Azoloth was lost in thought; back to a time he had been walking in the woods a year ago. He had been no more than ten or fifteen minutes from the edge. This part of the wood was near Candlecove Keep and was a place Azoloth often came during free time. He enjoyed the scent, sounds, and sight of the woods in the evening hours. He had been to this place dozens of times before, he often came here to escape and unwind after a hard day of training. The grove was beautiful and full of oak tree’s with a small creek running through it. The creek had several branching tributaries with small six inch tall waterfalls. They created a beautiful babbling sound that filled him with a sense of peace and wonder.
One day upon entering the grove, though, something appeared off. Looking around the grove, it appeared more beautiful than ever before, breathtakingly so. He could never put his finger on what changed, but the entire forest became more vibrant and alive than ever before. Suddenly a sensation of overwhelming dread descended upon him. The sight sparked a terror so pure within his soul that never before or since had he experienced such.
Azoloth fled the forest in that instant and sprinted back to the safety of civilization. He never shared the incident with anyone, and it was several weeks before he dared to venture forth once more and explore the grove again. When he came back, everything was back to normal. No otherworldly beauty, no sense of terrors or impending doom. Just the peaceful woodlands he usually encountered.
Often he wondered about the experience; about what he stumbled across that moonlit eve. He liked to entertain the thought perhaps he merely stumbled across some forest spirit who was shy of humans, who enjoyed that place of nature and beauty as he did. Then the creature caused the terror and dread to fill him to defend itself; chasing the bumbling human who intruded upon it away.
That incident allowed him to understand and empathise with Trinsic’s misgivings. Yet he did not feel the same, he would not let himself fear something just because he did not understand it. Indeed, though whatever he stumbled across frightened him off, it never harmed him as he knew it could have.
“We should go back to the road” Trinsic said abruptly breaking Azoloth’s day dream. They had been riding through the woods for the last four days and nothing bad happened, yet Trinisc grew more agitated and restless with each passing day.
Azoloth pulled himself from his thoughts and looked around the forest. Even with the sickly green hue of the sun, he could see the beauty here. Less than an hour passed since the darkness lifted and the cancerous sun rose into the sky once more. A smile played upon his lips. That was rare during daylight hours, yet the thick canopy helped make the oppression of the sun’s rays less.
“You know, the wildlands are not that bad,“ Azoloth said softly as they rode along. “It is true they are wild and dark things lurk here. Are they really any more dangerous than the bandits or guardsmen we would face on the road?”
“Maybe, I still don’t like it” Trinsic responded. He jumped at each little sound in the woods. Azoloth meanwhile took the sounds of animals to be comforting. When the shadows or zombies closed around him, the woods became completely silent, the sounds of the birds and other woodland creatures relaxed Azoloth and gave him hope. He was fairly sure none of the Royal Guardsmen would dare follow them into the depths of the Roanwood.
The argument was one they repeated often since entering the wood. Their very first day, Trinsic kept insisting they turn back to the road when it was safe. Azoloth asked him when it would be safe to travel along the road. Would it be a day or months, pointing out that if the Crown thought them lost to the wildlands, it would make it easier on them. Trinsic muttered under his breath that they may very well be lost to the wildlands.
Azoloth was always more at home in the woods than most of the Knights. However, he understood just how dangerous and unpredictable they could prove. That knowledge only fostered a great respect within him, not fear; at least not usually. At this moment, Azoloth was beginning to become unease. The birds and insects that normally chirped and chittered day and night began to go silent. As they ventured between the trees, the silence became almost deafening.
Crimson’s bass growl echoing off the trees broke the silence. Azoloth then caught the first flickers of the shadows moving near the tree’s. Ancient lore spoke of places within the wildlands where the barrier between this world and the beyond was weaker. These places civilized peoples and spirits of the natural world avoided, for dark things lurked here.
While none knew the truth of the matter, what they did know was the flickering shadows along with Crimson’s deep growl caused their stomachs to drop. Azoloth and Trinsic both reached down and placed their hands upon the hilt of their swords, not as if such mundane weapons would offer any protection from something beyond the veil.
The shadows of the tree’s continued to flicker and shift, almost as if something lived within them. The sensation of something or someone was watching them was nearly overwhelming. Neither man said a word, yet their eyes darted to and fro watching the shadows of each tree.
This game went on, and another hour passed as they pushed on deeper into the woods along the southern route Azoloth had chosen. The shadows were becoming clearer the longer they traveled; they were like an echo of a humanoid shape, yet the limbs were too long, the bodies and heads misshapen.
These differed from the shadows Azoloth encountered after first fleeing the Keep. Those were less distinct with night was fast approaching, stealing their power away. Something about the cancerous sun weakened the veil further and gave the shadows power. Even now the shadows merged and mingled with the sickly green light to form the apparitions seen within the shadows.
Neither man was even sure the shadows were real or not. They never saw the shadows directly, it was always a movement seen at the corner of the eye. However, the nervousness of the horses and the growls from Crimson told of something sinister lurking nearby.
The sensation of oppression in the air grew, as if the air had a weight that should not be there. They felt things like fingers grasping at their legs and belts, yet when they looked down there would be nothing there. Another hour slipped away and the sun rose higher in the sky. There were still another three hours until noon, when the sun would reach its highest point in the sky. The creatures seemed to become more substantial with every passing minute.
They would have to do something and do it soon.