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Rated: 13+ · Chapter · Fantasy · #1722590
A desperate man tries to escape from pursuit into a cursed forest
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Chapter 1 Part 1

The stars shone bright and aloof in the sky, illuminating little of Darkham Forest. The stark trees reached up,imploring, begging for their secrets to be revealed. But this night, there was no answer to their silent cry. The peaceful sounds of the slumbering woods were broken by the thunder of hoof beats; the nightjars fell silent, the crickets stilled their legs and the frogs stopped in mid croak.

A rider burst into a clearing, his black stallion foam flecked and steaming as if emerging from the flaming pits of the Netherworld. Precious moments were lost to gaze at the stars and direct his steed towards the Northern Traverse. In the distance, steel clashed on steel and a horse screamed in pain. The rider gasped an angry, desperate prayer, or perhaps a curse, and urged his mount onwards. Through the thick underbrush, ducking under grasping branches, hoping the horse would find its way.

The sound of conflict faded, overwhelmed by beating hoofs and disturbed quiescent growth. He held out no hope that his men’s lives would stay this side of the balance, cursing the necessity of his flight and aching to turn around and unleash his wrath and despair on his pursuit. Instead the rider urged his steed to greater speed.

Over a stream, through a small vale and out of the forest. The rider’s eyes widened at the starkness of the land ahead, black, barren rock devoid of diversity, but did not slow his speed. The stallion’s hooves echoed with a harsh sound, reverberating in the air but not dying out. A chill wind blew from the North and foreboding shivered through him. He was not supposed to be here, not supposed to cross cursed ground, not supposed to cross into the dark forest beyond, both repelling and alluring at the same time. Yet a will to live, vengeance and pride pushed him to ignore eons of superstition and warnings and he did not stop or turn. The forest seemed to pull at him, promising safety and retribution both. The wind grew harsher, as if in warning, and the hoof beats echoed sibilant whispers.

With a shocking suddenness, the man found himself in the forest. The transition was eerie and unexpected, the trees seeming to close in on him. There was no underbrush here, no grass or weeds. The black rock continued on and he wondered how the large trees had managed to grow here. With a shock he realized his horse had slowed to a canter. Looking back through the trees he saw his pursuers on the far side of the cursed ground, showing no sign of hesitating.

Dark despair hit him then, that the lives of his men had been bought so cheap. Persevering, he urged his stallion back into a gallop, though he had precious little speed left to give. It seemed to him the forest became darker, the trees looming over him, the hissing susurration becoming louder. He ignored it, breaths coming in gasps, racing deeper into the sinister forest.

Abruptly, his mount stumbled and went down squealing, throwing him over his shoulder. The ground loomed close and the man could see himself falling on his face and breaking his neck. Instead he tucked in his head, and rolled over his shoulder, forearm bracing on the hard ground, as he’d had to many times during weapons practice. He could almost hear his old Swordsmaster yelling at him to absorb his momentum and use it, hunch your back! He did not quite manage it, and pain shot through his right shoulder and hip, but he did roll and managed to stand up without any undue breakage of bones.

The black stallion collected his forelegs under him and, with effort, pushed himself up, stumbling and limping on a few steps, whites showing and snorting. The downed rider slumped to his knees, clutching his shoulder. He would not be able to ride the lamed animal further. Anguished, he bowed his head. His enemies had won. He would be slaughtered in this Gods forsaken place, his life wasted.

The trees were silent despite the cold wind, water dripping from them like tears. The sibilate echoes from the horse’s hoof beats, became louder, flowing into derisive, triumphant laughter. It stung the proud man and he jumped up, roaring defiance. The silence was deafening. Panting, almost weeping in rage, his hands clenched by his side, he became conscious that it was raining. He had not seen the clouds come in.

He stumbled to a tree, looked around and saw he was on the far side of a clearing, the tree he was leaning on a veritable giant amongst giants. It was at least a hundred men high and forty feet across. The earth was still bare cursed ground, and he realized the trees were not just dormant for the winter. Their sap was stilled forever. The forest was petrified, with the same consistency as the soil. He wondered what pressure had been so great so as to turn an entire forest to stone. He shuddered, and looked up as he heard horses galloping towards him.

Unsheathing the two swords he carried on his back, the man stepped away from the tree and vowed to sell his life dear. He would not shrink from this, he would uphold his family’s honour and fight to his last breath. How very brave and pointless, he thought. Give the boy a medal.

The assassins found their way to him unerring, his blood like a beacon to them. The whispers had started up again and he got the distinct feeling that none of them were welcome, that the stone forest was old, ancient, and should have been left well enough alone. Age, torment, rage, betrayal and unfathomable sorrow swirled around them.

“Prince Ravan. Ye’ve led us a merry chase. I do believe we’ve earned our keep,” the front assassin taunted. Prince Ravan’Thor d’Ardoles saw there were five assassins left. He was sure there had been more. Good on you Valathor, he thought.

“Who hired you? Why has a death curse been procured?” A death curse was not a real curse, but for the right price the Ka’Tong guaranteed death of the mark, so it might as well be. The assassin did not bother to practice further small talk, but drew his blade and spurred his mount towards the prince waiting with drawn blades. He held no illusions as to his chances of survival against even one of his attackers. Every Ka’Tong member was trained in combat since childhood. While he was no mean swordsman, his skills paled in comparison to their particular brand of bloody apprenticeship.

Still, palms sweating, panting in fear, a sour taste in his mouth, the prince made ready to twist aside the incoming blade with one sword and cripple the assassin’s horse with the other. Before he could attempt the deed, the sound of displaced air rippled past him and an arrow thunked into the charging assassin. The man was ripped off his horse, which leaped aside to avoid the prince.

Continued in "Kirina: Chapter 1 Excerpt 2 [13+]
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