Beyond the Forest of the Dead
The Forest of the Dead has no trees except for the bones of man and beast twisted and woven into ivory parodies of bark and branch; the roots covered with brown and withered leaves shaped from flayed skin, the flesh dry and crackling to the touch. Small cages made from fingers and ribs hang from these branches and hold trapped glowing moths whose wings are sharp as razors and whose voices sing of their longing to be free.
A stale and slightly putrid wind blows gently through the forest rocking the cages and sending shadows of the once living to dance among the bone trees. Beneath the leaves of flesh crawl monstrous slugs, wide mouthed and ever hungry. They raise a wake of crackling leaves as they hunch and crawl across the beslimed ground. Footing is treacherous within the forest and bare patches of earth are black and oily from which only a wormlike pale grass grows.
I entered the forest with great reluctance, on foot as my horse would not cross the boundary of the ash-hills to the East of the city; its eyes were rolling, mad with terror, and froth and blood covered its muzzle till it seized the bit and wildly bucked till I turned its head back toward the West and the abode of man. I could not, myself, return, and so I dropped from my saddle and grabbed pack, and bedroll, and sheathed sword and let my mount go, which it did with a frightened whinny and a startled gallop. I watched it disappear along the trail that cut through hills of grey-black ash and dark slabs of broken rock that separated the city of Ang from the utterly evil land before me.
The forest did not stretch far, or so I had been told, though few would speak of this place or lands beyond and fewer still knew even rumors of what might be encountered or any hope past Hellish death that a traveler might have in such a journey. There was little choice and the death promised me by the Sorceror-Priests of Ang was grim enough to make even the sight and rotting corpse-smell of the forest preferable.
It was still hours before noon. I had fled the city of Ang before the rising of the sun. The walls have gateways but no gates and no soldiers to guard them for darker things that even the cruelty of man cannot match in their wickedness have been called forth by the Sorceror -Priests to protect their Temple-Palace and the walls of their unholy city.
My business in Ang was complete. I had drawn the red brush of vengeance across those who thought themselves inviolate and now must I pay the price. I looked at the bone trees and the leaves of flesh, the glowing cages whose sickly greenish luminescence was muted by the bright sun and heard the sweet and sorrowful voices of the moths, hugely swollen and strangely human-like with small arms that clutched at the bars of their ivory cages. I looked away; the glowing moth's freedom meant the blood of man and the stories of their ingratitude are some of the most prominent tales of this horrid land that I have collected.
I walked among the trees of bone with my sword drawn and a torch fashioned from the thigh of some beast whose limb I had hewed from a tree on the outer edge of the forest. What steel could not stop perhaps fire might and I had no other weapons except the strength of my arm and the determination to live or meet death not alone.
And yet fear was my constant companion. I laughed because of all the terrible places on earth this forest was the beginning of fear and what lay beyond it was said to be beyond fear as it was beyond hope. Suddenly there was silence. The singing of the moths had stopped, the wind shook not their cages or rustled the covering of withered leaves and behind me I knew without looking that something approached.
With a whirl I turned and my sword slashed at air and the torch fell from my hand. For a moment it sank beneath the dry brownish crust of flesh and then a tongue of flame licked up with a tinge of greasy rot that made my stomach churn. I danced back from it and something humped beneath the surface screamed. The black beslimed belly of the creature shot forward, its body rising above my six feet, and its sphinctered mouth, ringed with teeth like tiny blades, opened wide, wide, wide enough to swallow the torso of a man, and it screamed. The sickly white hide of the creature was afire. What oily secretion wetted the folds of the wormish beast I did not know but they fed the fire and the fire bit deep.
In a moment it was all ablaze, except for the blackness of its belly where it was smeared with filth. It twisted and sprang upward, twice my height, and slammed down onto the bared and muddy ground. The burning leaves were quashed in the spray of that mud. I had retreated even as the beast had made its vertical flight and glad I was that the fire had been put out before the floor of that Hellish forest was turned into a sea of flame that would surely have drowned me in its burning arms.
As that pale-fleshed monster twisted along the foul and viscous earth, its teeth snapping at the tongues of flame which caressed it where the black slime was not, I could see its face; its mouth drawn in to merely human proportions. That face, merely human described the outline of nose and eyes above that circular maw. Human, but human without arms or legs, crawling on its belly, hunching like a worm, damned as the serpent is damned, abased and diminished to such a horror of a life.
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Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda