03-GodsAndMonsters-NKnightley

The Nightshade was a beautiful place at night, despite the dangers that lurked around every glimmering corner. The beauty didn’t negate the creeping feel of dread that permeated the place, but it made the night shifts tolerable when Tarrin drew the short straw.

During the day, Nightshade Forest was a sunlit oasis of nature amid the sprawling cities and farmlands, abundant in game and rich in edibles for the locals to gather for their tables. Daylight fed the magic wards running through its earth, ancient bindings tapped into nearby ley lines for stability. The magics here were strong even now, thousands of years after the fall of the kingdom that planted them and well after their intent was lost to the common folk.

At night…well, at night it wasn’t so inviting.

The common folk might have little interest in the forest’s origins, but the Ranger’s knew their history. From the day Tarrin turned eight and followed her father’s footsteps into the ancient Order’s ranks, she had been translating aged texts and studying them with an unquenchable thirst. Not even the Rangers were allowed to know the full details of what dwelled in the woods—the intricacies of Nightshade’s defenses were only for the clerics who reinforced them to know—but what knowledge she was allowed to have was power against the dark.

Nightshade was no natural forest. It had been magically created atop a series of caves, some so deep it was said a person could speak directly into the three Hells if they stood at the edge and called down. The trees were said to be sacred to many different gods, keeping the steady creep of logging at bay and ensuring no human settlements were built over what lay below.

The list of infernal residents was long and disturbing. Things that couldn’t be killed were locked away in the caves, sealed up tight to hopefully be held until long after mankind had moved on to greater planes. Devils and demons, imps and undead, things that once stalked humanity at whim. Some had names that were known, and Tarrin could recite them by heart. The identities of some were either never known or were forgotten, but anything written about them was committed to her memory.

As her horse skittishly picked its way along the glittering silver path, faintly lit by the glowing bark of sun-drunk trees, Tarrin counted its steps and plotted her course. She could mark the location of every cave entrance on a map, every warren and every crevice. If it was under the Rangers’ guardianship she knew where it was, and it was her duty tonight to patrol it. No living souls outside the Order were allowed in Nightshade after dark, that was the rule, and she and a few other junior officers had the dubious honor of enforcing it tonight.

She didn’t like it. She didn’t want to do it. But she couldn’t bring herself to quit, knowing how dire the consequences would be if the Order ever gave up its duty.

The soft crying startled Tarrin at first, so out of place in the still, silent night, but her surprise turned to anger as she urged her mount toward the source. Everyone knew Nightshade was off limits, yet children still liked to sneak in after dark to prove how brave they were to friends. The little boy she found cowering near a yawning cave mouth wouldn’t be the first she had to chase away.

He was the first she’d found so deep in the woods, though, which made her angrier still. The border patrollers were getting lax in their duties.

“You can’t be in here after dark,” Tarrin barked, bringing the horse to a halt. “Come on, up. Let’s get you out of here before your parents have a fit.”

“N-no,” the boy sobbed. “Papa…we were collecting mushrooms today and I got tired…we stopped to rest, and when I woke up…”

Tarrin’s gaze followed where the boy pointed, to the mouth of the cave. Her vision felt like it wavered for a moment with all the magic in the air, but then she spotted it; an overturned mushroom basket with its contents spilled, just past the edge of darkness. Beneath it, a darker stain on the rock.

Dropping from her horse and drawing her knife, Tarrin edged slowly into the cave until she could kneel by the spill. Sure enough, blood marked the spot, and when she lit her torch she could see red drag marks going farther.

Frozen in place, she mentally retraced her steps, marking the way on the map in her head, racking her brain for what she knew about this holding place. What rested here had no name, if she remembered correctly, it was one of the terrors so old it had been bound before records were written.

That was bad. In many cases, the wards could be broken with the sacrifice of a life, if the cave’s victim died here there was no telling what it might unleash. Protocol said Tarrin should hurry back to the clerics, but time was of the essence. It was a risk, but she needed to see if the man was still close enough to the exit to be reached.

“Stay here.”

She grabbed a handful of the glowing gold ethermoss lining the mouth of the cave and plunged into the darkness before she lost her nerve. Things like this were exactly why she wished she’d never joined the Rangers, life or death circumstances resting on shoulders that wanted to be anywhere else except bearing them.

The air grew cooler with each step, unnaturally so when it tended to be warmer below ground than above, and the eerie shadows of night were quickly swallowed by the oppressive stretch of nothing on the downward-sloping path. The darkness here was absolute, leaving her eyes to play tricks on her mind as they strained to use what little light the ethermoss had to offer.

The straight path became a curve, and Tarrin stopped. How far had she come? Not far, yet the sounds of the forest just outside the cave mouth were gone now. She turned to get her bearings, only to find that in the unbroken darkness she couldn’t pick out the way to the exit.

As she spun in place, straining to see beyond the moss’s fading glow, a growing sense of unease began to gnaw at her senses.

Something else was here, something in the blackness, lurking with malicious intent.

Only the dim flicker of a metallic claw saved her. The last thing her eyes picked out before her instinct to run kicked in was a flash of dagger-like teeth.

The roar was deafening, an animal shriek echoing off walls of solid stone. Tarrin’s hands hit rock, stopping her before her face hit, and her fingers scrabbled along the surface as she quickly felt her way. Something scraped her back, dragging across the back of her breastplate with force, just as she found her way around a turn. Still no light to be seen; this wasn’t the way out.

There was only one option if she wanted to live to get help. The vial tucked in her belt pouch could only be used once, and it would take two weeks to make a new one.

If she survived.

Tarrin skidded to a halt to fumble with the latch on her pouch, clumsy fingers closing around the tiny glass bottle tucked safely in soft cloth. She ripped it free and let it fly, barely turning her head before the little capsule shattered on the dirty stone floor.

The flash was immediate, and blinding. Tarrin didn’t dare waste time shielding her face, or blinking away the spots that danced before her eyes. As soon as she made out the lumbering shape, so close it would have torn her apart if she hadn’t acted, she pulled the long dagger from its place at her thigh and plunged it into her attacker’s core.

Almost immediately, the temperature dropped. Her panting breaths became solid, clouds of heat ghosting on the air as she panted for breath, stumbling to keep her balance as the now-limp body slid off her knife to the ground.

Tarrin’s vision swam as she blinked the blur from its edges, and a new, different horror seeped into her bones. Blood pooled dark, visible in the glittering light now stuck to the nearby walls, inching along the ground in an unnatural way. It dribbled along in lines and curves, like ink being spread by an unseen quill, drawing out symbols she couldn’t identify.

But lying in the middle, dead from her dagger, lay the spindly, clawed shape of a Dava. Not a monster or demon, but a form taken by the Order clerics who prowled the deepest, darkest places as the first line of defense against escaping monsters.

A cleric, killed on sacred ground, as good as murdered by her own blade. The blood symbols glowed and faded as they were formed, each flash bringing the harrowing sensation of something breaking, some unseen lock coming loose.

Something moved at the edge of the light, and Tarrin numbly raised her head to look. The little boy stood there, taking in the scene with a look of smug satisfaction. Here in the cave, Tarrin realized he was much bigger than he appeared, much more menacing than he initially felt.

There was no missing father and no lost child; there was only Tarrin, her victim, and a youthful face smiling at her with wicked, misshapenly sharp teeth.

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