no sentience beyond cruel, lifeless hunger. Even in daylight, the mist and rot settled over him in a perpetual dusk. He gripped his sword and glared defiantly at the path ahead. The creatures beyond the trail gibbered louder, as though they smelled his resolve like blood, thirsty to taunt him with doubts. The further he walked, the more time itself dissolved into the mists of the haunted forest. He might as well have been a ghost, wandering eternally down an endless ghost trail.

As the sun set, crimson moonlight spilled through the branches, brighter than any daylight he’d seen since venturing into this forest. In the distance, a low, rhythmic drumbeat sounded, accompanied by a droning harmony of mournful, muttering voices, urgent yet ominously somnambulic. They spoke to ghosts, already sounding like ghosts themselves. Caglar knew such sounds of old, of villagers chanting to the lands as their warriors prepared for battle. With a shiver, he reached for his sword and glanced around. The forest had gone deathly silent. The hissing, croaking beasts receded to their shadows. He walked faster.

Around the bend, a line of tall spikes jutted from the ground, leaning outward in a circle that split at the centre. Through the opening, Caglar saw a dilapidated village. No guards stood watch at the entrance. He strode through the opening and walked down a muddy thoroughfare flanked by thatch roofed huts. The ominous chanting came from crudely clad villagers, primitive and confused. Whatever presence he’d felt since nearing the village, he could tell that these people felt it too. Old women sat by fire pits, leading the chants. The whole place stank, like these people had barely crawled from the muck of early evolution. Out on the fringes, Caglar spotted latrine trenches. At least they’d learned to dig those. The smell could have fooled him.

This must be how the Spirelight occupation viewed his people, when they crossed the seas from their god blessed ivory towers in their city states. That wasn’t the strangest part, though. Every man, woman, and child here dressed like the primitive Schomites of an earlier age… yet they were all Spirelights.

From the far end of town, a haphazardly organized assembly of warriors flooded the streets, clad in crude armour sculpted from flame hardened wood. Some of them brandished crystal tipped spears. Others carried sharpened bars of metal with handles wrapped in leather, passing for swords.

‘All of you, on your feet,’ a warrior shouted as those under his command kicked civilians into motion and ushered them down the central thoroughfare. ‘Your prayers won’t save you. Don’t you know that by now? Get to the shelter. It’s coming!’

At first, no one seemed to notice Caglar. Then a pair of spearmen broke from the ranks and strode towards him. One of them pointed and shouted, ‘So you’re the one who just arrived, are you? Well, come along.’

Caglar blinked. ‘What?’

‘Our chief has been expecting you.’

Caglar blinked. ‘Who’s your chief, and who the hell do you think I am?’

‘Our chief is Kinay,’ the man huffed impatiently. ‘You are a bandit from beyond the forest, yes? Well, come on, then. This way!’

He followed the shambling herd to a long, arching structure of refined, archaic architecture. He froze in his tracks and stared up in disbelief at the building… a Fellowship Hall of the old design, such as he remembered from his own village back home. How had anyone out here managed to build such a place?

The warriors pressed the shambling villagers up the front step, through the looming doorway. Caglar followed them inside. Along either wall ran a series of crackling firepits in suspended iron caldrons. The townsfolk scurried and huddled around the flames, clearing a path to the back of the hall, where a fur clad figure sat upon the dais. The figure rose and approached. Caglar felt the two spearmen loom in behind him. As the figure closed the distance, Caglar beheld the only other Schomite present. The man carried himself with the weary dignity of a village chief. His warriors—Spirelight warriors, clad and armed like Schomite warriors—filed in around him and stood to attention. Beneath the man’s heavy garb, Caglar could tell that the man was slight though finely built. Matted black hair tumbled around his sunken cheeks, which sported a patchy, short clipped beard. His crystal blue eyes glimmered sharp yet gentle, his swirling, multi-hued skin gone dull from years of toil in this bleak land. A curved, rusty hi
lted blade swung at his hip. Caglar recognized the sword of a war chief of his own people. The man seemed to wear it with more annoyance than pride. He looked many times older than Sarilla, surely too old for them to have been each other’s youthful sweethearts.

‘Ah, hello, brigand. I expected to see you sooner, frankly.’

‘Have you, now?’

‘I’ve known you were on your way since you entered this forest.’

‘You’re Chief Kinay, I take it?’

‘I am. Here to kill me, are you? Tell me, what has Sarilla offered you?’

‘Enough,’ said Caglar. ‘Are you about to tell me her promises are empty?’

‘Hardly. She’s a very talented woman, in her way. If you were desperate enough to seek refuge in this weird forest, you’re no doubt highly motivated to carry out your end of whatever bargain you’ve made.’ Kinay splayed his arms. ‘Then come and kill me, if you can. My warriors won’t interrupt our dance.’

Caglar reached for his sword, then glanced around. The spearmen had drawn away, off to see to the comfort of the many shivering villagers. Chief Kinay stood awaiting Caglar’s move. Caglar suddenly felt like an ignorant player in some theatrical game, between Sarilla and Kinay, and he didn’t like it.

‘Hesitation before a fight? I hadn’t expected that from a man such as you.’

‘What trick are you playing?’

‘You’ve arrived on a very special night, my friend. I wish I could tell you that your timing has been by my design. Tell me, since entering this village, what have you seen?’

‘A lot of people scared, about some attack that’s about to happen, from those woods out there. A bunch of poorly disciplined warriors doing the best they can with what they’ve got, just to get all these folks through to another sunrise.’

‘How astute of you. These people were all once brave, bright eyed pioneers… or they’ve descended from them.’

Caglar looked around and squinted. ‘So… which is it?’

‘Both, of course! There’s no accounting for who time touches here, or how. People live side by side, day by day, yet some are born, grow up, and live for decades in what may pass as a single day to others. A man might witness the birth of his first child and awaken the next morning to find his wife dying of old age, while he’s remained young and sturdy. In his grief, he ventures outside, learns to love again with some sprightly maiden he’s never seen around here before, only to realize that they’re actually…’ Kinay grimaced. ‘Well, you get the idea.’

‘Sounds confusing, sure. I guess that would take a toll on anyone after a while. Right now, it looks like that’s the least of anyone’s worries.’

‘Within this hall, all these people are as safe as they’ll ever be.’

‘Against what?’

‘Against the Devils of the Dark Lands. Do they still whisper the same old stories in the world out there, about how this forest lies between dreams and waking life, between Deschemb and the spirit realms? Those stories are truer than I ever could have guessed, back when my love and I first fled here.’ Kinay’s eyes drifted bitterly. ‘There are many spirit realms, and the ones closest to this part of the forest… they aren’t the friendly ones. Every few months, the barriers grow thinner than ever, so the devils swarm through, towards this place, hungry for the flesh and blood of these people. I’ve kept up with my mother’s sacred teachings, enough that I’ve been able to bless this village’s borders so they’ve held out most of the time. On this night, though, those barriers are thin. Before long, many of those devils will slip through the outer defences, and I will join my warriors outside, to meet them with common man made weapons. Afterwards, I’ll see to repairing the damaged spectral barriers… if you’re willing 
to postpone our business long enough for me to give these people another few months of relative peace and safety. Tell me, brigand, do your desires outweigh the lives of all these innocents?’

‘Doesn’t look like much of a life, from what I’ve seen. Quite the utopia you’ve got here, man. Is it everything you hoped for when you betrayed her?’

‘Betrayed her?’ Kinay looked caught off guard, almost ready to laugh. ‘Is that what she calls it?’

‘After everything you went through together, you got your first taste of real power, so when it was her or it, you drove her away.’

Kinay’s eyes blazed like he might have changed his mind about postponing their duel. ‘I would never have done that to her, for these people or anyone. I loved her enough to sacrifice everything I ever knew. Now that you repeat such lies as she’s told, I wish she were here right now so I could kill her myself!’

‘Really now? So what actually happened?’

Kinay huffed and stormed past Caglar, down the hall, past his cowering villagers, towards the front door. ‘You’ll see the results soon enough. Come, it’s time I joined my warriors. If you stand with me against it, I’ll tell you all about it while we make the final preparations.’

Caglar followed Kinay outside. At the bottom of the steps, the other fighters spread out, at the ready. Kinay shut the massive twin doors, lifted a heavy, rune inscribed wooden bar, and set it across the entrance, effectively locking his people inside the Fellowship Hall.

As the red night deepened, winged devils already circled in the swirling, kaleidoscopic sky… not the firmament of this physical realm or any other, but an all-consuming window into infernal places fuelled by loathing for the very existence of physical life as anyone here understood it.

‘I suppose she says the people of my village turned on us because they couldn’t abide a blend lady’s son falling in love with a foreigner. That my mother turned on her for seeking to learn our sacred traditions. Ha! Mother was overjoyed to learn that her son had found love among our new Spirelight neighbours, that Sarilla was so eager to learn of our ways, that by sharing ancient wisdom and power, our two peoples might come closer together. Ah, but Sarilla… Mother realized the dreadful truth long before I did. By the time I realized it, it was too late for me. The more Sarilla learned, you see, of our lore, our history, the less Mother liked the questions she asked, the kind of power she craved… of the corners of the spirit realms that most enticed her, places one only seeks when wishing to strike the foulest of deals. Have you guessed what the final straw was, when my mother refused to teach her any further?’

Caglar strained to wrap his head around all this. ‘You’re asking the wrong guy. From all I’ve ever known, blend magic’s always been something us menfolk are wiser to leave to the ladies. You say your ma passed her teachings along to you, too, though…’

‘That she did, enough that I’ve kept the Devils of the Dark Lands at bay for this long, despite Sarilla’s best efforts. Come now, brigand, in all your years of butchery, I’m sure you’ve met women just as good as you at fighting, if not better. So it is with women’s magic.’

‘You got me there,’ said Caglar.

‘The answer to your question is all around you. The stories that intrigued Sarilla most were those of this forest, of the thin veil here. She wanted Mother to lead her here on a pilgrimage, to explore this infernal place, where she could find spirits found nowhere else, that she might fill in the gaps of her forbidden knowledge. Mother tried to warn me, all while Sarilla filled my ear with how Mother saw her as an outsider, that Mother was poisoning the village against her, against us. I should have seen through it, but I was young and in love. I also knew where the borders of Ashwind Forest lay, for I’d looked upon the gloomy expanse from on high, when I accompanied my father on hunting expeditions. She convinced me that if we didn’t flee together, the village would turn on us and kill us both… that our only place of refuge would be here. So to this forest we fled, together.

‘For a while, we thrived here. It was terrifying, but it was exciting. We befriended the other lost wanderers who’d made their home here. We gathered them and built this village together, using what we’d both learned from my mother to create a place of safety. It wasn’t much better than what you see around you now, but it was ours… all of ours. In time, I thought, with our combined powers, we could make something more of it. Then I came to realize what forces out here she communed with the most. The more she communed with them, the darker and stranger the forest grew. The villagers came to me, their chief, imploring me that I convince her to see reason, that if she kept us on that trail, none of us would survive. I still didn’t believe them, just as I’d disbelieved my mother. Then after one of our nights of passion, she stroked my chest and whispered her true ambitions, how she was so close to harnessing the power of the dark lands, how we would lead their armies out of this forest and take revenge on those who’d persecuted us. Together, she said, we’d bend all of Noresterland to our will, perhaps all of Deschemb. That was when I realized how blind I’d been all along, how close to the abyss I’d led all these people who’ve trusted me.’

‘So that’s when you all drove her away. Let me guess, you should have just killed her, but you still loved her too much, and you always knew this day would come.’

Kinay’s eyes drifted glassily to the sky that wasn’t the sky. ‘You have a sense of it. Ever since, my own feeble mystical strength has been barely enough to hold these borders against what she allowed through. I might tell you the details later, but for now, as you can see, we’re out of time.’

Caglar’s gaze followed Kinay’s upward, as the first of the circling, winged shapes broke from the others and descended towards them. More and more of the creatures followed. Spears and swords rattled at the ready. The first of the descending devils swooped right at Kinay, its fanged maw yawning and drooling, its clacking claws outstretched.

‘Chief, look out,’ Caglar heard himself yell.

He yanked his cut and thrust rapier from the scabbard, sprang into the air, and struck the monster in the centre of the skull. The head flapped back in half, spilling brains from the sundered skull. The winged body careened away in a midair somersault, the bisected jaws still clicking open and shut, the wings and clawed arms flailing. It crashed into a nearby hut that collapsed in on itself with a puff of straw and dust around the twitching carcass.

Other warriors launched spears into the air at the descending horde. Whistling projectiles punched through winged bodies that dropped and splashed in the mud. Other shapes evaded the flying spits and kicked up their haunches, transfixing warriors on taloned feet before carrying them into the sky. Bodies squirmed and writhed in the air. The talons shook them off so they fell screaming, crashing into huts or onto their comrades, so the echo of splintering bones filled the night.

One of the things shrieked and swooped at Caglar. His blade licked up in a back edged cut that spilled sizzling innards from the creature’s abdomen. Other men swung their crude swords at the airborne attackers. Some of the winged beasts fell with severed heads or slit bellies. Others died fighting, transfixed on blades and spears while their claws tore out their enemies’ throats and entrails. On and on they came, with little regard for their own lives, just hungry to kill as many village warriors as possible before they fell.

Caglar saw all this in blurred flashes, out of the corners of his eyes, while he sprang and darted left and right. His blade fanned about him, crunching through skulls and rib cages, ‘til he panted and shambled. Several of the winged creatures had already scraped and sliced him. Hot blood streamed over his limbs and torso. He had no idea how much of it was his, how much of it spilled from his attackers. In his frenzy, he was pretty sure he’d already killed several of his comrades, too. This wasn’t battle, not as he’d ever known it. These winged devils were like an army of hawks, mad with hunger and malice. He and his comrades were field mice with knives. They killed their share of the predators, but in the end, this would go like it always did between mice and hawks.

Shadows enveloped Caglar. In the light headedness of blood loss, he took it at first as the final delirium of death. Then he heard clicking, scraping claws, worrying their way through the thatched roof overhead. His senses cleared, as though snapping out of a drunken stupor. He’d retreated into some villager’s hut with no memory of doing so.

Blood pulsed from a deep slice on his inner shoulder. The arm sagged, almost numb. When he lifted it, it flared with pain like it might never work right again. Fortunately, it wasn’t his sword arm. His other hand still gripped the blood drenched cut and thruster. He stared out of the hut, at the maelstrom of carnage. Through it, he beheld the Fellowship Hall. The descending winged beasts kept attacking the structure, then drawing back with a jolt, as though Chief Kinay’s barriers shocked them with some teeth rattling current of invisible, volatile energy. All the while, before the doorway, there stood Chief Kinay, his great sword in hand, fighting off the demons like a champion. And here was Caglar, cowering in this hut like a scared little mouse, like someone who’d given up and accepted his fate. Accepting fate wasn’t the way of a fighting man of the Schomite people. A Schomite warrior was the embodiment of the night and the land, made flesh, bone, and steel, like the bandit heroes he’d grown up hearing stories of from across the seas, like Rorkaster, Tia, and Ketz. That was how his ancestors had held the Spirelights’ gods away for so long, and such was the way these warriors refused to lie down and die beneath the talons of these devils.

With a roar, Caglar sprang from the hut and hacked his way to Kinay’s side. Whatever was left of him, he gave it all to this last fight. Caglar and Kinay’s blades whistled and cleaved in harmony, side by side. The winged monsters fell at their feet and piled up across the steps, while the cowering villagers screamed inside. Caglar had no idea how much time passed. His blade whistled through empty air, showering crimson droplets. Every muscle in his body quivered on the verge of collapse.

A hand settled on his shoulder. ‘Brigand,’ a voice shouted through the red fog. ‘It’s done. We’ve won. The sun rises.’

In a daze, Caglar exhaled fiercely and slapped his blade home. Blood squelched and bubbled out of the scabbard. He almost collapsed, but Chief Kinay caught him by the shoulder and steadied him. His bleary eyes beheld the village. Bodies lay everywhere, of man and beast alike, few of them in one piece. The scent of congealing blood hung heavy on the air. Overhead, the sky brightened… the true sky, true morning. Beyond the spikey walls, Caglar heard the chirping birds and jittering insects of, well, any other forest. Amidst the dead, only a few dozen village warriors still stood. Caglar pitied them, trying to imagine how they’d stand up to the next attack like this.

Oh, right, he remembered. Some of those cowering children inside would emerge as fully grown adults, fired up on long ago memories of this night, of how their fathers had died in this battle… a fresh generation for the meat grinder of war, just like he used to be. Others would emerge as old men and women, with a lifetime of hazy memories Caglar wouldn’t be here to witness.

‘Will you join me for a drink, brigand?’ said Kinay.

Caglar nodded deliriously. A drink, yes. That sounded amazing. He followed Kinay back through the Fellowship Hall. The cowering villagers rose and drifted outside, to find what was left of their home. Only a few boys and girls remained to attend to their heroes, first with a table and two chairs. They brought clean cloths and basins of heated water, to cleanse and dress Caglar and Kinay’s wounds. After that, they brought out two glasses and a bottle, then scurried away. Just like fleeing mice, thought Caglar. He and Kinay sat across from each other, sipping bitter wine that tasted like it had been distilled from fermented mushrooms. The Fellowship Hall loomed darkly around them, the guttering firepits casting a flickering glow over them.

‘I like you, brigand,’ said Kinay. ‘I confess, there’s more to you than I saw at first.’


‘Now that you’ve seen what we’re up against, what can I give you to convince you to stay, to help me guard this place?’

Caglar sighed wearily. ‘Man, I just wanna go home, back to a life I barely remember, before everything got so bad.’

‘Before you left home and took the wrong trail, the one that led you to this forest? Yes, my friend, I know that feeling all too well.’

‘Yeah,’ Caglar chuckled. ‘You would, wouldn’t you?’ They toasted and drank to that. ‘So can you point me the way?’

Kinay shook his head. ‘I cannot give you that, my friend. I’m sorry. The trail of life leads only forward, never back, no matter how hard we try. We cannot—’

Caglar rose and struck the table crashing aside. The bottle and glasses shattered. He yanked Chief Kinay to his feet, ripped the Spirelight dagger from his belt, and drove it through Kinay’s lower side. The chief’s body flailed back like a wounded snake. Caglar yanked the blade across. Dark blood sprayed across the floor around them in a spatter pattern halo. Caglar held onto the chief’s shaking body, lowered it to the ground, and held on ‘til the carcass went still.


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