“We should head back to camp” Reyph urged, glancing about at the untamed forest, “It's a long ride, and there are only a few hours of daylight left.”
Denyll was knelt, examining the ground; he glanced up as Reyph spoke.
“You ought not to let the darkness frighten you, brother.” He responded, “Besides, you know as well as I that the village will starve if we don't find game soon.”
It was true - the village's harvest had been ruined by droughts and their hunt so far had caught only a few scrawny rabbits. With winter near, their situation was desperate. They had pressed further into the wild Arrwood forest than ever before, in the hopes of finding larger prey.
“I am not unmanned by the dark.” Reyph retorted, “But this floor is too rugged to cross in the night-time, one of our horses is bound to break a leg. Better to head back and find a new trail tomorrow.”
Denyll sighed as he rose to his feet.
“The stag is close now. Its trail leads in that direction,” He said, gesturing beyond a thicket of birch, “That's where I'm heading. If you have half a shred of courage or decency you'll come with me.”
As Denyll mounted his horse, Reyph considered protesting his brother's decision. Instead he grunted acknowledgement. He didn't much like the decision, but he didn't like being considered a coward either. He followed in moping silence.
Over the next few hours they moved deeper into the forest, their horses choosing careful footsteps through the tangled undergrowth. Overhead the sky darkened, the shadows of the forest growing ever longer. The trees that surrounded them seemed ancient and twisted now. It was silent, the sounds of birds and insects having long since died away. Now the cavernous canopy rang with an unnatural stillness.
Eventually, between the trees, they saw a sight that chilled them both to the core.
“By the gods! Who would make such a thing?” Denyll cried.
In a large clearing, illuminated by the last purple glow of twilight, was the stag they had been hunting. It had been crucified.
Affixed to a pair of interlocking stakes, the animal's limbs had been snapped and contorted into the form of a man. It stood, slumped in its unnatural pose. An abomination that made the stomach turn.
“We should leave, Denyll, before whatever unholy hell-spawn that did this comes back...”
“Pah! It's still edible, right?” said Denyll, dismounting from his horse, “I'll not let good meat go to waste whilst my wife and child starve. Besides it's probably just the prank of some mad woodsman.”
“You want to eat that!?” Reyph said, leaping off his horse to try and stop his brother, “It's probably cursed!”
Denyll ignored him, and strode into the clearing with his horse in tow. Reyph followed.
“Hello?” Denyll said, lest some stranger hid amongst the gloom. There was no response, the clearing appeared to be empty of all but the grizzly totem.
The horses whickered as the hunters led them into the small glade. Denyll handed his horse's reins to Reyph and took the cleaver from his saddlebag.
“Let's see if I can't cut this thing down” Denyll said, a hint of hesitation beneath the veneer of confidence.
Denyll tried to pry the stag's broken leg free of the large iron nail that held it. It wouldn't budge. Letting out a sigh, he raised the cleaver, aimed at a soft joint and brought down the full weight of the blade.
The next few moments seemed to happen as one. As the blade split the stag's limb, the head of the beast, antlers and all, jerked violently alive. Its mouth opened into a piercing howl.
During the creature's violent spasm, the antlers had knocked Denyll to the floor. As the howl rang out the horses reared, pulling Reyph to the ground. The reins snapped under the force of the horses' panic, freeing them to bolt into the woods.
From the floor, Reyph gazed up at the howling stag. Its eye-sockets were hollow and glowed with a sanguine light. Reyph was transfixed with terror. The howl stopped as abruptly as it started. The glow vanishing from its eyes as the beast's head fell back to its chest. The hollow silence returned to the forest.
Reyph scrambled to his feet. He felt like fleeing, but the antler's blow had knocked Denyll unconscious. He ran to his brother and tried to rouse him.
“Wake up!” Reyph yelled, giving Denyll a firm slap, “ We have to get out of here!”
The other man grumbled incoherently, but didn't wake. Reyph was still trying to revive his brother, when the shout of a hunting horn echoed through the trees, startling him. Had the howl of the stag been some kind of alarm?
As he gazed into the dark depths of forest lights blinked into existence. They were white and moved amongst the trees casting unearthly, dancing shadows. They were moving towards the clearing.
Reyph tried to drag Denyll away, but he was too slow. The lights were approaching. Between the trees, Reyph managed to glimpse one of them. It looked like a man, a spectre, riding a beast of bleached bone. The spectre's shape moved as though it was made of smoke, but its eyes remained solid. As Reyph's gaze met that of the rider he sensed the creature's icy rage.
A primal panic overpowered Reyph. Unable to think of Denyll, he turned on his heel and ran.
The sun had set and blackness loomed ahead of him. He plunged forwards, in the mad rush stumbling and falling several times. His clothes and flesh were torn at by the barbs of wild brambles and hawthorns. Eventually he tripped over a root and cool earth rushed up to greet his face.
As he stumbled back to his feet, he looked around. Darkness greeted him at every angle - the glow of the spectral lights had gone. Unable to see the stars beneath the canopy, and without the clues that daylight might bring, Reyph was lost.
His senses slowly returned to him and his thoughts turned to Denyll. Reyph had abandoned his brother. With some hesitation, he decided to find a way back to the clearing. Perhaps he could sneak past the riders to save his brother, the horses, and make an escape?
In the blinding darkness he guessed a direction. With his panic somewhat calmed, each step was tested to avoid inadvertently breaking a limb. It was slow work and every strange sound or odd texture set his heart pounding. Regardless, Reyph forged a path into the unknown.
Eventually, he spotted another of the spectral lights ahead of him. His breath caught in his throat at the sight, but he realised that if he headed closer to the light he might recognise his location and find his way back to Denyll. Besides, without a solid direction in the darkness he might be wandering in circles.
Using his experience as a hunter, Reyph sneaked through the undergrowth towards the faint glow. Instinctively he removed his bow and nocked an arrow. The forest around him began to brighten as he closed upon the light.
Curious, he pressed closer to see the creature he faced. Rounding a tree, he saw it in full sight. It held the form of a huntsman, wearing strange armour and carrying a boar spear. Like the other he had glimpsed, its form seemed insubstantial and changeable. Its steed, however, was solid and monstrous. A mount made from the bones of forest animals and held together with scraps of leather and linen. As Reyph's eyes took in the sight, his feet made a misstep.
The spectre heard. Its attention snapped to Reyph. Letting out a wail, the ghostly huntsman charged at him. Reyph loosed his arrow. It flew where it was aimed - the spectre's chest. Unnaturally, it passed through as though the rider was naught but air. The spectre's smoky form was briefly disturbed, but quickly reformed.
With no time to think, Reyph nocked another arrow. With the spectre upon him, he misfired. The arrow flew toward the skeletal mount. Skimming bone, the arrow struck a leather cord that bound the beast together. The whole thing seemed to unravel as one. The bones fell apart and collapsed to the ground, momentum carrying them forward. As the mount crumbled, the spectral rider crumbled too - dissipating into nothingness. Reyph, couldn't believe his luck and trembled in relief.
The pile of bones still glowed with an eerie light – each an excellent makeshift torch. He attempted to pick up a boar's shoulder blade from the heap, but it was cold. His hand stung at its touch. He removed his cloak and found that he could stand to hold the bone after he had wrapped it.
As Reyph rose to his feet, more lights appeared. They must have been alerted by the spectre's earlier wail. Hiding the bone amidst fabric, he slunk back into the forest's darkness.
The riders gave chase, but he managed to lose them. Horns sounded in the distance; clearly he was being hunted. Afraid of capture, he used the light sparingly and eventually recognised a trail.
Reyph's heart split for a moment as he realised he could either follow the path away from the cursed place or return to the clearing and save his brother. Gulping down his fear he chose the latter.
He approached the glade cloaked in the forest's murk. He saw three riders surrounding Denyll, who leant against a tree limp and broken. Reyph would have to fight to free his brother. He steeled himself and readied his bow.
He watched the spectres - lining up the perfect shot. He fired into the clearing. The arrow flew true and hit the joint he'd been targeting. Spectre and mount crumbled as one.
The remaining two riders turned on him, hoisting their weapons and urging their steeds towards attack. Reyph already had another arrow clamped between his fingers. Drawing the feathers to his chin he released. The shaft flew, but this time only skimmed his target.
He cursed his aim, but the next rider was already upon him. Rolling across the forest floor Reyph dodged the spear's lunge. Nocking a third arrow as he rolled to his feet, he fired again. The arrow tore through the skeleton's bindings, dispelling a second spectre.
Reyph turned to face his third foe, but it was too late. The rider had flanked him during the fray, now a ghostly hand clamped his shoulder. Beneath the layers of leather and fur, Reyph's skin could feel the cold of the spectre's icy touch. Within a flash, a numbing chill spread throughout his body. His bow dropped from his hands helplessly to the floor.
Reyph howled in pain as a frost began to spread from his captor's grip, debilitating him. Resisting the urge to surrender, he managed to move his left hand and grabbed a linen binding of the spectre's mount. With his last ounce of strength Reyph tore the strap. As he collapsed to the ground shivering, the spectre fell away into nothingness
Laid on the clearing's floor, warmth began to return to his limbs.
“Denyll!” He yelled, “Wake up!”
There was no response beyond a low groan. Stumbling to his feet, Reyph hobbled towards his brother.
“Wake up gods damn it!” He said, shaking Denyll's shoulders.
Denyll snapped into life, but as his brother's face rose Reyph's gut welled with horror. Denyll's eyes were gone. In hollow sockets, only a dull sanguine glow remained.
The creature the had once been his brother forced Reyph to the ground with an overwhelming strength. He let out a scream and reached for his dagger. It was no use. Denyll grabbed his arm and turned the blade against him. Reyph yelled and pleaded.
“Serve the wild hunt...” his brother's only response.
These were the last words Reyph heard, as his own steel blade slid unrelentingly into his eyes.
Darkness returned to the ancient and hallowed heart of the Arrwood forest. It would be a hungry winter in the village of Hemyhok this year, as the sightless vassals of the wild hunt toiled for their dead masters.
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