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Truth. There wasn’t enough truth to light the surrounding darkness. Sydowen Forest was a lonely and desolate place. Only starving wolves and dead corpses thrived here. The trees were pineless, stripped of their leaves by an ancient magical blast, their branches reaching for the sky like skeletal hands.
A trail cut across the landscape and Addigo stopped to survey this part of the once-great forest. A small stream meandered its way through the trees and he decided they would rest there.
Signaling to his son Moseley, they stepped out of the undergrowth and made their way to the trail. After spending six years in the place, it was still impossible to get used to the sight of Sydowen Forest. The ground was littered with pine needles and broken branches. It was almost impossible to get a good footing if you were not on the trail.
Sydowen Forest was only for the hardiest of souls. Trails were few and far between, and there were no areas of human growth or habitation. Many merchants from The City had come to find away across to the South only to get lost in the depths of the woods or to get stuck on the few trails that ran through the high passes.
If the woods were incorrigible, the wolves that roamed the once mighty forest were a blight on the land. The packs of wolves that lived in Sydowen Forest were a starving lot. These wolves attacked anything that moved on sight.
Addigo had seen an entire caravan shredded to bits by marauding wolves. That had been when he had first come here after leaving the king, the king’s daughter, and the king’s Lord-General. Thinking to go back to The City, Addigo ran into the woods. Running deeper and deeper into the bowels of the beast. The wolves gave chase for only a while before leaving him alone.
But looking back, Addigo thought with a smile, Sydowen Forest had swallowed him whole and never released him.
His smile slowly faded. There was not enough truth to chase all the darkness from his thoughts. Four long years had passed since leaving his queen, and he longed to go home. Going home was something that he pondered every day, in the morning when the sun came up to chase his dreams away, and at night when the moon’s pale light reminded him of Joleen’s creamy skin.
Moseley reached the trail first. His son, twelve years old, already showed more potential than Addigo ever had at that age with a bow. The boy was quick and his aim with a bow was sharper than most. If not for Moseley’s tender age, Addigo was sure the boy could surpass anyone in the kingdom at tracking and hunting.
Addigo could only stare at his son with pride. Moseley’s golden curly locks were covered with grime and dirt. The boy’s breeches were coarse and shredded at the bottom. Moseley’s cloak was nothing but rag draped loosely over his shoulders and tied with a string.
Staring at the ghastly sight of his son, Addigo decided they could both use a bath. Stripping their clothes off, they jumped into the shallow stream. Addigo, feeling the cool water hold a hint of winter in the near future, let the stream rush between his toes. He sat on the banks of the stream and allowed his back to rest. He let his gaze rise to the trees above and their skeletal arms.
It was almost time to go west again. Year after year, he traveled to The City and took supplies to those less unfortunate. He had made a promise once to take care of the poor in the Kingdom of the Valley of Life. Now that he didn’t speak to his brother and the future queen, he had no other business in The City than to take his supplies to where they were needed.
But every year he struggled not to go to Castle Bonemeyer. He knew she waited there. He would be there, too. And this is why he could never bring himself to stay longer than the day it took him to get there and unload. Moseley didn’t like going to The City, and he always used that as an excuse not to remain or dally for too long.
This year could be different, though. He longed to see the love of his life again, to see her light brown hair fall about her face and her deep blue eyes stare back at him. He had thought once they would be together one day, back in the days when he was still just a boy. In those days, he still dared to dream, to hope.
Of course, all things change. One evening he had simply gathered his things and left Castle Bonemeyer, left his adoptive father/king, brother, and all those that had raised him as family. On that night he had thought never to return.
Feeling the sharp edge of an arrow from its quiver with his thumb, Addigo watched Moseley run down the hill and splash into the stream. A second later the boy’s head came above the water. There was no mistaking the glee in the child’s eyes.
Addigo tried to return a smile of his own. “We have to go to The City, again.” He said.
Moseley wined like most children his age. “I’ll wait here. I can hunt for myself and I can keep myself warm.” The boy was the complete opposite of Addigo in looks. Addigo’s hair hung down to his shoulders in waves and his dark brown eyes contrasted with Moseley’s hazel eyes. Where Addigo stood just less than six feet, Moseley would grow to be a hand shorter than his father.
Addigo shook his head. “And who will protect you from the wolves?”
Moseley didn’t waiver. “I’m not afraid of the wolves.”
A howl cut off Addigo’s reply. It was a long, dry howl and it reverberated through the woods, leaving a hollow, empty feeling in the middle of Addigo’s chest. A breeze stirred leaves across the trail and years of experience made the hairs on the back of his neck rise on end.
Moseley staggered for his weapons, not bothering to put on his armor. Addigo followed suit and wrapped his cloak about him. Picking up his bow, he went to one knee while Moseley finished grabbing the rest of his gear.
“Get behind the tree, Moseley,” ordered Addigo.
At his voice, another howl rose high up into the air. A lone, starving wolf was easy to dispatch should the beast prove to be unavoidable. But a pack of wolves would be insurmountable. Moseley retreated into a cluster of bushes and waited for orders. This was the first time he was facing a pack of wolves and the boy’s hands were trembling visibly.
Another howl went up into the sky and this time Addigo could tell they were being surrounded. The surrounding forest was being crowded with wolves and Addigo could feel the noose quickly tightening.
“Moseley!” he yelled. “Follow the stream down to the cliff! It will be our only chance!”
Quickly regaining his balance from the situation at hand, Addigo reached for his red-hilted sword. It was the one thing he kept with him from his days with the future queen and his brother. Ellen Pinto Roe had made the sword for him, so he could take proper care of the queen. That had been after the shade had attacked them in the King’s Garden.
Addigo stepped out into the stream, shadowing Moseley as the boy made his way down the stream. The trees gathered overhead at a point, forming a natural bridge over them of branches and twigs. They continued down the stream at a slow pace, moving carefully as their eyes scanned the trees around them.
And then Addigo felt more than heard the first arrow fired. He spun around just in time to knock the black arrow from impaling him in the arm. He drew his sword and fell to a lower crouch. He was ready to snatch up his bow if he could only see the enemy.
“What was that?” he heard Moseley ask over the roar of the stream.
Addigo didn’t have time to respond. A plethora of howls went up all around them, drowning his reply to the other. Another arrow came swiftly at him and he ducked out of the way. The arrow landed near Moseley’s feet. Addigo couldn’t help but notice that the arrow didn’t break upon impact or sink into the water. Instead, it dissolved right over the water.
He heard the hiss of more arrows fly overhead. He ducked slightly and narrowly missed an arrow piercing him right through the ear. Moseley jumped back, but not in time to save himself from the arrows raining down at them.
In a blink of an eye, an arrow pierced his arm. Another immediately impaled him in the stomach. Addigo watched in horror as his beloved son fell beneath the waters of the stream. It took a lot of his strength to run over and save his son without turning his back on the enemy.
With one hand on his sword, and the other holding Moseley, Addigo surveyed the darkening forest around him. Shapes moved between the trees. They were getting closer now. Then he saw their red glowing eyes. In the darkness that the creatures were creating, it was hard to make the monsters’ shapes.
At first, he had mistaken them for wolves. Now he wasn’t so sure. He could tell some of the shadowy shapes were walking on two feet. They looked like wolves, but on two feet. Their eyes were glowing red and they looked like tiny lights coming through the trees. In their reddish glow, Addigo saw his doom.
The shadow creatures came to the edge of the stream, the water holding them at bay for the moment. Their mouths were lined with rows upon rows of teeth. If Addigo ever believed in werewolves, this is what they would have looked like. Black drool dripped from their opened maws and Addigo could only stare up at their huge forms as he moved back with Moseley in hand.
The boy was no longer moving.
Addigo waived his sword at them. Their faces moved along with his waving arm. They knew it was magical. So maybe he still had a chance. His sword could hurt anything, and he was beginning to form a plan in his head.
Stepping close to the edge of the stream, he used his sword and took a swipe at the closest creature to him. The creature stepped back with lightning reflexes and fell to all fours. It lunged forward and tried to bite Addigo with its huge razor-sharp jaws. Addigo lifted his sword and deflected the blow, making the blade ring sharply in the forest air. Addigo stepped back, and continued to move down the stream. For the time being, the creatures were willing to let him move through the water.
Then he felt a darker presence move through the trees. The shadows moved in closer together and the very night crawled into the day. A coldness that belonged in the dead of winter took hold of Sydowen Forest. A magic was back in the world that didn’t belong, and it was threatening to end the life of the greatest scout to have ever lived.
Addigo continued moving through the water.
An arrow was nocked and fired. Addigo could hear it, but in the surrounding darkness he couldn’t see it and it struck him in the leg. The gathered shadows that made the arrow pierced his flesh, as easily as any metal would have. It was all he could do to keep a strong hold of Moseley and too keep upright.
“What are you?” he screamed at the creatures.
A voice answered him from the ensuing darkness, a voice ragged with time. “We are but the shadows made of darkest dreams. What else?” A man stepped out of the shadows covered in a black, tattered shroud. His gaunt face was pale and grey, and pieces of skin held the man’s face together where there should have been lips. The man’s eyes burned with an infernal red, and the shadows were melting in and around him.
Addigo burned with hatred. Wounded and bleeding, Addigo felt the blood drain from his face. He could see spots in front of his eyes, and he knew it was from the loss of blood. The creatures continued to glower down at him from both sides of the river.
The man came forward. “We give you until the count of ten for you to run away.”
Addigo didn’t need another warning. He turned and ran down the stream. There was only one hope of survival. Several hundred feet away, the stream fell down the side of a cliff and into a waterfall. If he could only make it there, he and Moseley had a chance.
“One,” he heard the voice.
Addigo was half way there. His arm was burning from the weight of carrying the boy, but he would not let go.
“Two,” came the voice again.
As he ran for the edge of the stream, his thoughts turned to Joleen Zelonis. He wanted to see her again. For the first time since leaving The City and Castle Bonemeyer, he wanted to return. She was supposed to be with him. Now he wanted to go back and fight for her. He wanted to see his brother, as well. Johannassen Khabriel was the most misunderstood man in the world. If anyone had ever understood him, Addigo had.
“Three,” came the voice. “Get him!”
Addigo had run out of time. The creatures surged forward, loping and bounding with giant strides to get him. He could already see the cliff side. The stream was falling over the edge, mist and spray rising into the sky. The clear blue sky was a welcomed sight from the bleary and dreary surroundings of Sydowen Forest.
Several feet from the ledge, the creatures reached him. He bent low as a claw passed overhead. He parried and severed a leg from the creature’s body. The piece immediately fell to the water and dissipated. Using skills that he learned in the courtyard of Castle Bonemeyer, Addigo stepped over Moseley and stabbed another creature in the torso.
He tackled a third creature and they both fell into the stream with a splash. Tooth and claw fought sword and skill. Addigo knew his best chance of winning was to stay close to the creature, where its enormous size and long reach could be countered. The creature had a difficult time getting a clean hit, and Addigo took advantage of every opportunity. Before long, the creature’s lifeless eyes stared back at the tracker with a permanent scowl of hatred written on its face.
Then he remembered that in the struggle, he had let go of Moseley. He splashed out of the water to find the boy drifting ever closer to the edge of the waterfall. He swam forward and grabbed a hold of the boy. Then he turned around to see what his situation was like. He barely had a chance to respond before he was swarmed with black shadowy creatures from the netherworld.
For a moment, he thought he would be overrun by shadows and claws. But Addigo was a skilled warrior. He had learned everything of war from his brother, and everything of the sword from his king, and he found a way to breath in the suffocating mass of his enemies. His swordplay dazzled even these creatures of the black arts, and for a moment they had to take a step back to appreciate the skill of the man they were facing. It took all his might to fend them off, but he did. And then he stepped to the edge, looked back, pointed his sword at the enemy responsible for Moseley’s injuries, and jumped.
* * *
The jump took only moments to complete. But in those tense seconds, enough happened to change the life of any man and fill it with bitterness and anger to last a lifetime. He couldn’t tell if his enemies had gone after him. He didn’t know if he would make the fall, but half way to the bottom a sharp ledge reared its ugly head and slapped him off course. He was sure his arm was broken, and then he felt more than heard a heavier thud. Moseley trailed slightly behind him, and he could do nothing to move the boy out of the path of the sharp ledge.
The air left his lungs and the very essence of who he was drained away. As the water at the bottom rushed up to meet him, he vowed vengeance. He vowed never to let anyone take what was his from him again without a fight. He tried not to let go of his son’s limp hand, he tried not to cry out in anger, but he could do nothing to stop either from happening.
Moseley slid away from him and he saw the water turn crimson red. As the waterfall came to an end, his arm made him scream out in pain as he splashed into the deep cool water. Through bleary eyes, he saw schools of fish swim out of his trajectory. The force of the fall carried him fast into the depths of the river and the air began to escape his lungs.
In the end, his lungs began to burn. He struggled to reach the surface with his limp arm. In the end, the survival of any man takes over and his instincts rule his actions. All thoughts of Moseley were lost as Addigo tried to survive. The boy sank to the bottom of the waterfall’s rush where darker things dwelled even as Addigo broke the surface. His gasp for air was louder than any yell of pain he had ever given, and in his shame, he searched for a piece of log or a large rock to grab on to.
He would never remember when exactly he passed into the world of unconsciousness. He would never remember when it was exactly that he lost his son, or when it was exactly that the hands came to drag him out of the water.
But even in the depths of his unconsciousness, away from his shame and his actions, he would always remember the sight of Moseley sinking into the darkness that eventually claims all men.
Copyright © 2004 by Julian Lawler III