“Thirty minutes of this, Ellik,” Baronet Aerden said, frowning at her thick, canvas gloves. Silk, she thought as she tugged at the offending attire. Silk is the only answer. Cander will probably wring his hands and whine about the treasury, the old fool, but there’s nothing for it—I can’t possibly hold a bow for long with something that feels like a burlap sack.
She shook her head and looked up at the burly guide, who was still silent, staring into the Faerwood. “Ellik?” she said impatiently.
The dark-haired man turned to her slowly, head tilted as if he was still listening to something only he could hear. He wore rough leather boots and gloves with a studded jerkin, but the condition of all of them was deplorable—slash marks, loose studs, ripped seams. No sense of style, and—though Aerden had managed not to comment upon it so far—not much sense of hygiene, either, judging by the peculiar odor of sweat and dung which seemed to swirl about the man.
“Your Grace called?” he said in his raspy voice.
“Yes, I did… twice now,” Aerden replied. “I said it’s been thirty minutes, and we’ve yet to even get past the edge of the forest.”
“Caution and care, Your Grace,” Ellik said, as if repeating a slogan. “The Faerwood’s a strange place these days, and a bit of caution wouldn’t go amiss.”
“We’re well beyond ‘a bit’,” Aerden shot back, tugging angrily at her gloves. “And the Faerwood’s no stranger now than when my father bought it, Ellik. You said that you yourself toured every section of it last year.”
“Aye,” Ellik agreed. “But that was before the twistmist, Your Grace, and—”
“Enough,” Aerden snapped. “I’ve already tolerated far too much of that nonsense, and I won’t have more of it repeated here.”
The guide shrugged and fell silent, staring back into the Faerwood. For the third time in as many days, Aerden silently cursed the Council of Nobles. If they paid half as much attention to investing in the affairs of the Celestial Plateau as they did to pacifying the filth of Gelspar, there might well be some real guides available, instead of the superstitious halfwits she had been forced to choose from. Everyone said Ellik was one of the most skilled guides in Adriel, but that was hardly saying much.
“I don’t hear anything, and I haven’t seen anything for the better part of a week,” Aerden said after a few more moments. “In another two days my father will return, and that will be the end of any chance I’ll have of finding some diversion before university resumes. You said there was good hunting to be found here.”
“Was, Your Grace,” Ellik said, still gazing into the dark green of the forest. “But I wanted to take you to the Wildlands, where the game is plentiful—”
“And stupid, and docile, and about as dangerous as a kitten. I told you I wanted an actual hunt. What better place to do it than here? It’s still our property.”
“And it’s still in the Silverglades.”
Aerden rolled her eyes, refastening one of the gold buttons that had come undone at the bottom of her purple tunic. “The edge of the Silverglades, with more lodges being built nearby every day. This is my family’s land; why shouldn’t I be allowed to hunt on it?” She held up a gloved hand as Ellik turned to her as if to respond. “The miasma is much further away; all that’s actually been seen—by one drunken scout more in love with his ale than his job—is some mist curling through the Faerwood a few weeks ago. No one else saw it, or any of the other nonsensical fantasies he made up.”
“You came here because of one of those fantasies, Your Grace,” the scout said, rubbing a rough hand over a dark-stubbled chin.
“No,” Aerden said as she re-tied her dark hair into a loose ponytail more practical for the hunt, “I came here because I wanted a chance to hunt something worth the effort. Not that a bobcat is worth much—but it’s something.”
Ellik shook his head. “If that’s all it is.”
Aerden narrowed her eyes. “You’re not being paid for personal opinions, Ellik, but for professional guidance. Is it in there?”
The guide glanced back toward the Faerwood for a moment, then nodded. “Aye, something is. You can hear the rustling plain as day, and there were those fresh tracks just half an hour ago. But—”
“Fine,” Aerden said, unslinging her bow and feeling behind her head to make sure her arrows remained in place. “Then there’s no reason to wait any longer. You flank out to the right and cut into the tree line a hundred paces down.” She pointed to the desired spot. “I’ll head in here.”
“It might be better if I—” Ellik began again, but Aerden, grunting impatiently, plunged into the Faerwood. If she kept waiting for the hesitant guide, the moment for the hunt would pass, and her hope for any excitement with it. Either way, she was damned if she was going to sit around any longer waiting for school to begin again.
The Faerwood was not particularly dense, and Aerden’s father had sent a group of scouts and hunters through the wood six months ago to clear out any particularly dangerous creatures. By all reports, they encountered a number of ill-tempered beasts, some with characteristics that could be troublesome for someone not ready for them. But Aerden was a good tracker and excellent shot; she doubted there would be anything too challenging left here. Still, the creatures might try to avoid death, and that in itself promised to be more interesting than any quarry in the Wildlands.
After discarding her offending gloves with a muttered curse, Aerden slipped quietly between the tall, straight trees of the Faerwood, ducking low-hanging branches and avoiding dry leaves and twigs whenever she could. She had neither seen nor heard any sign of other living things yet, but any noise she made was likely to frighten any forest creatures away, and that would waste even more precious time.
She had barely gone twenty paces when she encountered a thick white mist that enveloped everything in front of her, reducing the trees and foliage to insubstantial gray shapes. Every now and then she saw what looked like a twinkle as sunlight pierced the heavy whiteness enough to reflect off of something scattered throughout the forest. She didn’t think the fog was dangerous; it wasn’t the purplish-golden color or thick consistency of miasma, after all. The seeming wall of fog did make her pause for a moment—guess Father’s hunters were right about this—then she shook off her hesitation and continued deeper into the woods.
Yet as she pressed on, Aerden wondered about the almost oppressive silence. Maybe the huntsmen did their jobs too well; what use is a natural forest if it has no natural residents anymore?
She drew up short for a moment as another thought occurred to her. Of course, only three of the ten ever returned from these woods, so how well could they have possibly done their job? The sheer incompetence was staggering—I could have cleared these lands better, and brought everyone back to boot.
Aerden shook her head as she remembered the wailing widows that had come to see her father, begging for recompense for their lost husbands. Cost a lot of gold to calm them down—and keep their tongues from wagging. If I’d had my way, we would have turned them out without a coin to their name—those men knew the risks, and it certainly wasn’t our fault they couldn’t take care of themselves in here.
She stepped forward again, scanning the nearby ground for any sign of animal tracks. But if they were so bad, why on earth was Ellik babbling about prey being here? I haven’t seen or heard anything yet—
Suddenly she heard a rustle and stopped dead, holding her breath, feeling the smooth wood of the bow as she tightened her grip slightly. For a full minute she heard nothing further—but then, just as she was beginning to think she had imagined it, the sound came again; a rustling in the leaves, a few twigs snapping. And there was more: a low rumble of some kind, perhaps a growl.
Aerden grinned. Finally. Just a bobcat, probably, but it would give her something real to hunt. She lowered herself into a crouch and moved forward slowly, feeling the soft ground below give slightly under her weight. After a few seconds she heard the rumble again…a bit deeper than she remembered a bobcat sounding, but no doubt that was just a trick of the forest.
It came from somewhere in front of her, even closer now, and she slowed down further; if she were lucky, she might come across the beast unawares. Gods only knew where that idiot Ellik was, but maybe it was better this way—she was certainly doing better without the guide so far.
After travelling a bit further, Aerden saw the shafts of light shining down through the tree cover and mist grow brighter and closer together. She wasn’t nearly far enough to be on the other side of the Faerwood—perhaps a clearing? And indeed, after another dozen slow paces, she saw the wan rays of the afternoon sun illuminating a large open space ahead of her. Something seemed odd about the light, which looked as if it was shimmering as it reflected off the trees surrounding the space struck the unusually clear patch of ground.
Aerden frowned as she crept to the edge of the clearing, trying to find the source of the odd shimmer blanketing the clearing. Narrowing her gaze, she focused on the nearest tree trunks, bits of which seemed to gleam in the sunlight, almost as if the gnarled bark had some kind of crystal embedded in it. Even so, it didn’t look normal. She was about to skirt the clearing entirely when she heard the rumble again—definitely a low growl coming from somewhere nearby. She briefly caught sight of movement, and as she looked more closely, she saw a large tail switching back and forth along the ground.
Aerden grinned again. Yes, luck is with me; it’s not even facing me. One swift, sure shot, and I should be able to wound it enough that I can close in and finish it off before it can get away. She silently pulled an arrow from the quiver at her back and nocked it on the bowstring, feeling small beads of sweat drip from her wrist and arm onto the wood of the bow. Quieter than a cat, she carefully stepped into the clearing and stood, watching the moving tail.
Look at the size of it! This will be an impressive prize indeed when it’s back in the trophy room. Slowly she drew back the bowstring, aiming over the tail for where the back would be hidden in the mist.
Suddenly a deafening, furious yowl sounded behind her. Aerden turned just in time to see a blur of something leaping at her. She loosed her arrow while trying to dodge aside, but the shaft went well wide of its mark as the thing slammed hard into her left shoulder, knocking her painfully to the ground. Aerden rolled with the fall, came to one knee and drew another arrow from her quiver, but saw nothing either in the clearing or through the mist swirling around her.
Another low growl sounded almost right next to her, and she turned to face it just before an enormous clawed paw flashed from the mist. She cried out and dropped the bow as the claws slashed her face, snapping her neck back with the impact and making her fall on her back.
Aerden scrambled backward, crab-like, away from the attack. Even as she moved, there was another low growl behind him. She rolled to all fours and then stood, her face throbbing in agony, blood welling from where she had been wounded. She drew her large hunting knife from her belt and spun around—but saw nothing around her but more white mist and light, so bright it almost hurt her eyes.
Whatever this animal was, it was no bobcat; they were nowhere near this large, nor did they hit this hard. Perhaps Ellik would come—but there was no sign of the guide, and Aerden could not afford to wait for him.
She stepped forward, knife at the ready, but stopped as she heard another growl in front of her. She sidestepped warily, glancing around as she headed for the welcome sight of the dark treeline. But she saw only the mist, and the growling was increasing in volume and intensity. Aerden’s heart pounded in her chest; her face burned like it was on fire. A few steps more, and she would be out of the clearing—just a few steps…
Suddenly she heard a rustle of grass behind her, and began to turn—much too late. Something leaped at her from behind, and she staggered forward as razor sharp teeth sank into her neck. She screamed in pain and terror, thrashing about and slashing wildly with her knife, but whatever her attacker was bore her down quickly under its weight, and she hit the ground with a thud.
Her vision swam, and she fought to stay conscious. The creature released her, and she reached feebly for her neck; warm liquid was everywhere, and the smell of blood was thick in the air. She felt something sticking out of her neck, and with an effort managed to pull it free. It was a long, thin, curved barb, covered in blood.
The clearing had fallen silent, and as Aerden blinked again and again, trying to see through a rapidly gathering haze, she saw rapid movement in all directions. Finally, she heard the guttural growl again—but now it came from everywhere around her. Her vision cleared for a moment…and she beheld something out of a nightmare.
Standing in front of her was an enormous, purplish-blue creature, with cat-like paws and tail switching back and forth, white mist curling from it as it moved. But over its matted fur and hair were solid, bony pieces, almost like scales, and long, curved spines pierced through its skin up its legs and down its back. A fierce, bestial face stared down at her, red hourglass eyes blinking balefully. It opened its mouth, and Aerden saw rows and rows of crooked teeth, far too many to fit properly, all dripping with her blood.
The growls intensified, and as her consciousness faded, Aerden saw more of the beasts padding around her. “Ellik!” she called out. “Ellik…” Her vision darkened again…and then they fell upon her.
And outside the Faerwood, where Ellik had stood motionless since Aerden had entered it, the guide heard an echoing, anguished cry, quickly cut short—and then the gruesome sound of something being torn apart.
He listened in silence for a minute, then grinned for the first time in days, revealing a set of blackened teeth. Then Ellik turned and walked away without looking back, bound for the darkest parts of Gelspar, where even the Watch would have trouble tracking him, and where his fellow Chasers would be most pleased at this turn of events. He’d managed to kill Lord Aerden’s precious child without getting his own hands dirty—neat and painless. He wasn’t totally free from danger; if the father of the late Baronet Aerden was anything like his daughter, Ellik doubted that there would be much mercy for a guide who had led a noble to her death, even one as foolish as Aerden. But some things were more frightening than an aggrieved lord, and many things more profitable than serving one. Either way, whenever his end finally came, Ellik would be damned if it would be at the claws, teeth, and spines of the barbcat.
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This week’s Archive story was written by Gregory A. Wilson, speculative fiction writer, college professor, Twitch streamer / Dungeon Master, musician, and podcaster. Greg has published several novels and a graphic novel (with more longer work forthcoming), plus short stories in various places, most recently in the Mystery! Anthology published by Down and Out Books.
Art by Toma Feizo Gas, a gamer, illustrator, and daydreamer. He has contributed his skills and artwork to legendary titles like Pathfinder, Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering and worked on a score of tabletop and video games such as Infinity, Star Trek Adventures, Mutant Chronicles, and Robert E. Howards’s Conan RPG.