Prologue

           Every hunting trip he had taken south of the forest previously was more or less the same. Edwin would venture out either alone or with the twins and scour the perimeter of the monastery before he would abstract himself and go into the southern-most parts of the known forest to hunt wild deer and squirrels. Though he didn’t know any magic, he was the greatest archer out of everyone in their niche populace so that the cooks would often ask him to go hunt and bring back meat in between waiting for the next supply shipment to their otherwise isolated community.

           He found himself at home among the quiet of the trees and the soft rustle of leaves as the fading summer wind blew forth warm-honeyed scents of blooming flowers and the equally strong must of autumns past where his boots would scuff up long since forgotten layers of decaying humus. Although here, among some of the tallest trees in the forest, the strongest scent was that of the buck he was tracking, as far as he could tell the strength of its musk was so powerful he was sure he had been following it for nigh on a mile without even the slightest track in sight.

           Nightfall was nearing and he grew worried that he wouldn’t be able to find it before the sun set and it was too dark to have any hope of hitting anything. Though he was a skilled marksman, the trees would otherwise obscure any light from the pale moon as this part of the forest was far older, and thus the tree canopy was far denser.

           It wasn’t until the sun’s yellow glow faded to a dim orange that the beast was finally in sight. He finally came to realize there were no tracks simply because the buck had not moved, and was instead slumped against a tree with one of its front legs snapped forward, disabling it from moving at all. The tree it rested against had low hanging branches that obscured his view of its head, but even without seeing the rack of antlers on its head it was unmistakably huge. Though it was bent halfway to the ground its shoulders still came up to the first branch of the tree. It was easily the biggest one Edwin had ever seen.

           The deer’s labored breathing was apparent as soon as came into his sight so that he knew it was already dying, however it was so monstrous it was simply impossible that he could have any chance of carrying it back to the monastery by himself. This was the first time he wished that he had brought someone along, though he far preferred hunting by himself.

           Instead of firing at it from a distance, though his bow was already knocked and ready, he chose to rest his arrow and approach it. Something that could grow that big and survive that long deserved respect, though he knew ultimately he would probably end up killing him just to put him out of his misery. In spite of the overpowering smell Edwin continued forward with soft steps as to not alarm the colossal ungulate, until he got close enough that his head came into view.

           He was sure that he would’ve stood nearly twelve feet at the shoulder. It was a shame for a creature so majestic to die in such a way; his broken leg and labored breathing lit unto Edwin a fear that he himself had had. He didn’t like spending much time with others, but the fear of dying alone far outweighed that proclivity. When the rack of antlers came into Edwin’s view he finally got a full sense of the buck’s power. His antlers spanned almost his entire height, with innumerable points that jutted out in every direction. The two black eyes peered down at him with an eerie calm, even though Edwin was sure the buck could simply swing his head downwards and gore him head to toe, it simply huffed light warm breaths down at him as if he weren’t even there.

           The broken leg was bad, far worse than what he could tell from afar. Jagged bone thrust out of the reddish brown hair, soaking the tree roots below with blood. It was at this point he knew just exactly what needed to be done.

           Edwin took two steps back and readied his bow a second time. This time was not for the wanting of food or sport, as it normally was for him, but a respect for something greater than himself. There was nothing he could do to save him, so he simply aimed for the buck’s head with a knocked arrow and a steady gaze. The buck returned his stare as if it was expecting what was next and turned its head slightly to the right with a look so intense it made Edwin question his own mortality for a fleeting moment. The movement rustled the trees above, and a single red leaf drifted down and brushed past the tip of his arrow.

           Distracted for a moment, Edwin followed the leaf’s path down until he was stirred by a commotion. He looked back up at the buck and noticed his eyes were widened with a previously absent look of terror that had set it. Though he was disabled, he lurched forward shaking the branches again with his eyes fixated behind Edwin. Edwin kept his bow readied and turned half way round before a sharp pain struck him in the back of the head, and sent his arrow flying into a nearby tree before the world faded to black.

 

BREAK

           The next thing he knew Edwin was staring at the ground that was rushing under him even though he himself wasn’t moving. The green undergrowth of the forest had given way to a blackened mockery, where most of the grass was dead and all the plants were shriveled and lifeless. Something was carrying him off but his blonde curly mess of hair that hung in front of his face obstructed his view of everything except the ground below.

           He shook the hair from his face and stole a glance forward. A pair of leather boots nearly as black as the ground marched onward with an awkward load bearing gait. He assumed it was the same individual that suspended his torso upwards.

That doesn’t really tell me much. He thought to himself

           As best as he could tell his feet were being carried behind him so that they didn’t drag upon the ground. To his right tree stumps that were corrupted the same as the other plants sat as stark memories of a forest that was. To his left the reddish brown fur of an animal was being hauled forward in similar fashion. It didn’t take long for him to pass the critter at which point his suspicion of it being the very same one he’d encountered earlier was confirmed when the same many pointed antler rack came into view. Dead eyes stared back at him as the great buck’s neck was twisted far beyond its naturally turning point so that the antlers didn’t catch upon the ground. The buck bobbed up and down, carried by his antlers and haunches towards their mutual unknown destination. Fear welled up inside him that his fate would be far worse than that of the buck’s.

           Edwin knew that if he so much as struggled to get out of his restraints he would either be killed or disabled beyond his ability to move, so he waited, biding his time until his he and his captors reached their eventual destination. They could only carry him so far before having either reached wherever their camp was, or having to rest. Though they were probably barbarians like the rest of the troublemakers in the southern wilds, something seemed far more sinister as the blackened ground gave way to rotting goo and foul mud that smelled of sulfur and death.

           An hour or so passed along with an immeasurable distance of ground. Not only were the individuals carrying him extraordinarily strong, but they didn’t seem to tire or slow in their pace through their entire trek. Finally he was simply cast forward onto his face with a wet slap into the foul mud. He slowly rose to his feet, worried of what was next to find himself in the center of a makeshift camp made from various animal hide tents and fire pits that burned an eerie light and cast strange shifting shadows as the sun dipped into the tree line that wasn’t yet broken by the camp boundaries.

           He cleared the mud from his eyes and stared forward at the man in front of him, who looked human, although he was a complete perversion of what most looked to be. His pale skin held no mark or blemish from what he could gleam behind the dark cowl that obscured the upper half of his face. He was otherwise adorned in long black robes that dipped into the mud, as well as a whip that hung around the back of his neck. Behind him was a massive wooden effigy of a dragon’s head with two torches burning in place of its eyes and a makeshift set of stairs that led to its open mouth.

“The hell do you want?” Edwin spat out with disdain, mouth soured from the foulness of the place.

           He got no response but was instead forced to his knees by firm hands pressed to his shoulders; apparently the two that had carried him there had yet to abandon him. The strange figure took several long steps forward so that Edwin’s vision was filled with nothing but the black robes he wore. When he stepped back into full view he was holding out Edwin’s bow. It was an oaken longbow given to him by his father before he left for the order. His father was a master fletcher, and the bow was his most prized possession, as well as the only one he had left from home.

           “Your obedience.” The stranger’s voice crept out to him like smoke, and scratched at his ears like insects trying to crawl in. Beyond his obviously unnatural form, his deep voice was as profoundly unsettling as it was strangely enticing. Edwin’s only reaction was a shiver that ran down the length of his spine in his attempt to shake whatever influence was thrust upon him.

           Though he was disturbed, he was not to be swayed by cheap tricks and fear tactics. These were savages and he would deal with them as he was taught. “Fuck you. I’ll die before I bow into this filth at your feet.” His voice was unwavering, but he swore to die before breaking his oath, so die he would.

           “Very well.” He grabbed the bow with both whitened hands and snapped it in half with ease, tossing it aside into the muck. Though Edwin was prepared for torture or death, the gesture still hurt. It was his last memory from home and they stole it from him.

           After casting the bow aside, he swiftly turned about and started up the stairs to the mouth of the dragon effigy. Both of Edwin’s unseen captors began dragging him forward, this time he fought against it but through all his struggles they continued to drag him along, up each step and to the mouth of the dragon. When he was finally pulled to the top the forced him to the end of the platform that hung over into the mouth over a huge stone bowl perched in place of a tongue. His shoulders were extended just past the edge, exposing his neck to the air. A strange warm air emitted from the mouth of the dragon as if it were a living being, breathing in the taste of fresh meat.

           An icy breath blew into Edwin’s left ear in stark contrast to the damp warmth of his surroundings that sent terrible chills down his spine. He contested the forceful grip that held him down to no avail.

“This is only the beginning.”

           The sound of cloth fluttered around behind him and brought into view a crescent blade with serrated edges on the internal curve. As the blade flashed into his vision he caught a brief glimpse in the polished steel of his eyes, darkened and gaunt, as well as the piercing gaze of the one baring it down to him. His eyes were an unusual orange with fiery red pupils that burned for a brief second into Edwin’s vision a memory that he could never forget. That was the look of pure unadulterated hatred. It was a blight to the world, and it was the last sight that he saw before the cold steel of the blade was pressed to his throat.

“Shit.”

           The cold sensation of the metal pressed to his skin was replaced by a warm burn. The blood that spurted from the now gaping wound ran down his chest so that he experienced the strange sensation of getting both warmer as he was coated in his own blood, and colder as the blood drained out of his wound. His vision started to fade and he coughed out globules of blood that fell into the plain stone basin and subsequently evaporated leaving no trace. A steady stream followed and sank into the stone as well before his vision faded to black. His final thought was of the buck and how he too stared alone into the oblivion.