2 - The Dead Forests

2 - The Dead Forests

A Story by Stories Of Atlas
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A long way from anywhere, the furthest reaches of the Human empire on Atlas, where hostile creatures roamed and fought, where creatures dwelt unseen by any ones eyes.

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www.storiesofatlas.com
presents...
'The Dead Forests'


Chapter 1

A long way from anywhere, the furthest reaches of the Human empire on Atlas, where hostile creatures roamed and fought, where creatures dwelt unseen by any ones eyes. This was land that civilisation hadn't touched, land that few people had seen, land that was only known in myth and legend. A mysterious place full of fear and hostility hidden amongst the trees. It was hot under the canopy of the forest. The trees were dense and the land was harsh. Birds screamed and squawked at each other from hidden nests and the gentle call of land animals undercut any silence.

Birds arced and glided gracefully through the clean open air of the country. An eagle loomed in the sky, frozen in time, impossibly hanging, as if by a thread. A god of the skies, unmovable, impassible, unbeatable. It watched the smaller birds playing beneath it, unseen until it swooped down, completing the inevitable march of the wilds.

The branches swayed and creaked in the gentle breeze and the clouds gently brushed over the tops of the trees in the distance. The sun was high in the sky but in the distance the dense dark clouds loomed and hung heavy, a fat belly of rain threatening to drop without warning. The trees were thick and the land was harsh and rugged. Few people have ever been seen this deep into the forest and it was unusual to see the plume of black smoke emerging from the tree line, smoke that was so rare in these parts as any signifier of civilisation would be. A series of camp fires was the source of the smoke. A small camp-site in a large plain and was the temporary home for a band of soldiers. Their armour was well worn and shattered in places, their bloodshot eyes sat deep in faces that had discovered sleep was a luxury that they hadn't enjoyed for a long time. The smell of battle, of sweat hung heavy in the air. A few smaller tents littered the area, each with it's own fire and a group of soldiers resting around it. The gleam of armour and the rustle of movement could be seen between trees, guardsman, patrolling the area, ever vigilant, the midway sun making the air thick and unbearable.

There was a larger tent sat directly beneath a fallen tree, each side of which was heavily guarded by soldiers, although very much at ease. Inside the tent two people speak in hushed tones.

“We can't last many more nights of this, the men are weakening and scared, none of us has eaten a decent meal in days” his voice was muffled as he had his head buried deep into his hands. Short brown hair poked out between his fingers as he drummed them against his head deep in thought.

“We have just so few soldiers left” he continued “We've lost almost half the men that left camp twenty days ago. We have no bodies to bury we have no ammo or water left for the pistols and we don't even know what we're fighting” he looked up, his pale blue eyes shook with fear and exhaustion in his head. He looked defeated, finished, he was staring at his superior, waiting for an answer.

“We've been missing for ten days, help is on it's way Lieutenant, pull yourself together” his Captain turned to face him. Her face and poise exuded confidence and dignity. She strode over to the table and picked up her flask, sipping at the contents, careful to take only what she required.

“We still have soldiers alive, we have lost a lot I agree, however we took most of those losses in the ambush, since we set up camp the losses have been much less, our defensive position is strong, we're ready for them. Whatever it is that's out there is nocturnal, that gives us plenty of time to rest and be ready for their attacks” she offered the water across the table and shook it.
The Lieutenant just waved his hand away
“Take it Daniels, that's an order, you look like hell for saviours sake” their eyes met again over the table, and he snatched the flask from her hand, knocking it back. She shook her head in irritation and took a seat at the table.

Sealing the flask again and placing it on the surface, Daniels began to pace a circle around the table “And what about him?” he said, pointing accusingly at a figure laying down on a bunk in the corner of the tent.

“He's still unconscious I believe. Without a medic I couldn't honestly say.”

“He's been out for seven days, since we found him on the road, I say he throw him out, he's taking up water that our men could be drinking”

There was a short silence around the table as the Captain let the thought into her mind

“He's valuable to us, he was knocked unconscious in a struggle, for all we know he fought one of these things, and the blood on his blade suggests that he even wounded one of them, he has information for us”

“You pin too much hope on this one man, he may be a thief for all we know, the blood you found on his blades probably belonged to a family he robbed.”

The captain started laughing “Did you see a family out there Daniels? The blood was still wet and we found him at dawn” she brushed the blonde hair from her eyes, reaching back and replacing her top knot “And what creature since the magic age has purple blood?” She let the questions ring through the air and enjoyed the frustrated look on her Lieutenants face
“He's valuable too us. Even if he doesn't know anything I want to know what he's doing so deep in this forest”

“Well” began Daniels “he'd better wake up soon, otherwise there'll be no-one left to talk too, if those, those things don't get us then hunger and thirst will”

The Captain looked at him, her brown eyes filling with frustration her fists clenched tightly together in front of her on the table. She spoke through her teeth in a hushed, deliberate tone
“Lieutenant, I am well aware of our situation, and I do not need constant reminder of it. Unless you want to be the first to discover an even quicker way of dying then you might
want to start thinking a little more optimistically” she turned her body slowly one way, then the other, making her sword clatter into the armour against her leg, making sure he understood the threat clearly.

There was a long silence between the pair, the Lieutenant looking incredulously at his superior before shaking his head slowly and storming out of the room without saying a word. The Captain was left alone save for the injured man in the bunk. She sat at the table once again, on it was a map, crudely drawn of the local area. Three large fields surrounded the camp, behind them in the south the trees were so thick she'd drawn a large “X” through it, nothing could pass through those trees. She had little information about the battles that had occurred but she was compiling it all together, she had learned much since that first night and she was committed to learning more. She spent a little time pencilling in a few defensive actions on the map before she placed the pencil carefully back on the table and relaxed back into her chair.

There was little else in the room, a lot had been lost in the ambush. By her bunk was a small chest which held the rest of her armour, a chest piece that she rarely wore, she didn't like the restrictions during combat, she opted instead for strapping shoulder armour and arm plates on with large leather belts. She was a fierce warrior and had survived many battles, but what she had witnessed over the last few nights was almost more than she could bare.

There was a tightness in her chest, not painful, but a feeling of uncertainty, an archaic sense of foreboding, of danger, of someone watching. She had felt it that first night and ever since. It was stronger when she stepped out from her tent, and stronger still as night crept over the camp. She knew that it was them, she didn't tell anyone, morale was low enough, but those things weren't nocturnal like they thought, they never slept they were watching all the time, they attacked at night because it gave them the advantage they needed but they could attack any time they wanted, they didn't want to simply kill them all, they wanted to scare them all, they fed from the terror that they caused, and she knew, she saw in every soldiers eyes that terror was all they had.

“So, how long have you been awake?” she asked the air in front of her

There was a silence before she turned to the man in the bunk and stated “I know you're awake, you're in no danger, or has your injury effected your throat as well”

“I've been out cold for what? four days?, I didn't see the harm in waiting a little longer” the words came slowly from his lips, he lay unmoving his eyes firmly closed his hands interwoven about his chest.

“Well the I assume you haven't been awake for too long” she sat up turning the chair to face him “Why don't you tell me what you are doing this far from the city”

He sat up slowly, holding his head with one hand and steadying himself with the other, shaking himself awake from his entropy he turned and smiled at her, flashing his green eyes broken only by a small blue imperfection.

“First things first” he said “I'm Aracel” he stood up, rather shakily at first but with a determined look across his face and in a slow, very deliberate walk he made the steps over to the Captain with his hand outstretched for her.
She took it in hers

“Nice to meet you Aracel, I'm Captain Anya Carrell of the 2nd Recon Battalion out of Arcadia. This is my squad, please sit down, you shouldn't be walking yet”

“I beg to differ, walking is exactly what I need, there's no time for me to be resting if I'm to fight tonight”

He released her hand and began to circle the table, shaking his arms and stretching out his shoulders. Anya watched him with a bemused look across her face.

“So” she began “you think you can help us fight, perhaps you forget the cause of your coma?”

“The sithilid are a difficult prey indeed, but they are not immortal as your Lieutenant would believe” Aracel glanced at her and flashed her a grin.
“Where are my, erm, things? The rest of my clothes, and my weapons”

Anya, shrugged and waved a hand at the chest in the corner “You know how to kill them? You must tell me, perhaps there is hope for us yet”

But Aracel was already walking, more confidently now, striding over to the chest, flipping the lid and rooting around inside for his things, leafing them out and piling them on the floor.
“Yes, yes” he said warily “There is still plenty of time for that, let me dress and drink first, I've missed several.....”

But his speech was cut short, a noise had risen outside, shouting which had been distant was growing closer and closer and several guards were already blowing whistles, sounding the alarm. Anya and Aracel both grabbed for their blades, running for the opening in the tent, not getting but a few yards outside before a young guardsman met them and collapsed to his knees, exhausted, scared before them.

Anya shouted at the guard standing to attention nearby “Get this man some water for saviours sake” The guard saluted and ran into the tent.
Falling to a knee she placed a hand on the mans shoulder “What is it? What did you see?”

He was visibly shaking, tears were welling up in his eyes and his armour was streaks of blood all over it. He slowly raised his head and looked directly into her eyes

“I..I've” he stammered “I've found our dead”

Chapter 2

A pit had been dug a hundred or so feet out of the camp. It wasn't so deep and bodies were already piled above ground level, unmistakably the bodies of soldiers freshly killed.

Aracel looked at them closely, the wounds were deep and vicious. Lacerations covered their bodies cutting through flesh and armour alike.
Behind him Anya was arguing again with Lieutenant Daniels. He wanted to move the bodies back to camp and bury them whilst Anya was persuading him that they can wait until they're rescued. It was another futile discussion that was only occurring because both parties needed to vent frustration. Aracel glanced over his shoulder at them and stood up, patting the soil from the knees of his trousers.
Daniels caught him from the corner of his eye and decided to target his frustration at him instead of at Anya.

Striding over he shouted “What did this to my men? You know, you were out here, we found you the night they attacked, What's killing us all?”
He met Aracel with a hard push to the shoulder which Aracel took without fighting back, he remained silent however. This earned him another push in his chest which staggered him and pushing the wind from his lungs. He glared at Daniels seeing his mouth moving but not listening to his shouted questions, already a circle of soldiers had gathered for the sport, heckling and yowling, no doubt feeling some of their own frustrations lifting as they watched their Lieutenant venting his.

Daniels walked up once again, shouting, his hands raised ready to push once again. This time Aracel sidestepped to avoid the movement, his position has perfect and automatic, he caught Daniels wrist and twisting his hand over at the same time as placing one foot behind his and bending him over backwards, his arm twisted almost to breaking point, his other arm flailing, trying to keep his balance.
“Push me again” Aracel said as silence fell in the clearing.
He looked to where Anya had been standing to see nobody there. Then he realised the silence that had fallen wasn't for him.

He let go of Daniels' wrist, letting him crumple to the floor in pain. Aracel put his hands up and turned around, to see a surprised Captain Anya, her sword drawn and pointing towards his throat.

“You move well Anya, I barely even noticed you” He smiled, his eyes hiding his actual surprise. Few people could move without him detecting it.
He hid his confusion as best he could, thinking he owed it to his time spent unconscious. He tried to look as confidently as he could, knowing that he was safe whilst he carried information they needed, and now also because of his skill at fighting.

The silence carried on as Anya left the swords tip floating a few inches from his throat. The soldiers encircling them were watching the situation closely.

“Whilst you are our guest Aracel, you will behave accordingly” Anya spoke slowly, almost robotically “Now, can I put my sword away?”

“I mean nobody any harm, I was merely defending myself” Aracel said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

Eyeing him pensively, Anya placed her sword back into her belt. “Good” she said softly, brushing hair from her face. Daniels still lay on the ground, clutching his shoulder now. Aracel turned to him and offered his hand to help him up. Daniels looked up with scorn and shame in his eyes. He reached upwards towards Aracel and slapped away his hand. There was a snickering sound reverberating around the few soldiers that remained to watch and Anya glared at them, a thousand words poured from her eyes, they all understood and quickly trotted back to their posts.

The air swirled for a few seconds, the loud hum of a thousand flies feasting around the rotting bodies of the fallen became louder with each moment of silence between the three. Daniels shuffled around on the floor for a while, breathing heavily, filling his lungs with air again before rolling over onto his hands and knees and pushing himself to his full height, wiping a thin trail of saliva from the side of his mouth. Aracel watched him cautiously from the corner of his eye, making sure another attack wasn't coming from the defeated man. He saw a desperation and fear in the mans eyes, and that was dangerous.

“You will answer our questions now” said Anya
“With pleasure” replied Aracel with a smile “I see no reason to keep any secrets in our situation”
“What are you doing this deep into the forest?” asked Anya

Aracel reached down and picked up his hat, dusted it off and replaced it on his head before sitting down on a rock a few yards from the bodies, and began.


A week or so ago he had left Arcadia as a distant memory. Re-joining the rest of the world, seeking adventure and wealth. He had made enough money to buy a horse, and provisions for a long journey into what he had learned to call by drunks in bars as “The Dead Forests”. There were tales of ancient tombs of elven mages buried deep in the forests guarded by a force that nobody had ever seen, or at least survived to tell of it. Many adventurers had wandered into The Dead Forests on the same quest and received the same fate.
And so Aracel had decided to take up the challenge and rode out North East, across the human territories. It took many days to travel across the land to the edge of the forests but this sort of journey was in Aracels blood, he was at home on the road with a destination and adventure in his heart. He pushed fear to the back of his mind and focused on glory, of riches and hopes that the horse could carry all the treasure home.

After many days of riding he reached the edge of the forest and set up camp. It had been a long time since he had passed through these parts and he recalled the many dangers of such a journey. His senses were already on fire, the feeling of unseen eyes watching him flared and sparked in the back of his mind. As the fire blazed Aracel cast his eyes upwards to the stars. Out here the sky seemed infinite, stars hung in the heavens, almost completely filling the sky. Shooting stars hummed through the sky, burning up and disappearing as quickly as they had appeared. The sounds of the forest rang through the air. Crickets, cicadas and birds all adding to the natural orchestra of the wild, a natural silence that was louder than any city could be, and infinitely more beautiful.

That night he felt a deep stirring in his heart, a feeling like he was being watched, but his senses hadn't pricked, he hadn't noticed anybody around him. Yet he was unsettled, the only way he felt to describe it was like a shadow had appeared next to his heart. This feeling hadn't left him sense it had arisen and followed him deep into the forest. When morning came and Aracel had put another sleepless night behind him the feeling had become weaker, but was still apparent, he called it apprehension for the journey ahead, although he knew it was something else, something different, he resolved to stay on his guard.

He turned down his makeshift camp, the seasons were peaking and he had decided not to bring a tent, a few blankets and a sleeping bag was all he required, a few make shift tools to create a fire were packed as a small luxury for the trip. He had the experience within him for camping and survival come what may. These bits and pieces were bagged and strapped to the horse as he kicked it's side and pushed onwards, breaking the tree line of the forest, the foreboding shadow still deep within him.

The forest was dense, the horse struggled to stamp it's way through the harsh terrain. Trees stabbing up into the sky, their peaks hidden by a thick canopy of lush greens, home to a thousand sounds of creatures unrecorded by any civilisation on Atlas. Aracel was aware of the stories told of the forest, tales of creatures that live amongst the trees. Ancient beasts still roaming since the times of the magical age, conjured up from other realms, their masters long dead or defeated. Old stories used to scare children into behaving, neither truth nor fiction but somewhere between. Few people travelled deep into the forests, there were only a few roads that passed into the tree line and only the most guarded caravans dared to edge their way in. Aracel knew all this, he also knew that something wasn't quite right, but he carried on regardless, knowing that the treasure was somewhere in the north east, and trusting his abilities he carried on regardless.

Some days passed, camps were made and collapsed as he journeyed deeper and deeper, armed with little knowledge of where he was going, he relied on instinct and a few stories offering directions via dead trees, patches of gnarled wood and lifeless earth that surrounded the tombs he was searching for. On the third night inside the forest the shadowy feeling left him, he finally felt as though he was alone. Along the way he had doubled back and done everything he knew to lose a potential tracker, all in an attempt to shake this feeling he had but nothing had worked, nothing until now, when it just suddenly leaves him. Aracel smiled to himself as he tied his horse to a tree, giving him enough slack to explore and graze nearby.

Sleep came easily that night, Aracel felt at ease after being stalked for three days by the dread feeling that had fallen upon him, his head went down with the sun and he slept the night through completely. He awoke slowly and softly, not opening his eyes straight away, letting the noises of the forest wash over him, the amazing sounds of life, of the wilds, of amazing animals all waking up and calling out to the skies and too each other. A brook nearby churned away, the soft roar of a stream passing along, feeding the forest as it passes by into the distance. The only sound missing was the soft tread of hooves against the forest floor.

Aracels eyes opened and he stood wearily stretching backwards to shake the slumber from his body. Studying the landscape as he had done the night before he reached down for his weapons, two daggers with black blades and intricately carved ebony hilts that hung from a heavy belt which he wrapped twice around his waist and buckled tightly. Looking around again he raised two fingers to his mouth and let out a piercing whistle which echoed and bounced from trunk to trunk, causing a startled flock of birds to take flight from their homes in the canopy. There was no reply however.

Sensing danger Aracel took a grip on the hilt of a knife and walked over to where he had tied his horse up the night before, the rope was still tied to the tree, frayed and torn at one end.

Aracel cursed to himself softly, the horse must have chewed through the rope. It would take hours and hours to find it again. Perhaps a day would have to be written off in the search. Aracel cursed his stupidity once again and was about to walk back to his camp when something dripped on his head. He reacted instantaneously, his senses alerting him to some unseen danger. He leaped away, landing in a roll in the clearing his daggers ready in his hands as he lay crouched low like a vicious cat ready to pounce at his attacker. Except there was nobody there.

He touched two fingers to his head and examined the liquid that had fallen on him, a spot of thick red, the unmistakable smell and texture of blood.

His eyes turned to the tree line ahead, nothing, he stepped closer and closer, moving slowly, taking tentative steps, half curious about where the blood had come from and half afraid to find out. He stepped closer and closer to the tree, edging his way forward like a cheetah approaching it's prey, craning his neck slightly to get a better view until he saw it. His horse had been hung high in the branches of the tree, hung by it's neck with the rope which he had tied it with the night before. It's body was covered in deep lacerations and its blood was still slowly trickling down the tree. Foaming from it's mouth as it had struggled to breath out it's last breath.
A hot rush of vomit came to Aracels throat and he swallowed hard, stepping back, forcing himself to look away from the horrific sight. He made up camp quickly, taking only what he needed and nothing more and without looking back Aracel left the camp and the body of the horse hanging high in the canopy. Fear was rising in him, not least because the feeling he had had the night before was back, the shadow, the evil that felt like a thousand eyes watching him from within.

Hours past by, it was hard work moving through the forest, the trees closed in and the ground got steeper and more treacherous. Aracel was determined to put as much distance between him and the camp as he possibly could, but moving on foot was very slow. He cleared a path hacking at shrubbery and bushes with a large stick he'd snapped from a tree earlier. The sweat was dripping from his brow and hunger pinched at his intestines. Aracel couldn't stop his mind from working and he became more and more anxious at the thought of whatever it was that had crept into camp without him knowing and killed his horse. He wondered what on Atlas was strong enough to string a horse up that high in the tree line.

He marched on through the thicket, the sun had already started to fall from the sky as almost a whole days hiking had passed. Something stopped him dead in his tracks, a soft smell in the air, a smell that was becoming more and more prevalent in his life. Blood. He dropped the stick and removed the daggers from his belt, trying to decide whether he should follow the smell or escape it. It seemed to be coming from his left, the smell was faint but it was difficult to gauge how far away it could be. He stood still for a few moments, letting his senses scour every inch of the area around him, his green eyes following the horizon, waiting for that tiny little movement, or that faint sound alerting him of some things presence, but nothing came to him.

He still hadn't made his mind up. Stay or flee, investigate or ignore his curiosity. The image of his horse kept flashing in his mind along with the stories that he had been told. But he wouldn't forgive himself if he didn't have a look, his curiosity was peaked, there was something unusual in this part of the forest and he couldn't help but imagine a link with the elven tombs that he was searching for.
He cursed softly to himself and started out towards the smell.

He followed the sickly scent for about ten minutes before it overpowered him and he threw up at the base of a ridge. The burning rush bringing tears to his eyes as the smell of death filled his head, making him dizzy. It was close, whatever it was was just over the ridge.

Putting one of his daggers in his belt he started the ascent, using his free hand to steady himself, his boots slipping on the wet grass. It hadn't occurred to him earlier but as he climbed he realised that there was no bird song any more, it was as though the birds had all disappeared in this part of the forest. He paused and looked up into the trees. There was no movement at all save for the wind rushing through the leaves.

He decided to press on regardless, whatever it was was just over this ridge. He carried on climbing, his free hand grabbing at the roots and grass and rocks that littered the mound. He slowly reached the top, his breath was heavy and his heart felt alien inside his own chest. The veins in his hand bulged from the flesh as he tightened his grip on the weapon. Reaching forward to with his hand and his dagger, he parted an opening in the thicket in front of him he gazed down at the clearing for the first time.


Chapter 3

The colour had drained from Aracels face. Where once he had looked composed and defiant he now looked vulnerable and scared. His eyes cast downwards, unmoving from a space on the floor between his boots. His elbows resting on his knees, his hands holding his head in place. Anya and Daniels let him remain silent for a while, absorbing what they'd already heard.

Daniels had been pacing through the clearing, his sword had been drawn throughout and his nerves were clearly showing His eyes darting about at the slightest noise or movement. Anya was his opposite, composed, standing strong, her sword at her side.

There were a few hours of daylight left, the men at the camp had already started to prepare for the night, checking defences, sharpening swords. There was little talk around the tents, the soldiers were broken by wave after wave of defeat, they shuffled around inside their armour, trying to look busy.

The camp was closing in again, Anya had ordered the men to spread out during the daylight hours to give them a sense of normality, to make them feel safer but most of all to give them something to do, breaking down the camp and rebuilding it took time and it was time when they weren't all thinking about the night coming and the battle that was inevitable.

Back in the clearing Anya was becoming impatient, time was moving forward and the enemy closer. She looked at Daniels who was busy pacing, occasionally staring at Aracel, waiting for the next words to emerge from his lips. She shook her head and walked over to Aracel, crouching down near him trying to catch his gaze.
He continued to stare at the patch of sodden earth until she placed a hand on his shoulder.

Their eyes met for a few seconds, she smiled and squeezed his shoulder, encouraging him to continue the story.
“What did you see?”
His mind flashed back again to that moment on the ridge.

He pulled back the thicket to get a better view and stared transfixed on the clearing beneath him. It was as though some ancient magic had taken hold of his vision, showing him two realities instead of one. He knew in reality the clearing was perfectly empty, devoid of anything living nor dead. But there was the vision of hell that seemed to overlay itself, a deeper reality of blood and death. He tried to work out the truth and the fiction from the scene before him, squinting his eyes, trying to focus on one or the other. Strange beasts scuttled around, walking as though on back legs and elbows. They were at least 6 feet long, as big as horses with scythes instead of forearms which they were using to tear into the flesh of dead animals and men in the centre of the clearing. There were mounds of dirt which could have been the openings to tunnels that seemed to house the beasts. Blood covered everything in sight, poured from the cadavers of the dead, dragged from the kill site to this clearing and torn up to share between the demons.

At the far side of the clearing was a large granite statue. The only thing that seemed to exist in both realms. An Elf wielding a staff high in the air. A grave marker of an ancient mage no doubt. This was it, the burial ground he had been searching for. The creatures must have been summoned during the age of magic and have never been able to return home, trapped in between reality and illusion.

A searing pain stabbed behind Aracels eyes. He turned away from the clearing quickly clutching at his face. His mind couldn't cope with seeing the two realities at the same time. There was something else though, the shadow next to his heart seemed to be growing, the feeling of paranoia, of anxiety was growing deeper in his chest. He tried to shake himself free from it understanding now that it was these creatures causing it all along, the closer he had gotten to them the worse it felt.
He thought about his horse, it wouldn't have stood a chance against those scythe like forearms, they must be as sharp as razors to inflict so much damage. Camp must have been more than ten miles from this clearing though, and they must have existed in tangible reality to have killed the horse. Aracels mind focused on the horrible truth, his eyes turned upwards to find the sun beginning to set. Night time, the creatures must be able to enter reality during the night.

He rolled over onto his front, scrambling to the edge of the ridge once again, looking down at the clearing, at the creatures when something hit him. Something unreal that bored it's way into his mind. He screamed loudly with pain, his hands squeezing his head which felt like it was going to explode. A high pitch scream filled the forest, filled his mind, getting louder and louder. His thoughts became one with those of the beasts. He saw an ancient ritual, elves enshrouded in capes, stood in a circle, sacrificing dozens and dozens of people, slitting their throats. Their face set in the screams they died with.

He saw the birth of these creatures, born in blood, he knew their creators, he knew their first born and he knew their name, Sithilid.

As soon as it came the pain left him and he awoke once again, scrambling to his feet. Blood trickled down his face from the wounds his nails had dug into his scalp. It had only taken a few seconds for him to regain his senses and he was up and running away as soon as he was able. Trees passing him fast on either side, he leapt and rolled through the thickets uncaring about which direction and where he was headed, the only thought on his mind was the sun setting quickly ahead of him and the vision of every memory, every kill these demons have ever embarked upon.
He ran with the grace of a cheetah, vaulting and turning, twisted leaps through narrow gaps. Low rolls and slides under fallen branches. He ran hard, his breath almost gone before a heavy impact at his side sent him sprawling to the floor. He rolled over onto his back, his hands flashed to his knives instantly as he looked up at one of the Sithilid slowly making it's way towards him. It's insectoid body clattered and shook as it made it's way through the trees to tower above Aracel who was paralysed with shock at the enormity of the creature before him. Two black, dead eyes gazed emptily ahead, staring through him. It was all Aracel could muster to roll to the side as an enormous arm sheered through the air without warning, narrowly missing his shoulder, screaming through the air with a ripping noise and landing in the ground tearing up the dirt as though it were butter. The impact shook the ground, it was enough to break Aracel from his spell, he rolled backwards avoiding another vicious sweep from the arms of the beast, flipping himself forward onto his feet he leapt to the side to avoid a charge. The leap put some vital distance between himself and the demon. Aracel finally had some time to think, he squeezed the hilts of his knives tightly and prepared for the next onslaught. The creature charged again but Aracel was ready and rolled out of the way, aligning himself to the side of the Sithilid, regaining his balance he jumped to his feet and plunged his daggers into the beasts body. The daggers glanced off it's skin barely denting the armour, it obviously felt something though, it let out a scream and turned sideways rapidly, hitting Aracel with the side of one of its great arms, knocking him to the ground once again. He rolled once again, dodging yet another attack, his daggers still in his hands, he scrambled forward, managing to raise himself onto a knee, but the demon was upon him. It loomed above, it's arms raised ready for attack, it's dead eyes staring impassioned and cruel. Saliva dribbled from it's mandibles, it was ready to make the final blow.

Aracel wasn't finished yet though, with a final burst of energy he pushed himself off the ground, aiming himself with full force at the creatures left arm. Instinctively it attacked, but was too slow to hit Aracel. Landing alongside the creatures head Aracel acted quickly. Before the beast turned he dived towards it's face, stabbing it through the eye. It screamed, a noise that Aracel would never forget, it pierced his ears like the vision earlier and he felt a searing pain in his own head. An agony they both seemed to share. He stumbled clutching his head as the creature recoiled at it's wound, it's arms raising and falling, trying to flick the dagger from it's eye. Peering through squinted eyes Aracel noticed an opening in the insects armour, the inside of it's elbow joint was vulnerable. With a concerted effort he lurched forward, towards the spot, not taking his eyes from it. Falling to his knees he held his remaining knife with both hands high above his head plunging it down into his enemies flesh.

A plume of purple billowed out of the beast, a jet of death from a major artery within the creature. A final scream was the last action from Aracels enemy and it fell.

Upon finishing his tale Aracel stood up and began to walk back to the camp. Anya was still crouched on one knee, mulling over the details.

“Wait!” Daniels shouted angrily, striding over to Aracel “If you killed one where was it's body, there wasn't even any blood where we found you, save what we found on your knives”

Aracel laughed, not breaking his gait.

“You're forgetting” he said “they don't even exist in sunlight”

Back at the camp the soldiers had set up a perimeter. There was little else to do as the sun began to fall beneath the tree line. Wooden dragons teeth had been set up to slow the advance of the attack and soldiers were set, encircling the camp. Fires had been lit all over the clearing and in the centre was a large bonfire ready to be lit. A row of heavy pikes was laying on the ground at the foot of the hill and a few soldiers were fixing together snapped ones, replacing broken spear heads with sharpened wooden stakes.

Aracel wandered through the defences, getting a feel for the battle ahead. His well trained eye saw every strength of the battlefield and also every weakness. Crouching down he felt the earth between his fingers, kicking at it, testing the grip of his boot against the dry, well trodden sod.

Anya and Daniels had rejoined the camp and they were both walking towards him. Daniels eyes were full of anger and his strides were aggressive. Fortunately he was intercepted by another solider who, with a quick word in his ear, took him away to another part of the camp to oversee the defensive line.

“You think we can kill them?” Anya said when the two were alone.

They were both inspecting the huge pile of wood, throwing extra bundles of sticks onto it idly before it was lit.

“I managed to kill one, they're hard work, whatever they are. They can be killed though, that should give you and your soldiers some hope at least”

“All you need to kill is to want to do it and to know where to stick your sword.” Anya said with a smile “My soldiers have been terrorized and slaughtered over the last few nights. They've seen their friends fall to these demons, they not only want to kill, they yearn to kill and now they know where to stick their blades, if we don't succeed tonight then we won't succeed any night, if the Gods want us, they'll take us before the sun rises”


Chapter 4

The sun was just setting. Soldiers manned their posts with surprising calm, swords ready in hands. The bonfire had been lit shortly before the sun had set, a magnificent blaze that lit the camp, sending plumes of black, choking smoke up into the starless night. Dozens of eyes were set, surveying the tree line, watching for any sign of movement, experience had taught them that the only thing in the woods at night meant death, sithilid creatures killed everything in their paths and had long ago chased this part of the forest clean of any other animal life.

The figure of Lieutenant Daniels stood close to the fire. The battle always drew in to the centre of camp, no matter how hard they stood their ground. The floor was potholed and bald from the countless times the dirt had been turned over with impact and scuffles. Daniels stood over a large shield, standard issue for Lieutenants, it had seen many battles and he had had many opportunities to replace it. Each dent and scratch had it's own story and Daniels knew how to describe each and every one of them. He would bore the officers in the castle mess with tales of battle, his shield was his master-work, his diary. He held this same ritual before every battle, his silent prayer to whatever Gods were listening. He took a knee beside his shield and ran an ungloved hand across the metal, mouthing the names of battles as he felt the damage.

Taramar,
Andracil
Arcadia /> Andracil
Sanders Hill
New Springs
Fort Riggs”

He lost himself in this meditation, reliving each moment of glory and failure. Smiling at battles won and pausing to remember the fallen at battles lost.
He stood once again, before the bonfire, it was impossible to not be impressed by the silhouette he cast in full armour. The blue plume from his shoulder shimmered in the evening breeze and the defiant look in his eyes blazed stronger than the fire behind him. He picked up his shield and hung it at his side, he drew his longsword and smiled to himself, his eyes closed, savouring the grip and the moments before battle, allowing a calm to overcome his nerves, his strength and experience flowing over all doubt. Looking around at the soldiers that surrounded him, manning their posts, he smiled again and walked to the closest of his men, to begin his rounds.

Anya was in the command tent realising her own pre-battle rituals, she uncorked the bottle and emptied some of the contents into a flask on her table.

“You want some?” she motioned the bottle towards Aracel who was sat on the bed he had awoken in.
“No thank you”
“It's good stuff, not the best of course, the Elves make it, you've never tasted whiskey like Elven whiskey”
Aracel smiled before replying again in the negative.

She put the flask to her lips, closed her eyes and stood there for a second before throwing her head back and taking a hit of the flask. She swallowed hard and laughed.

“You know, some of the men, when they drink spirits, they cough, or choke when they've taken a bite. I don't understand that, the sharp taste that attacks you when it hits your throat, that's the price, you have to pay that whenever you drink it. Everything after that, the warmth in your heart that spreads through your body, that's what you suffer that second for. I laugh because I've earned that feeling, that warmth.” She re sealed the cap before continuing
“People who don't drink? Well, they're cowards, they think that all pleasure should come without a price, or the price is too high. And of course you get the people who drink too much, I don't blame'em, sometimes getting a pleasure you know is better than gambling for a pleasure you don't.”

“This bottle” she said, gripping the bottle from the table again “This bottle contains pleasure. I know exactly how much. I can tell you exactly how much pleasure is in this bottle” she upended it letting the whisky glug from within “and now, now I know how much is left” she threw the bottle on the floor and walked over to the opposite corner of the tent, towards her equipment which had been neatly organised onto a desk.

Aracel allowed the silence to continue for a while. Watching the whisky on the floor for a while before it disappeared into the soil.

“There is still hope you know. We can win this”

Anya turned, a smile had broken across her face and she flicked her hair back, retying it back into her ponytail.

“I didn't pour it away because I was hopeless. I poured it away because the next drop I put to my lips, it'll be when we're finished struggling here, there's a whole hell of a lot of whiskey at the officers mess at the other end of the forest and by every God watching us we'll make it there”

Aracel smiled and leant forward in his seat.

“It's about time we got ready for a night out then, don't you think?”

Standing up he removed his coat. His clothes were dirty and ragged but perfectly adequate for fighting. He tightened his belt, the knives hanging loosely at either hip. His off white shirt had lost many buttons but still fastened, he tucked himself in and tightened the braces over his shoulders. His hat still falling heavy on his head, keeping the hair from falling in front of his eyes and blocking his vision.
He stood, almost a total opposite from the soldiers outside, vulnerable, open, one strike and it was all over for him, but that's the way he fought, he believed that a man in armour was willing to be hit whilst a man without was able to move faster and had the will to.

Anya was similarly dressed. She wore heavily armoured greaves to protect her legs and to hang her sword. A loose chain-maill cuirass was the only armour, save for a knitted long sleevedunder-shirtt with she wore to keep herself warm. Her shoulders were protected from attack by large metal plates strapped to her upper arms with leather belts with plates of metal extending to her elbow.. This choice of armour was not strictly allowed for a Captain of the guard and whenever entering or leaving camp she would dress formally, the guards under her command, the guards who had seen her fight would swear to keep her secret.

Both warriors stood at the entrance to the tent, looking out towards the bonfire, it's light was warm against their eyes and was difficult to look at for too long.

“Have the soldiers been told where to strike” Aracel asked
“Yes, Daniels has given a briefing to the remaining men” Anya replied
“I have one other question”
“Yes?”
Aracel looked across at her and Anya met his gaze
“I've been waiting for you to offer me a sword, these daggers are great but this is a battle, not a quick skirmish in a bar” He flashed her a smile and his eyes lit up, she returned the smile and a little chuckle came to her lips
“Wait here, I'll find you something” she laughed and disappeared back into the tent.
She was away for a few seconds, Aracel heard the sound of metal against metal inside the tent. He turned and shouted
“And none of that Chimerran metal, that crap couldn't cut through water” he allowed himself a laugh and returned his stare back to the bonfire and to the soldiers holding their positions.

There was another few seconds of metallic clanging and cursing from within the tent. Aracel stood looking out over the camp for a while, the heat from the fire still warming his eyes. The soldiers were standing their posts firmly, each one gazing out into the dark. There was a tension in the air, the fear was palpable, it was impossible for there not to be such an atmosphere. Night after night these soldiers had fought a seemingly invincible enemy, fighting as their numbers were reduced over and over again. It was incredible that these soldiers were able to stand with such defiance tonight. Sometimes it's easier to let the monster swallow you up than to endure it's presence over and over. But these soldiers had withstood the onslaught and decided to face it, again and again. Aracel stood at the entrance to the tent and felt himself overwhelmed for a few moments.

“Here you go” Anyas voice came from behind him

Aracel turned to face her, she was holding the hilt of a magnificent sword towards him. The gold detail over the hand guard seemed to have been crafted by the finest smiths of the world. The blade shone an eerie blue shade and seemed to hum as it moved through the air.

“I hope you like short swords” she said

Aracel was taken aback for a few seconds, unsure of what to say. He had been expecting a standard issue blade to be offered to him but the sword in front of him was something else. He took it in his hand, the handguard was a lions head, perfectly crafted from gold. It shone brightly, as though it was brand new, it balanced perfectly on his wrist, seeming to weigh nothing at all.

“It was given to me when I was promoted to Captain” muttered Anya
“I... I can't accept this, it's too much” Aracel replied. He turned the blade over in his hands, offering it back to Anya
“Well, it's not for free, it comes with a test. You can only use it tonight, if we survive then you can keep it for another night and if we actually see the end of this ordeal then you would have paid your debt to me and we will be all square again”
She smiled at him, her eyes downcast, embarrassed by offering such a personal gift. Aracel looked from her to the sword and back to her again, crouching down to catch her gaze and smiling back.
“Thank you Captain”

The moment lasted in the air for a few seconds. The captain and the adventurer gazing into each others eyes, both struck wordless by the moment, forgetting all else that was going on around them. The shouting of the soldiers calling in their numbers echoed across the camp and Anya pushed Aracel in the shoulder with a laugh.
“You'd better look after her anyway” she said “That sword isn't just any piece of crap steel. That's Mithril”

Aracel looked down, once again regarding the weapon “I've never seen a Mithril blade before, I thought the dwarves were very protective over this stuff”

“Too right they are. Everyone knows that dwarven metal is the best, it's unusual for a human to be allowed to carry such a weapon. I was lucky enough to be protecting the Dwarvish ambassador for a season when I was a Lieutenant. Protected him from a number of nasty little Gnomish ambushes”

Aracel laughed “Those gnomes can pack a punch”

“Don't laugh at that” Anya said, a smirk running across her face
“Have you ever tried to stab a gnome, those guys can move. Anyway, I was given that sword as a gift. I never use short swords though, I didn't want to tell them that of course, I've never even used it in combat.”

Aracel ran a thumb and forefinger over the weapon admiringly. It's clean edge taking a small layer from his gloves.

“It's an amazing piece of craftsmanship. Thank you again”

“It's a pleas........”

Anyas words were cut short as the soldiers shouts changed from reporting serial numbers to spotting movement at the edge of the trees. The pair looked at each other and Aracel gripped tighter onto his sword as a runner arrived at the entrance of the tent.

“They're here” he said, and ran back into the camp.


Chapter 5

Daniels was already back by the fire, his shield and sword ready in his hands, his eyes were fixed on the northern tree line as Anya and Aracel approached.

“Report Lieutenant” Anya ordered

Daniels didn't look at her, he just raised his sword, pointing towards the trees. Anya dusted her hands and looked to the north. Beneath the trees stood five sithilid, standing completely still, as though they were just models, they showed no signs of life at all, they just stood, their black bodies barely visible in the dark.

“There are more to the east” Daniels said softly “They're appearing as they did two nights ago, we should expect a flanking manoeuvre by them from the west, and of course we're expecting more to show up to support the attack from the northern and eastern approaches”

Anya looked towards the east and west, the fire making it difficult to see over distance in the dark, not being able to see any Sithilid except the ones to the north she took Daniels word.

“Ok” she said finally “Post five guards on the west, give one a whistle and tell him to blow as soon as he sees movement. The rest of us will take the bulk of the attack from the north and east.”

“No”

Anya stopped dead in her tracks and a few of the guards turned around to see who had disagreed with their captain. The voice belonged to Aracel.

“You don't have enough guards to waste on watch duty, you need everyone to defend. You know they can be killed now, you can force them back, if you can cause enough damage then you could even get them to leave the battlefield without having time to flank”

Anya threw he sword into the ground and stepped up to Aracel her voice low and menacing

“Don't you dare disagree with me in front of my men this close to battle”

There was an intense anger in her eyes. Aracel looked around at the guards nearby, not realising that they could be heard as they planned the battle.

“They have a hive mind” Aracel said eventually, his voice was low so nobody else could hear him talk “The more of them we can kill the weaker they become as a whole”

“What? How do you know this?”

“When I found their nest they got, they got in my head somehow, I could, well, it was almost like a memory I was having of them, of their creation. They have no way of breeding, all they have is what was created, I don't know how many exist but if we kill enough we can scare them away. They won't risk extinction for us”

The two fell silent, there was muttering from the guards around them. The proximity of the fire was starting to numb the side of Aracels face as he watched Anyas eyes moving with her thoughts. A few moments passed and she fixed her eyes back on Aracels.

“I'm sorry” she said.

“What f...” Aracel began but was interrupted by Anyas forehead crashing into his. He fell back disorientated, landing hard against the floor, his hands raised, one to his head the other ready to block any other attacks. When his eyes were able to focus again he was able to see Anya walking away shouting orders to her men

“Two guards man the western approach!, blow your whistles as soon as you see movement! The rest of us. Lets drive this hell-born scum back into the forest!”

Scrabbling to his feet, still clutching his head, Aracel managed to stand, shaking away the pain from his head, his vision becoming clear again.

“Glad we were able to compromise” he muttered to himself.

He started to dust himself off when shouts started coming from the other side of the fire. He drew his sword from his belt and ran around to the other side of the blaze. Squinting into the treeline he couldn't see anything.
The shouts were coming louder

“THEY'RE COMING!”

Daniels was barking orders, as Aracel desperately tried to force his eyes to focus at the treeline. The sound of rushing animals was coming louder and louder, the ground was vibrating with movement as though they were already upon them. Then through the trees they came. Dozens of sithilid were charging down the hill towards the meagre front lines. They ran like horses, the razor sharp forearms protruding high into the ground.
It was intimidating to watch and Aracel stood still at the rear of the defence, he watched them charge, apart from the contact with the ground they didn't make any noise at all. It was a terrifying sight to behold and Aracel had never encountered anything so ungodly, so inhuman. Daniels slapped him on the back, shaking him awake from his fear.

“Lets hope your idea works, otherwise this'll be a very short battle”

He looked back at the Lieutenant “It'll work”

Aracel ran forward to join the guards as the Sithilid met the pikemen at the front of the battle. There was a horrific noise of snapping wood and screaming agony as the momentum of the charge was broken and the battle started. Some sithilid were sent into the air as spears broke into them, soldiers were stomped into the ground as the beasts barely felt the effect of the defence their limbs slicing through armour with little to no effort at all. The enemy stood tall as Daniels screamed “Charge!!” and the unit moved forward to meet the Sithilid.

The line of troops charged, screaming at the enemy. Aracels blue blade wielded high above his head as his speed and weight carried him ahead of the other soldiers. Ahead of him some pikemen survived to keep fighting the enemy short swords in hands.
Fixing his eyes on a target a few steps ahead Aracels sword came down to his side as he leapt to the side to avoid a strike by the creature, his body twisted and struck at the creatures face slicing some way through the beasts thick armour, it's eye burst and spat purple puss into Aracels face, he managed to stagger the creature. it twisted in pain as the rest of the charging guards entered the battle.
Chaos ensued and Aracel counted on every ounce of his experience and endurance to avoid the attacks of the enemy. The blinded creature in front of him spun suddenly, Aracel stood his ground, waiting for it to strike, the blue blade held tightly in his hand, the strike came and Aracel rolled around on his heel, hopping to the side of the strike, the sword came down on the vulnerable joint and the artery was severed, the dark blood filled the sky and Aracel looked around for the next enemy.
The battlefield was a mess already. Many guards had fallen but the plan was working. Daniels had joined the fight, his shield enormous shield marking him out on the field, protecting him from strike after strike whilst his men used the attacks of his enemy to get their own attacks in, hacking away at the beats.
Jets of purple blood filled the skies and the sound of battle was disorientating. Aracel ran over to his next target. Three guards has surrounded a Sithilid and it was striking out, even before he reached the creature it had lunged forward, taking the guards by surprise, it's arms had struck down and pierced the armour of one of the young guards who fell instantly. The remaining two began to back away in fear. Aracel charged and as it's giant arms came down for a second time he leapt forward, his sword ahead of him, the creature saw him but it was too late to react and as he flew between the beasts nearest arm he brought the sword down on the joint of it's attacking arm. He struck so viciously with the mithril blade that the arm dropped to the ground, sheered cleanly in two, the beast fell and Aracel leapt to his feet. Only one of the guards remained alive, the other had fallen, the beasts severed arm still protruding from his chest. Aracel placed a hand on the guards shoulder without saying anything, he was visibly shaken, they nodded to each other and the guard ran to rejoin the battle.
There was a tremendous noise from the northern field, that battle was in full hellish flow over there as well. The sithilid must have attacked both fields almost at the same time. The fight there was much closer to the centre of camp though, Aracel ran over to provide reinforcements. He spotted Anya standing by the bonfire where they had left each other. She was bellowing orders to her troops on the field, her sword ready in her hand and the bodies of a half dozen Sithilid surrounded her, flecks of purple covered her body and face.

Before he was able to meet Anya a screaming noise descended on the battlefield. It didn't seem to exist in reality and it echoed around Aracels brain and filled his body, he fell to his knees and grabbed his skull squeezing it tightly, he looked around, the fight was continuing, nobody else must be hearing this agonising sound.
When it subsided the noise of the battlefield returned and Anya screamed

“SECOND WAVE”

In horror Aracel looked to the treeline to see even more creatures charging to the battle. He got to his feet and staggered and ran towards Anya.

“Have they ever sent a second wave before?”

Anya looked in his direction, he could see a smile already appearing on her lips.

“We must have them scared”

She turned back to the battle and screamed

“Regroup!”

It was almost over, there were few soldiers left. There wasn't enough time to count as Anya and Aracel strode to the front line, the only line of guards that were left. The floor was strewn in corpses from either side, noticeably more guardsman had fallen, the cost had already been heavy and the night was drawing on. The floor was wet with blood and the ranks stank of death and sweat. The sithilid charge raged down the hill and the line was spread out, ready to avoid, to dodge and block before striking.
The air was tense again, the battle was continuing on the other field. The sound of pain and of metal came loud on the wind. There were a few seconds left until the charge was met. Aracel dug his heels deep into the mud and sprang to the side, the beast rushed past him, it's back legs skidding on the mud. As it turned to meet him Anyas sword crashed down, slicing through it's limb. Standing again Aracel turned and returned a similar blow to the creature behind him, the body of a guardsman, skewered on it's blade fell to the ground heavily.
Battle continued again, blow after exhausting blow, death followed death and nothing more as blood flew into the sky and guards, empty of life fell to their knees and died an agonised death. Aracels sword blocked and parried, his blows becoming weaker and weaker whilst the creatures never tired, their empty eyes showed total ambivalence at death, both to their own and those of their enemies. Aracel span and parried attack after attack, his sword a blur as his focus changed, every movement became automatic, each movement he made relied fully on all his training, all his senses, he slashed and hacked his way through the battlefield. Until something crashed into him.
Aracel was thrown to the floor, he slid across the bloodied ground, rolling over and over, his sword left his hand and clattered some yards away from him. Pain shot through his body as he looked up at the Sithilid that had collided with him. It had stopped it's charge and was making it's way over to him, it's movement impaired slightly by the mud that had been created from the blood of the battle. He reached down for the knives in his belt but found nothing. They must have fallen from his belt. He looked up once again at the creature baring down on him, still a few yards away. Raising to his feet he heard the whistle sounding from the west. The guards posted there must have spotted movement. The enemies are flanking.

Aracel sunk to his knees. Exhausted, defeated. Anya was nowhere to be seen, and the Sithilid lumbered closer, sliding in the mud, one of it's murderous limbs already raised, anticipating the attack. The whistle kept sounding and Aracel looked up at the beast and stared at it, awaiting the final blow. He stared into the creatures dead eyes with defiance in his, all other sound disappearing from his ears. He watched and stared as the beast recoiled in pain, something had struck it in it's side. It flinched with pain over and over again as more pellets struck it's side. The razor like limb was dropped as it tried to move over the bodies and through the blood. Aracel watched it in bemusement as it struggled to defend itself against the volley. Seeing his chance to act Aracel leapt to his feet and spotted a corpse nearby, stealing the weapon from the dead mans hand he plunged it through the joint in the confused beasts armour, leaving it there, allowing it a slow painful death.

Sound returned to his ears and he spotted, on the western approach, hundreds of guards charging. Behind them, a plume of smoke from the steam projectiles being fired by sharpshooters. Aracel started laughing as he glanced at the battlefield, the Sithilid were retreating, there were a few left, being chased into the field but it was clear that the battle was over.
A hand fell heavily on Aracels shoulder

“You know I'm going to take this back if you don't take better care of it”

It was Anya, she placed the sword back into the sheath on his belt.
They both stood and watched the battlefield, the reinforcements had arrived just in time. There were few of Anyas men left fighting. Daniels voice could be heard, shouting instructions on how to kill the beasts towards the charging guards, but Aracel knew it was already over.

He turned to Anya and smiled. “I think I'm ready for that drink now”



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Added on January 8, 2010
Last Updated on March 31, 2010
Tags: stories of atlas