Nightfall in Brahmir: City of Night:
City of Night, Chapter One: City of Night: Ammon’s Reach
Privi had packed for weeks for this event. Food for eight days, enough water to drown a houndbeast and three bags full of Sending scrolls, each of which had been primed and prepared by Adepts from Bluth Academy. She’d even gone as far as to reach out to Fei Lachmann for a few trinkets to make the journey easier. The artificer tried to dissuade her, but inevitably, like everyone else, she gave in. Privi’s own parents made it a point to express their discontent that she’d be venturing out to Blythe Woods, and made sure to note how many have gone in and not returned. Dr. Lachmann did the same, and so did her friends.
None of them were successful.
The truth of it was, she knew the woods were dangerous. It’s why she’d packed knives and Wind Cracker Spheres. She wasn’t worried about the stories, even if they were true, Ammon’s Reach was well known for its haints. They’d been written about and studied and exemplified to death between the Academy, the Investigator’s Agency and the Breaking Sun. Neighborhood Watches from Flourmill to Mullfinger’s Bay reported every movement they’d seen. Every Puzzle Spirit, Muckdragger and fanged something or other had been meticulously documented and reported to the appropriate agency. It had been so as long as she’d been alive. Even the harmless spirits were tagged and watched by the Observatory of Lumis. The dangerous ones, of course, were put down as soon as they were capable to do so and Privi had never questioned it. It was more liable to wake to an Obituary longer than the rest of the crier’s morning shout. they’d taken to writing the names of the deceased on long lists with their cause of death, to “warn” the townsfolk.
From the massacre at Lantz Ironworks, the Silman Famine and the annual arrival of the dark shadows, everything that could be recorded was. Which led her to Blythe Woods. Rumors and stories had been spun to her since she was too short to light the Mana Wards about the woods and what might live there. Might. For all of the documentation the Breaking Sun and the Observatory catalogued regarding the suspicious and supernatural, they’d not gathered one mote of proof that there was something in the woods.
The “Woman with no name, who lived in a house with no walls,” The “Witch of Blythe Woods,” The “Nightfold Mother.”
Privi, who refused to take ambiguity for an answer, decided that if the various scholars of the Reach didn’t have proof, then there was nothing in the woods beyond the odd bear or viper. She intended to prove just that. In the years since she’d graduated Bluth, before they changed their name, she’d heard tall tales about things that might or might not be hidden within the trees. It wasn’t enough, so, she devised a plan for herself to research it. If she could return from the woods with actual proof of the Witch, she could validate her own thoughts as well as bring some kind of solace to those whose families had lost members to the overshadowed boughs.
Of course, if there was nothing to document, it could easily have been a series of animal attacks from a long untamed wilderness which led to the disappearances. She leaned toward such an outcome, because she had never felt the presence of anything in the Woods. She refused to bring dolls and toys to the woman and never once saw the roots move to swallow her sister’s offerings. The whole thing, she believed and hoped to prove, was a farce which had gotten out of control. If there was indeed something in the depths of the trees, it needed to be recorded and prepared against. No one could tell her otherwise. Not her parents, not her sister, not even the esteemed Dr. Fei Lachmann who begged her to rethink her plan.
There was simply no other way.
Privi loaded her packs and dropped them by the front of her one-story home and took to the fireplace where she’d hung a steel kettle earlier. The tea was boiling hot and had just begun to whistle as she approached, her mind busy with anticipation for the trip.
She’d barely filled her cup when the front door of her home opened. In stepped a tall, handsome boy whose rough demeanor was softened by a gentle voice and a caring hand.
“Lysand.” She nodded to the bags. “Took a break from polishing gemstones to entertain me for a while?”
The boy stepped carefully through her cluttered living room and sat beside her at the fireplace. He declined tea, but took a small waterskin from his vest and unscrewed the lid. “Privi, you know I am only going because I don’t want you going alone.”
She took a long sip from her cup.
“Oh, I’m not alone. I found a group on the outskirts of Ammon’s Reach, a couple who are, like me, skeptical.”
He raised an eyebrow and stowed his waterskin. “You sure they aren’t working for the witch?”
“There is no witch.” She knocked her head back and slammed her tea. It was thicker than she’d like, but it was a natural result of the additives she’d included. Cream, of course, to sweeten the flavor, but she’d made sure to double her dose of Pinkhair Mushroom, an odd looking fungus but one packed with a deal of nutrients. Besides the various herbs she’d prepared with the water, and the splash of cream, it deadened the sharp, sour flavor of the mushroom somewhat but did little to thin out the heaviness of the beverage itself. She swallowed the gulp and felt it slide down her throat like a thick chowder before she stood to fetch their things.
“There is no time to waste, Lysand. We are losing daylight.”
Her companion groaned under his breath and stood to follow her, catching two of the packs as she tossed them.
“Do you have a plan for nightfall? We might not be worried about the witch, but there is plenty out there we should be worried about, especially by the fifth moon, hell even by the first.”
She stepped out her front door and began a march to the gate. “I’ve got plans upon plans in case this goes wrong, trust me. We will be just fine.”
The watchmen at the gate said little as they approached, explained what they were doing, and passed through. It was unusual, sure, but most of the watchmen had tried to stop curious youths from leaving Ammon’s Reach years ago. Besides, Privi knew them all. She’d told them her plan when she was still in school and they’d exhausted their attempts to talk her out of it. They knew, just as she did, that there would be nothing that could keep her out of Blythe Woods until she knew the absolute truth about the stories.
“So, this couple, how’d you find them?” Lysand quipped as they stepped across the river that bordered the city walls. Behind them, the Bulwark automatons meandered back and forth along the wall, the constant buzz of their wiring rang across the clearing.
“I asked around, sent about a million flyers to the neighbors and neighboring cities and eventually, one got back to me.”
He jumped over a wide trough of rushing water and turned to help her as she leanched from a protruding rock.
“So, you’ve not met them, then?”
She grinned and shook her head. “No, of course not. That’s why I talked you into coming with me.”
Her friend rolled his eyes and continued on the path.
“Just a ways up here.” She pointed, gesturing to a pair of small cabins a few hundred feet away from them, just off the well-worn path. The cabins were newer, less than a decade old at least. What little decoration they did maintain were strands of hanging crystals and antlers mounted to the walls. The cabins flew no flags and neither had been painted to signify allyship with Ammon’s Reach, which in itself was somewhat unusual. Each of the surrounding provinces who had elected to get out of the Merchant’s hub for one reason or another had still made a point to signify they were part of the city, even if that meant hanging an ugly blue and white flag on their doorstep. This cabin was bare, save for the few select mounts and a pile of split firewood nearly taller than the house itself.
Long before either of them reached the property itself, a pair stepped from within and waved at Privi. The first, much taller than the second, was a woman. Burly shoulders hidden beneath steel-plated shoulderpads clinked against her chestplate as she gestured. Beside her, a smaller, older man in thick robes bowed to them as they drew near.
“It is good to see you, Miss Privi.” The older man spoke, his voice tight in his throat as if he were speaking through smoke and fire.
“I’m sorry?” She extended a hand to the woman and cocked an eyebrow at the man.
“I mean, it is good to meet you.” He stuttered. “You know how it is, getting older.”
She clasped the woman’s hand who squeezed. Her fingers crumpled against the weight.
“I am Hulia.” Her voice was solemn, and much deeper than Privi’s. “This is my partner, Ulios.”
“So the two of you are, what, exactly?” Lysand asked, taking Ulios’ hand and shaking it.
Hulia looked at him with a blank face. “We are partners, and lovers.”
He let out an exasperated sigh.
“I meant, in regard to the woods. This whole operation Privi has us on.”
The pair shared a knowing look, as Hulia withdrew a map.
“I am a hunter. Ulios is a guide, of sorts. He has one of the gifts.”
The man nodded and tapped his bald head.
Lysand shot her a quick, frustrated glare. The smell of the map rose to meet their nostrils and she scrunched hers as Huli began describing Blythe Woods.
“Here in the south, where our cabin is, there are few events. Occasionally something strange will emerge from the woods, but in most cases it is wildlife, even if the wildlife coming out of the woods is no longer wild, or alive.” She tapped on a small clearing on the map to the north of their cabin. “This will be our safest rest stop, the further into the woods we go, the more difficult it will be to navigate. Did you bring a compass?”
Privi nodded and scrambled through one of her bags to produce a compass crafted by Dr. Lachmann. “Best one I could get.”
Hulia nodded. “Good. If we get separated, you must get back to this clearing. There are many similar to it, but this clearing in particular is the safest. It is a Sprite hovel. The haunts of the forest tend to stay away. They are tricksters, however. Do be wary of that.”
“Tricksters?” Lysand asked.
“They have been known to pilfer the odd shiny thing. Otherwise, they will likely be harmless. It is a Greenvine Hovel. If we are together, they will likely leave us alone. Whitepetals are the lovers of groups.” She cleared her throat. “To be clear, regardless of what happens, we will be safer with the Sprites than with whatever else might be in the woods.”
“And what,” Lysand began. “Do you expect to find in the woods?”
Ulios raised a hand, and spoke with a shaky voice. “Well, you wanted to meet the Witch. So we will take you to her.”
“What?” Privi looked at the pair. “Wait, you actually believe in the Witch of Blythe Woods?”
The partners nodded.
“It is not enough to explain, we must show you.” They spoke in unison.
A chill crept through Privi. Suddenly, she didn’t feel so comfortable with the thought of them being guides.
“Well then, we will go. Let’s get it over with and get out of there. I don’t want to partake in this any longer than I have to.” Lysand said, turning to the forest.
Ulios returned to the house to gather their travel bags and Hulia stepped to his side while Privi quietly reached into her bag and stowed her father’s old hunting knife in her cloak.
“Better safe than sorry.” She thought to herself.
After a few moments, Ulios arrived and Hulia led them out into the woods.
The first leg of their jaunt was simple. On the edge of the forest, the sunlight still crept into the leaves, a luxury they would soon no longer have access to as the trees grew denser and denser. Privi kept a hand on the knife in her cloak as they marched over fallen trees and lush undergrowth which had, somewhat recently, been squashed underfoot by something. Privi prayed that whatever had come through the forest had been Hulia, or another hunter, and not something worse.
The huntress led them through a winding track. Privi hopelessly tried to leave markers, small glass beads given to her by Scholar Markis at the Academy, which, under the light of the moon, would glow. She placed them in nooks and crannies of the trees they passed through, but as Hulia led them back and forth, under low hanging branches and over mounds of dirt, she realized she had not taken enough of the beads.
“For all that planning…” She muttered as they were led across a large swathe of crushed trees, those which remained standing had been stripped of their leaves and bark. The absence of growth in the clearing left it looking like razor sharp teeth jutting from the trunks, pointed toward the sunny sky.
Despite their quick movement, and his apparent age, Ulios kept up quite well. As they spanned the jagged leafless clearing, their guide stopped and raised her hand. She motioned for them to duck, and they obeyed as she stared into the dim forest ahead of them.
“What is happening?” Lysand whispered.
Ulios raised a finger to his lips. Lysand obeyed.
The snapping of branches came first, immediately before a footfall that rocked the woods. Birds who hid amongst the trees scattered into the sky for safety as Huli leapt back and ducked with them, sheltered behind a massive fallen trunk. She muttered under her breath. “It is the Watching Thing.” Her eyes were wide with fear.
Privi drew in a deep breath and craned her neck, trying to peer over the log. As soon as she did, her eyes fell upon the form of a massive beast. Taller than the walls of Ammon’s Reach by three full-grown men. It lumbered on all fours, its body covered with boils and bruises. Open sores wept blood and pus onto the forest floor as it walked, seemingly without purpose, through the woods. Branches caught its rough, thin skin and tore it open, letting more fluid drain from its hulking mass. Atop its shoulders sat three heads, two of which sprouted long horns like an elk. The horns caught on branches and tore them from the trees, as if the thing didn’t even realize they were there. The center head was much smaller in size, and was that of a human’s. It’s vacant eyes spewed white light from within, which shot through the forest and shone like spotlights into the darkness. The mouth hung agape and drooled a pinkish clear liquid from within, and connected to the human head at the neck, was an entire human body which hung limp at the whim of the massive beast’s body. With each turn of it’s neck, the human body hanging off of it swung and flailed as if it carried no bones within it.
Privi fought the urge to scream as Hulia dragged her back beneath the log.
“Do not be seen.” She whispered, a thick accent emerging as she did. “It watches these woods. You would not want it to find you.”
She nodded, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. The beast turned its shining eyes upon them and cast light across the fallen trunk that poured over and illuminated the path they’d used to reach the clearing. From behind them, where the beast walked, came a low moaning. The footfalls stopped and Privi’s heart froze.
“It saw me.” She thought as the moaning grew louder. It came from the beast, that much she was certain of, but what it was doing she didn’t know. The four of them waited, quieting their breath as much as they could. Lysand wrapped an arm around her as tears slipped from her cheeks and plopped against dead leaves that blanketed the forest floor. Privi clutched the knife, for what little good it would do, and clamped her eyes shut as the moaning grew louder and louder.
The beast did not move from its place as the light from its human eyes stretched into the forest, and for a moment time came to a halt. Despite the comfort of the daylight, hiding beneath the beam of light from the Watching Thing cast everything around them into bleak, miserable darkness. Ulios stared ahead into the woods, not watching anything in particular, but gripping his chest. Hulia remained with her hand on Privi’s head, careful not to move. Lysand held her tight, even tighter than before. He squeezed her waist and pressed himself onto her back. His chest heaved short, quick breaths.
Then, the moaning came to a halt.
She blinked, looking around the clearing as quickly as she allowed herself, and saw the light from the beasts beast’s head bob and spin away from them, shining into a new foreign part of the woods.
Hulia was the first to break as the footfalls carried away from them. She released a pent up gasp for air and released Privi’s head, rolling away from the trunk. Ulios and Lysand too gasped for air and Privi relaxed her tense muscles, leaning her head against the trunk and causing a spider to skitter away. She watched it crawl down into the crack between the log and the earth and disappear.
“We are lucky.” Hulia spoke softly, still, the thud of the creatures creature’s massive legs distant, but not out of earshot. “Our clearing is only a bit further. We move before daylight is lost.”
Her accent emerged suddenly after she’d seen the creature, Privi noted. It peeked through then as if she were trying to hide it.
“Who are these people?” She asked herself, and stood, her hand still wrapped around the hunting knife.
“Are you sure you still want to go?” Lysand whispered to her as Hulia and Ulios ventured out of the clearing and deeper into the woods.
“No, but I can’t just give up.” She replied, then took off to follow them.
The Greenvine Hovel wasn’t far from the clearing of shattered trees behind them, but as they approached, Hulia came to a sudden halt.
“Go no further.”
Privi paused as the huntress raised her hand, blocking their path. Before them rested a sparkling grove, lit by hundreds of floating green lights. Sprites, whose mischief was only barely more recognizable than their beauty. Regardless of the family of spite they hailed from, they shared a similar character trait. They were tricksters. Often harmless, save for the Blackcaps, who were violent in the best of moods. They were one of countless creatures Privi had grown up hearing stories about. The Observatory made it a point to study the creatures, careful to keep from agitating them. This particular hovel had gathered around a mound of clothing piled in the center of their clearing. It was stained with dried blood which, at the poking and prodding of the curious sprites, flaked from the fabric and onto the overgrown ground.
“This is the clearing, but something is wrong.” Hulia spoke low, her eyes locked on the Sprites.
“What is happening?” Privi peered into the clearing, trying to make sense of the display. “Greenvines don’t hurt people, do they?”
“Not unless provoked.” Ulios whispered.
Lysand clenched his jaw hard enough that she heard it pop behind her. The huntress crouched and motioned for them each to do the same. Ulios knelt, his knees rattled like firecrackers as he did so.
“You wanted proof of the witch, no?” Hulia continued at a low volume. “These Sprites belong to her. They are not of spirit. But they serve her still.”
“How can we prove it?” She fired back.
Hulia did not speak, but pointed into the clearing.
Around the undergrowth, mud had been piled and shaped, hundreds of small domes, most of them barely larger than Lysand’s foot, were built all over the clearing. They were fashioned with small windows and doorways, some of them had even been decorated with small glowing bugs which mimicked the Mana Wards posted outside the homes in Ammon’s Reach. Such mounds surrounded the clearing, built at the base of trees and lumped together in tight, small groups, they made up a wall of sorts around the perimeter. Most of it was small enough it could easily be stepped over, but as Privi investigated the mounds, she realized they’d been marked. Each of them, a symbol scratched into the mud. An upside down triangle with a few lines running through it that took the shape of a person, or at least, what could have been a person.
“How is this proof?” She whispered back.
“Think, lady.” Ulios fired, his voice raspy with fear. “Sprites aren’t known to be malicious. The witch asks for dolls and the like, the symbol hangs in the parts of the woods she frequents. Hunters leave them when their friends go missing, and she’s since adopted them. You ever notice how often the paths change out here, constantly twisting and winding through the trees to stay off of the witch’s territory. Have you considered the ground you’re walking on is changing, with every foot fall. She can feel us.”
Privi shook her head. “That isn’t proof. That’s Sprites, being tricksters.”
Ulios pointed to the pile of clothing, and the rest of them realized it was moving.
“Is this a trick?”
In the clearing, what they believed had been a pile of bloody clothing began to stir, slowly, but it rolled onto its back and extended its arm to reveal a man. Older than Lysand, younger than Ulios, who had been horribly beaten. On the side of his face visible to them, Privi noticed deep bruises and cuts littering his cheeks. His hands were bent in strange ways, bruised and likewise bloody. He lay on his back for a moment as the Sprites scattered, his sudden movement frightening them. Eventually, he sat up, and in his hand he held a doll. She didn’t notice at first, but as the man held the doll up to the sunshine, she saw the pale cream color and realized the clearing itself wasn’t simply an empty plot of vines and roots covered in fallen leaves. It was a graveyard for dolls and other toys. All kinds sat in the clearing, limbs protruding from the earth entangled in vines and knotted roots, drowning in leaves.
“What is this?” She asked, noticing Hulia had stood.
“Are you injured?” She called to the man, who jumped.
He rolled to one side and pushed off of the earth to an uneasy stand and raised his hand. “No, no, I’m not hurt at all.”
He took a visibly unsteady step, favoring his left leg toward Hulia.
“I don’t think so.” Lysand called out, following the huntress. “Let us help you, we have supplies.” He waved to Privi, who stood, and slipped the life from her cloak.
“No, really.” The man shouted back. “I was just taking a little rest. This clearing, you know, the Sprites are so helpful.”
“What is your name?” Lysand called, placing a hand on his own knife tucked into his cloak.
“Hartman Lilliford.” He shouted, “A little down on my luck. I was attacked out here. Did you see that massive thing moving along the treeline?”
Hulia stopped walking. Lysander barely noticed before he crashed into her.
“The Watching Thing.” She muttered, a familiar longing in her voice. “I know it.”
Hartman shot into a fit of coughing, clutching his chest with the doll still in hand. Its porcelain body pressed against him, still slick with blood.
“What were you doing all the way out here?” Privi asked, holding her knife close to her side as she united with Hulia and Lysand. Ulios trod behind them a ways, but followed nonetheless.
“I was looking for a lady who is supposed to live out here. They say she’s a powerful witch. I have a… condition.” He lowered the doll, it’s arms fell limp. “I got turned around and managed to find this clearing while that huge thing chased me. I had barely made it here when I realized it wouldn’t follow me any deeper.”
“What kind of condition are you suffering from? The city has doctors and healers.” She wrapped her fingers tighter around the knife.
Hartman sighed gently. “I spoke with the witch of these woods some many years ago and she said to call upon her when I needed her again, so here I am. I have been shot, among other things.” He gestured to his abdomen where his cloak was draped, obscuring a deep gunshot wound. Fresh blood still trickled from the gash.
“You spoke with the witch?” Ulios asked, his eyebrows raised.
A growing unease mounted within Privi as they continued speaking with Hartman. Something tugged at the back of her memory, threatening to pull a memory she had shelved some time ago from the depths.
“I have.” Hartman coughed. “She let me borrow something of hers, and I’m in need to return it to her, but it seems I’ve been turned around. When that thing showed up, I ran and it chased me down, nearly goring me in the process.”
The something within her mind pulled harder, and she focused on it as the man continued.
“I was leaving town late in the evening, headed toward Silman’s Farm. On the way out, I was attacked and fired upon by someone who fled as soon as they’d hit me. I think they assumed I’d perished.”
Hulia groaned. “It is unsafe to wander with such severe injuries.” She reached into her pack and pulled a heap of linen bandage from within. “We will stop the bleeding and give you time to rest.”
Hartman raised a hand. “Really, that isn’t necessary.” He turned to make his way out of the Greenville Hovel, but Hulia dropped one of her massive hands onto his shoulder and clamped down.
“You will not be leaving until I have tended to your wounds.”
The man froze in place.
“If,” He coughed again. “If you say so.”
Hulia pushed down on the man’s shoulder until he folded and sat in the clearing where she stretched a bandage around his wounds.
While the huntress worked, Privi stepped away to clear her head.
On the edge of the clearing, the flickering green glow of the Sprites swirled around her. Their tiny voices muttered in hushed tones that reached her ears like the buzzing of a nest of bugs. The Sprites didn’t address her directly, but clearly spoke about her amongst themselves while she walked and parsed her recollection for the memory she couldn’t find.
Quietly, footsteps approached from behind.
She turned and faced them, her knife pointed at whoever approached, and she stopped as Lysand raised his hands.
“Easy, killer.” He put his palm on the back of the knife and gently lowered it. “I wanted to talk to you, privately, about this.”
He produced a small collection of doll parts from his cloak pocket and rolled them carefully around his palm. The pieces were unlike most of the dolls the citizens of Ammon’s Reach brought to the woods. Whatever offerings the people did wrap were sticks and leaves, sometimes clay or linen. The limbs and bodies Lysand revealed to her were all porcelain, many of them painted with ornate silver filigree. The eyes of one of the disembodied heads had been socketed with small jewels.
“What is this?” She met his eyes to find them full of worry.
“I found these where Hartman was lying on the ground. I think they fell out of his pocket.”
He spoke in hushed tones, frequently checking over his back as he did so.
“What about them?” Privi replied, quietly as well.
“I don’t think Hartman is who he says he is.”
She dug deeper, trying to remember why she recognized his face.
“I think he was the thief that robbed my father.”
Privi’s mind clicked and the memory returned like a wave crashing into her.
The gathered community rested, scattered about the clearing for the last hour. Hulia and Ulios spoke quietly amongst themselves and Hartman was lying on his back near the opposite edge, fidgeting with something. Privi remained with Lysand, but walked around the outer ring of the clearing while the Sprites followed, still buzzing together.
“So, you think he’s the one?” Privi nodded at Hartman, still on his back on the other side of the clearing.
Lysand looked, careful not to let his gaze linger at the man as he paced back and forth before a small neighborhood of piled muddy huts, which at their height barely met his waist.
“It has to be. The same scars on his face, the choppy red hair. He’s the same. Those dolls? Why would someone bring any toy out here that was seated with moss rubies?” He pulled a leg from his pocket and plucked the tiny gem from a socket on it’s thigh, a well polished ruby with green splotches of color within it. He tossed the leg of the doll into the undergrowth and put the jewel in his pocket.
“So he is. What are we supposed to do about it? It looks to me like he won’t be making it out of the forest, even with Hulia’s help.”
Lysand knelt. “We lead him back to Ammon’s Reach. There’s no doubt we are lost in the forest now. You know the way out. You left those markers everywhere leading us to the Hovel. You can lead us out. We call off the plan with Hulia and Ulios and we go home. We only have a few hours of daylight left.”
Privi planted her feet firmly on the soil. “What about the witch?”
“What about her?” Lysand whipped. He plucked another gemstone from the doll. “This is my livelihood we’re dealing with. Who knows how many points worth of gems this guy has stashed around here?” He turned his attention to the huntress and her companion, resting against a felled tree on the other side of the clearing. “We would do better to get home, now.”
Privi sighed. He was right, as much as she didn’t want him to be. There was no special moment to seek out the truth about the Woods, and it would be better for his family if the criminal was caught, but how they’d make it back without him realizing, she had no clue. Not to mention getting Hulia and Ulios to agree to it without explicitly telling them what was going on.
“Fine.” She crossed her arms. “You owe me. Next time we come out, you need to bring your friends. People we can trust more. I’d rather have two of you than a hundred of Ulios.”
Lysand smirked and took to his feet. “I’m glad you see it this way.”
Without waiting for her, he approached the center of the clearing and called out to their companions.
“We’ve decided to change course! The witch is to the east.”
Hartman lifted his head from the earth, with one eye open he stared. Hulia and Ulios shared a quick glance before she stood.
“What is the meaning of this? I am your guide, am I not?”
Lysand, thinking quickly, fired back. “We are losing too much daylight. Your tracking has wound us through the woods too much. If we continue this, we will run circles before we make it to somewhere we can camp safely.”
Hulia grimaced. “You will find worse, if you leave my trail.”
“Suppose we do veer directly east from here, do you even know what lies in that direction, young man?” The flap of his robes dusted the loose leaves, scattering the ground as he stepped up to Lysand’s chest. The tall boy stood head and shoulders above the scholar and looked down upon him. He whispered.
“We are taking a criminal back to Ammon’s Reach, safely, and quietly.”
Ulios paused, eyes locked with Lysand before Hulia interrupted them.
“I am leading you directly to her hut. I will not take no for an answer. I have been paid to do this.”
Privi cocked her head as the words fell upon her ears.
“Who paid you, Hulia?”
The tall woman stammered.
“I have worked out a deal with the local hunters.” Privi noted her stutter as she spoke. “I will be seeing you to the cabin immediately.”
She huffed and folded her arms. “No exceptions.”
A chill ran through Privi’s spine and burst like needles at the base of her neck. Hartman stood and made his way to them, looking to involve himself in the conversation.
“Where is the cabin, then?”
Hulia pointed off into the distance and she followed the direction of the woman’s finger.
“West, a few miles.” Hulia’s accent broke through again. “It will take us quickly to the hut if we march until sundown.”
Privi glanced above them and followed the arc of the sun. It had long since begun setting, and it set where Hulia pointed, the opposite direction of the town, but it was not to the west. Hulia instead pointed north, deeper into the forest.
She spun back quickly to spot one of the beads she’d let rest near the fallen log they’d used for shelter from The Watching. She considered taking out the map she’d been keeping, but talked herself out of it for fear of further angering Hulia, who had begun to heave her breaths.
“Fine, we will go, but we go straight. We will not take back trails or sporadic turns.”
“If you wish.” The huntress turned away. “I will see you in the cabin, then, if you know where you are going.”
She took the first step away from them as Lysand raised a hand, but didn’t reply. She and Ulios, who followed meagerly behind her, passed the barrier of the clearing before they disappeared behind a massive swathe of pine and into the forest.
“Well done,” Hartman quipped. “Now we’re sure to be dinner for something with too many teeth.” He winced from laughing at his own joke.
“Any ideas, Lysand?” Privi spat, following the huntress and her partner’s path out of the clearing with her eyes. “What good was it to upset them?”
“Well… I assumed they were tricking us. Don’t you think it’s strange the paths they took through the woods? The way they turned, it seemed like they were trying to confuse us, didn’t it?”
Hartman scoffed. “I doubt that woman knew how to confuse anyone other than herself.”
Privi scowled at him on her way back to the group and gestured to the east. “Let’s just go this way.”
She led the charge, with the men following behind, each of their steps as apprehensive as hers as she strode out of the Greenvine Hovel and into the dark of the woods. As if barred by some kind of ethereal force, the Sprites halted at the edge of the ringed clearing and watched them, their buzzing voices fading with each step into the underbrush.
No more than thirty feet from the edge of the clearing and they found themselves in waist-high thorn bushes she didn’t recognize. What fragile paths had been crushed into the growth hadn’t been used in days, if not longer. Most of which had been reclaimed by the forest floor, littered with sprouting wildflowers and grasses.
Privi led them with her map, marking her path as best she could with the remaining spheres. With each one, she whispered the enchantment and it took to life, dimly glowing in the woods.
Lysand nor Hartman chose to speak as they moved, choosing instead to brood behind her. Their frustration had become palpable in the air and as she looked down at the map, then up to the trees over and over again, she felt it growing within her as well.
As they reached the base of a small hill covered with Hermit’s Breath, she found a stump to lean on and catch her breath.
“Do you think Hulia is still round? Maybe we can talk to her and get her to help us.”
Lysand shrugged, squinting at the falling sun as it dipped it’s feet beneath the trees.
“Even if we do, we won’t be going anywhere any time soon. We’ve got an hour, maybe two more hours left of sunlight. When it gets below the tree line, we’d best have some kind of camp set up.
She checked the compass, rotating to point them to the East once more.
“Here is as good a place as any.”
She dropped one of the two packs she carried and it plopped into the ground with a dull thud. Lysand knelt and immediately began retrieving the canvas covers and wooden stakes to build a tent. While he did so, Hartman took a seat on the opposite side of the vine-laden path.
“So girl, what brought you out here, really?”
She barely heard him through her own thoughts, entranced by the map and the path she had drawn. After she realized he’d been speaking to her, she shot up.
“I wanted to find proof of the witch, I think I said that.”
Behind them, Lysand grunted against a wooden pole. Cautiously pulling it, taught against the quickly forming shelter.
“I mean, what kind of proof do you want? To end up dead?” He chuckled to himself. “You ever hear the rumors about this place?”
She nodded. “Exactly. Rumors.”
Hartman rolled his eyes and reclined back onto the log while Lysand popped a supporting beam into place and tipped the canvas pyramid onto its side.
“Almost done.” He quipped.
The burning orange glow of the falling sun poured through the treetops and filtered down to them, highlighting the entire hillside with a fire-like light.
“What do you think is so funny, Hartman?” Privi spun to face him, slipping the map into her hip bag.
“I think,” he said to the sky, “You have a bone to pick and you don’t know where to pick it from.”
She scoffed and began a defense, but the stranger kept going.
“You’re a know it all, I can tell. One of those people who can’t believe what they don’t see. Look around us, kid. We aren’t in Ammon’s Reach anymore.”
She swallowed her reply and obliged, taking in their surroundings. All along the hillside, protruding from the earth were hundreds of dolls. Some of them made of broken sticks wrapped with twine, others hand carved and painted. A few of them had been made of porcelain, like Hartman’s doll, which he still carried.
“What do you have that thing for?” She changed the subject, hoping to ease her mind.
“It was some kid’s, I wound up with it by accident a few years back. Making a run for Silman Farms, delivering a shipment of meat to the Reach.”
“You worked for Silman’s?” Lysand laughed to himself.
“I work for whoever pays me, son. I’m not picky.”
Hartman leaned further into the stump where he rested, stretching his back out in an arc. A series of small pops smacked against the wood as he straightened out and sat up. “That’s all there is to it.”
Privi forced her gaze back to the surroundings, inspecting the path along the hillside which had been far more worn than any they’d seen on the way there. Deep ruts in the moist dirt guided wagon wheels and carriages at one time or another, enough that the forest had given up on repairing itself. Despite her disbelief, she couldn’t pretend that the Blythe Woods were anything other than eerie.
Above them, a flock of crows burst from a tall fir and scattered deeper into the woods, cawing as they left. Then, she noticed it.
Hanging from the tall branches were small dolls, not dissimilar from the ones she’d seen her friends and family offer to the wood’s edge, but these all appeared to be near perfect replicas of each other. Three sticks tied with black twine in the shape of a triangle, with two more tied at the bottom to serve as figurative legs. At the top left and right corners, thicker sticks were mounted and stretched out like arms. In the center of the upper face of each, rested a single rock. The rocks on each of them appeared to be painted with some kind of symbol, the likes of which, she couldn’t recognize.
She stared at them as Hartman giggled just out of view.
“You see it yet?” He continued laughing to himself. “We’re in her territory now, Privi darling.”
Lysand interrupted them by stepping between their conversation. “Tent is raised, one portion for each of us.” He gestured back to the triplicate of canvas pyramids, just shorter than Privi if she stood completely straight backed. He didn’t wait for either of them before he climbed into the center tent and buttoned it closed.
“If I die tonight,” He muttered from within, “I’m coming back for you, Privi.”
She groaned and followed him, entering the left entrance. As she buttoned the flaps, she heard Hartman slowly move across the dirt path and enter the final room.
She laid down as the first moon rose above the treelike and the sun finally descended, shrouding their makeshift camp with unhallowed blue light. She gripped the knife tight to her chest and laid back, her eyes wide open, until the second moon peeked through the opening atop her tent, and then, she slipped into a fitful, fragile sleep.
Privi shot awake at the sounds of shuffling outside of the tents.
“Lysand?” She whispered, pawing around in the darkness for the knife which had slipped from her hand.
“I knew it was you.” Hartman’s voice came from the darkness beyond her tent flap. “I thought he’d sent one of his goons after me.”
“That was my father,” Lysand snapped back.
Privi lurched forward, knife in hand, and began unbuttoning the flap of her tent.
After the first two were unclasped, she began working on the third as the light of the fourth moon gleamed over their camp. In the path a few feet away, Lysand was trapped in a grapple at the hands of Hartman.
“You two come out here to trick me?” He laughed, madness curling in his breath. “I didn’t think that old bastard would have left well enough done.”
“It’s our life’s work!” Lysand shouted and stomped his heel onto Hartman’s toes. The man yelped in pain and jumped back, providing her friend just enough time to slip out of his grasp.
“You stole thousands worth of gems and ran into the woods?” He laughed, raising his fists.
“I took what I was asked to take, and I’m here to make a delivery.”
“To who?” Privi called, bursting from the tent with knife in hand.
Lysand lunged forward and missed his jab. Hartman swung his elbow into his neck, sending him spilling onto the path.
“I’m not at liberty to discuss.” The man laughed and stomped on Lysand’s ankle. A crack echoed through the woods and sent a scurry of mice running into nearby trees.
Lysand howled in pain and rolled onto his back, his own knife in hand as Hartman reared back to kick. The man rolled, propping the knife against his side as Hartman’s food slammed into the blade and the stranger screamed, falling back onto the ground. Lysand rolled, unable to stand. He crawled to Hartman, who continued to howl in pain, gripping his foot as blood poured from it.
Privi ran to them and put a hand on Lysand’s back.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting my revenge.” He spat, a frenzy filled his eyes.
Privi pushed against him, trying to keep him away from Hartman, who had curled into a ball and gripped his wounded foot, bumbling and groaning as he did so.
“He ruined my father’s shop. He robbed us. He’s not worth bringing back to the city.”
Try as she might, she couldn’t hold her friend back as he shoved her down, knocking the knife from her hand.
“Lysand! Stop!” She scrambled to her feet, searching in the dark for the knife. She found it a few feet away, reflecting the light of the rising fifth moon.
“This isn’t you!” She screamed, but he didn’t stop.
Hartman saw the man crawling toward him and pushed himself backward, knowing it would be no use to try and stand.
Lysand raised his knife and plunged it down, growling with effort as he sunk it into Hartman’s chest.
“This is for my father!”
He ripped the knife out and wrapped his arm around the thief’s leg, slamming the blade into the inside of his thigh.
“For our shop!”
Privi picked up the knife and screamed.
“Help me! Someone help me!”
In the woods, branches crunched. Then, a brilliant light burst from the darkness. Two beams of freezing white shot from the depths of the forest onto them and she froze. Another branch splintered, the ground shook, and she fell to her knees.
The tears burst from her and dragged a scream from within as Lysand continued to stab the man, relentlessly tearing into him, and The Watching Thing came from the woods, ripping bro from trees as it approached.
The moan came long before its form could be made out in the bleak, and Lysand stopped only when the creature’s call grew loud. Privi didn’t turn back to look, and instead curled into a ball, weeping.
The rumble of the tainted thing rocked the path, and though she didn’t brave a glance she knew it was close by the shaking of the trees. Pinecones fell and clattered to the ground, only to be obliterated by the weight of the creature. The tent poles bent and splintered as it crashed its massive hoof down and the light from it’s inhuman eyes burned the air around them. Privi refused to look, refused to face her demise.
The creature took another step over her and she felt the sick drip of its clear blood dripping onto her back, warm as it soaked through her cloak. Tingling as it touched her skin. The moaning from the mouths halted at once and Lysand screamed in fear, stumbling. She heard twigs breaking as her friend pushed himself away.
Against every urge to curl herself tighter, she turned to watch her friend, in a panic, shove himself to his feet and turn to run.
Before his wounded foot could launch him on his way, his ankles left the ground, snatched by a hand with too many fingers from the soil, and he screamed.
Lysand’s voice rocked through the night for a brief moment before a gut-wrenching crack silenced his fear, and his crumpled body fell to the forest floor twisted around itself. Bones pierced his broken skin and blood poured onto the earth. Privi watched in silent horror as the creature remained over the body of her friend, silently scanning the tree line before it began moving again. One step at a time, away from her.
The tingling spread across her back until The Watching Thing had gone back into the night and she was left alone beneath the golden light of the fifth moon.
Only when the rumbling had nearly silenced, did she stand. Before her was Lysand, crumpled like parchment paper, his body broken beyond understanding. She stared at him, his last moment burned into her mind.
From beneath his body, she watched the earth move. It warped slowly, as if moved by the slithering of a worm, until something emerged from the dirt. A myriad of thick grey vines rose from the earth and slowly wrapped themselves around Lysand’s body and tightened, pulling on him until he began to sink. They pulled him closer to the ground, crushing his already malformed frame into the ground, and then, the forest floor opened beneath him and swallowed him whole. As his corpse vanished beneath the dirt, it poured back upon itself and flattened as if he’d never been. Only speckled patches of his wet blood remained.
Beside the place where Lysand once was and would never be again, laid Hartman, still breathing and clutching the porcelain doll he’d carried through the woods since they’d met.
“What happened?” Privi asked solemnly, her eyes transfixed on the place where moments ago Lysand had laid.
Hartman responded, but he did not answer her.
Under his breath he muttered something in a language she’d only heard from the Academy Wizards, strange, clicking syllables followed by guttural notes. She turned to look at the thief, whose body had emptied of blood likewise, spoke to the doll softly and quietly in the foreign tongue, and then, as if carried off by a sudden breeze, Hartman Lilliford went limp.
Privi fell to her knees and dropped the knife once more, the reflection of the five moons bright across it’s blade.
Some number of months later, she still couldn’t shake the memory. Lysand’s crumpled body came to her in nightmares and begged her to help him. Still alive and trapped within his own tangled form, he wept on the forest floor until the Watching Thing, with the body of Ulios hanging from it’s neck, arrived to whisk her friend away into the night.
Each dream was different, sometimes the Watching Thing was Ulios, other times it was Hartman. A few, it was her. Sometimes Hartman was there and sometimes he wasn’t, but in each occurrence of the terror she saw her friend, jaw splintered and broken from his skull, begging for her help.
She shook her head, rocking the memory from her mind as she plucked another dish from her sink and scrubbed it. The silty grey water sloshed in the wooden basin, reflecting her face back at her.
She’d not gone back to Blythe Woods, and she warned any who considered it to flee, to remain in Ammon’s Reach and somewhere safe. Most of them listened, some didn’t, and as sure as the fifth moon still rose, the next time she’d visit the town square she would hear their names from the mouths of the town criers. They would label them missing, and organize search parties. She’d considered going, but she knew she couldn’t.
Even setting foot outside the city walls sent her into the shakes, and she found herself turning back as soon as the gate closed. She didn’t care to try to leave anymore. There was nothing out there for her. Not anywhere the Blythe Woods could see her.
Some nights, up late from her terrors, she’d pour herself a glass of mead and watch from her windowsill as the town came to life in its twisted, haunted way. She peered down at the spirits making their way from house to house, searching for a Mana Ward about to run out of Ether. It was rare, but it happened.
When the voices of those unfortunate enough to forget their Wards came echoing screams into her bedroom, she’d finish her mead and return to bed expecting another nightmare.
Still, there was something comforting about the spirits of the city. She could identify them. She could label them and tell anyone she’d met what they did. Even the ancient horrors in the ledgers, she could recite their cases by memory. Since her return from the woods, which she didn’t know how she’d managed, she’d catalogued everything she could from the Observatory libraries.
There wasn’t a hint, Geist or ghoul in Ammon’s Reach that she didn’t know how to kill. But there were still plenty of things she wondered about. She wondered where Hulia and Ulios had gone, if they had made it back to their cabin or been found by the Wandering Thing. She wondered if anyone at the Observatory knew why she’d returned so suddenly, why she’d applied to work in their kitchens and oversee the maintenance of their libraries instead of joining their academia. She wondered, sometimes, when the sleepless nights became too many, whatever happened to Hartman Lilliford.
Sometimes, watching out her windowsill, she swore she saw something she’d not catalogued before. Moving through the night between the spirits and the phantoms, a little porcelain doll wandering the streets with glowing moss rubies for eyes.
Mean for the Holidays Day Three! This is the first of a handful of side stories I’ll be releasing alongside the main course. I hope you find them appetizing.
Nightfall in Brahmir is an episodic fantasy fiction story taking place in the world of Brahmir, where the lines between dead and alive are not simply blurred, they are almost nonexistent. In this place, all manner of horrors plague the denizens from returned corpses, trickster spirits, to killers stalking the daylight. Part One will be four Chapters, each of which follow one of the main characters as they try to work out what happened to Mayeli, and rescue her from the grasp of the strange powers that be within the merchant city, Ammon’s Reach.
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