At the forest's edge, I looked back at the massacre upon the hill. The creatures--spirits, shades...whatever they were--had finished their grisly task and had been alerted to our flight. However, the witch's spell must not have extended beyond the trees. As I stood, watching, I drew my blade to try and frighten back the black shapes. I backed slowly under the shaded edges of the trees, holding the iron blade of my sword aloft, hoping that it would hold back the demons that chased us.
To my surprise, the spirits simply dissipated as they reached the edge of the trees. Like smoke wafting away from a campfire, the dark shapes broke apart and drifted upon the breeze. The entirety of the mass of dark shadows came hurtling toward the edge of the forest, but each fell into wispy vapors and passed away on the wind, their howls hanging in the air like the glare of the sun one sees after he stares into the sky and then closes his eyes.
Eventually, the world grew silent once more. My fellows had fled deeper into the forest, seeking the shelter promised by the trees. Transfixed, I watched the end of the battle that had raged atop the hill. Now, I stood alone.
Across the meadow, still standing in the middle of the road, the woman remained. Her eyes were no longer trained on the hilltop where the army--my army--had attempted to build their fortifications. Now, she looked at the place where my companions and I had disappeared into the trees; truth be told, though I was hidden beneath the shadows of the canopy above, I knew she was staring directly at me.
Without another word, she let her staff fall to the ground. It fell, the impact silenced by the distance. Raising her arms, the voluminous sleeves of her cloak flapped in the gentle breeze so that she looked like some tall, upright winged creature. I gasped as I watched her torso shift and change. Her form shrieked an otherworldly sound and the cloak was lifted by the wind and carried away. Where she had stood for so long, silent and still, she was now transformed into something that was a mixture of a woman and a large, black bird.
Again, the creature shrieked, and, flapping ebony wings, she flew directly toward the forest.
At last, I turned. I carried my sword clenched tightly in my fist as I stumbled and staggered across the leafy ground, the unseen fingers of low branches clawing at my face and upper torso as I fled into the depths of the woods. Roots, hidden by both the deepening shadows of the evening and the thick layer of leaves on the forest floor, conspired to trip me as the branches above raked at me. Somewhere above the canopy of the forest, I sensed more than anything the flapping of massive black wings, as if some enormous bird of prey was circling overhead preparing to swoop down and pluck me from the forest floor. Above all, I heard the screeching of that foul beast from hell, and it spurred me forward.
I do not know how long I ran, nor in what direction. I simply fled. I felt my life depended upon it. It might very well have depended on it.
Eventually--I do not know when--the shrieking stopped. I did not sense the massive wings flapping; I did not feel as if I was being hunted. Exhausted, I tried to push myself forward. I succeeded in taking a few more staggering steps before another hidden root wrapped itself around my boot and I pitched forward. My sword was jarred from my hand and spun into the leaf litter somewhere ahead of me. Face first, I collapsed onto the side of a knoll, gasping for breath, tears leaking unbidden from my eyes. I could taste the loam and the rot of the forest floor and the thick leaf litter into which I had tumbled, but I did not care. I only wanted to rest a moment before fleeing once again. I would run all the way back to civilization if I had to. I only wanted to be away from this godless land.
"Licinus?" a voice asked, timid in the darkness. For a second, I thought I had imagined it, until it called once more, a bit more assertive this time.
"Lupercus?" I asked, barely recognizing the dark mass that huddled next to a tree ahead of me.
"It is I, Lupercus," he stated. "The others are with me, as well." He stepped forward and his features resolved themselves slightly from the shadow.
I pulled back, reviled and terrorized, rolling onto my back and pushing at the soft, moist soil with the heels of my boots. For the briefest of moments, I thought that it was another creature. After allowing my head to clear, I recognized Lupercus, though his face was scratched and a bloody trail, now dried, marked his forehead, down his temple, and around his eye.
"Sorry, old friend," I apologized as he helped me to my feet, "I have seen more this day than most men see in their lives. I am a bit on edge."
Lupercus nodded silently and then bid me to follow. We stomped through the leaves and wove our way between the low branches until we came upon the other three squatting around a small clearing in the forest. Above, a circle of ruddy, gray-streaked clouds could be seen between the tops of the surrounding trees. Nothing moved, except for the clouds scudding by. The heavens grew darker as the hidden sun disappeared and night continued to fall.
None of us spoke; the others simply looked up when Lupercus and I joined them in the clearing. I knelt down next to the bough of a great oak and allowed myself to sink back against it. The bark was rough, the tree hard, but I relaxed into it. Lupercus suddenly loomed over me.
"Your sword, commander," he said. Without another word, he offered me the hilt of the weapon.
I accepted it from him, gratefully, and laid it across my lap. The iron of the blade glinted, despite the low light. I thought of the lives that I could have saved with it--the lives that I could have saved--and suddenly all the emotions that I had endured over the previous few hours welled within me and washed me away.
I felt tears upon my cheeks and I sobbed gently. As I wept, I heard the other men, as well, releasing their emotions. Glad that the darkness hid my shame, I buried my face in my hands and allowed the emotions carry me with them until darkness and sleep took me.
I woke several hours later. The darkness of the night was complete, though the clouds were beginning to break overhead. I heard something and sensed movement in the darkness. My eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, and what I saw caused my heart to leap into my chest.
A great, shadowy creature loomed before me, different from the creatures that had attacked on the hilltop. This one was more substantial, more real. It's face--what I could see of it--was pale and sleek not disfigured as the other monsters had been on the hillside.
It was aware of me watching it, and as I began to sit up, it turned, dropping something into the leaf litter below. My eyes looked at the thing it had dropped and I gasped as the lifeless eyes of Hilarius looked back at me.
Hilarius' face was completely white, as if the blood had drained from it. His mouth opened slackly, and I noticed a splash of blood at his throat. Terrified, I looked up at the monster which stood over him, looming even larger, more menacingly now. It made a sound that was a mixture of hissing and growling, and it flashed blood-stained white teeth as it opened its twisted maw.
The creature lunged toward me, apparently unsatisfied with having feasted upon Hilarius. My fingers groped in the darkness for any sort of weapon to use to fend it off when they found the hilt of the sword that Lupercus had returned to me earlier in the day. I held the blade forward, the tip pointed at the creature's foul heart...though I do not know whether it had a heart or not.
The monster stopped and stared at me with soulless, yellow eyes and half-snarled, half-hissed once more. It held its arms aloft, much like the woman had done earlier in the day, and swept itself away in a flurry of shadow. I looked at the space where it had been moments before, but it was gone. There was no sign it had ever been there. It was as if it had not even disturbed the leaves and litter on the forest floor, either coming to the camp or slipping away.
With the creature gone, I rediscovered my courage. I moved over to where Hilarius lay--or, more aptly--where Hilarius' body was left. I touched the mass on his neck and felt the sticky circle of blood that the creature left. Hilarius was not breathing; there was no pulse beneath my touch.
I hurried to the positions of the other three men in our crude camp, rousing them from where they slept. None of the others had seen the creature, but when I showed them the wounds on Hilarius' neck and the blood, they nodded.
"We should leave," I instructed. "There is nothing else we can do for Hilarius now. I fear that the creature might return."
Lupercus nodded, but Agorix protested. "Where are we to go?" he pressed.
"We need to make our way back to the civilized world," I instructed, "We need to warn the others of the evil that is in this land." I looked to the trees, at the surrounding shadow. "I do not know if even Traianus can tame this land," I admitted. Suddenly realizing what I had said, I looked at the others. Instead of outrage, I saw sage nods of agreement.
"Let us be gone," I said, "and may the gods protect Hilarius now."
We trooped off through the forest, picking our way carefully through the night.
That was three nights ago.
We wandered, lost, through the labyrinth of trees. We would rest when possible during the day, sleeping fitfully in turns. We tried to find sustenance in the forest, and there were some fresh shoots and plants that we were able to eat. The first day, Lupercus killed a squirrel and we roasted it over a low fire. We cut the beast into quarters and devoured it. After that, game was difficult to find.
At night, we would watch the shadows carefully. Again, we would draw lots for guard duty while the others slept shallowly and without dreams. Those who remained awake would watch for any other demon of the forest and raise the alarm if something moved from out of the shadows.
It did no good.
The creature returned that night and claimed Herculius while he was on guard duty with Lupercus. Lupercus raised a cry, but it was too late. The beast already had sunk its fangs into Herculius' neck, and I awoke just in time to watch the last vestiges of life flicker in his eyes and go out.
I have seen many men die in my lifetime; watching Herculius' death will remain with me until my final days.
We fled again, pressing south, away from the monster, away from the carnage on the hilltop, away from the witch woman. Again, that night, we waited, watching for the creature. Again, it came, silent and lethal. Agorix was the victim this time. The creature swept in from the shadows, grabbed Agorix by the throat, and flung him into the darkness. We heard a small struggle, and then there was silence.
Lupercus turned to me.
"It is toying with us," he said. I agreed. I felt powerless, however.
"We need to get away," I returned. It was all I could offer. Lupercus nodded, and we were off once more.
Through the day and into the night we hurried away, though we could now feel the eyes of the creature upon us. As the gloaming began to fall across the forest, a sense of helplessness set in. Together, we found the sturdiest oak tree we could find and made our meager camp near it.
"I will take the first watch," Lupercus offered, "though I am exhausted."
"No, my friend," I offered, but Lupercus held up a silencing hand.
"If I am to die this day, I will do it on my feet," he responded. Nodding, I unsheathed my sword and handed the hilt to him.
"Take this, then," I instructed. "They fear the iron." Lupercus nodded, and I sat at the base of the tree, shaking, though the air was warm and I was covered in sweat. I leaned my head back against the rough bark of the tree's trunk and waited. I would watch, too.
But, my eyes drifted shut.
I was awakened by the clatter of my sword hitting the ground. I turned and found Lupercus in its grip, his eyes already dim and dead, blood dribbling from the creature's mouth.
"Monster!" I screamed, grabbing my sword and swinging it at the creature that held my the lifeless form of my friend in its grip. The monster retreated, and I continued swinging my blade at it in a frenzied, desperate attempt to injure it. When the monster had moved beyond the length of my wild swinging, it swept itself into the shadows once more.
With tears on my cheeks, I shouted wordless challenges into the depths of the forest. My voice echoed throughout the tree-lined hills. No sound returned, but I could feel the darkness gathering around me. My turn was next.
I fled. It was all I could do. I was not proud. I was angered to leave my friend there. I knew, though, that I had to get back to civilization. So, I ran.
Throughout the night, I staggered between the trees, shouting as my anger and frustration overwhelmed me time and again. As the dawn broke over the land, I collapsed into a heap and slept where I fell. Finally, sometime around midday, I awoke once more and pressed on. I knew the creatures of the darkness could not follow me as easily during the daylight.
However, the sun inexorably moved toward the western horizon, and I knew my time was limited. This time, however, I grabbed as many stout branches as I could find. I sat beneath the spreading canopy of another oak and sharpened the sticks into stakes. When the light of the day failed me, I pressed my back against a tree and shouted my defiance once more toward the forest. This time, a sort of malicious sentience pressed back. It was silent, but it was an acknowledgment of my challenge, and a willingness to take it up.
My name is Gaius Flavius Licinus. I am a Legate in the glorious army of Rome, serving under the command of the wise and just Emperor Traianus. If you are reading this, then I am most likely already dead. I have written these words as a warning to those who would follow. This is a diseased land, a cursed land. It cries out for the civilizing hand of Rome, and yet I do not know if Rome can civilize it.
With my back pressed to the sturdy trunk of a tree, I await my enemies. I know they lurk in the shadows; I know that they want me dead. I will fight them to the death. I will fight them to honor my fallen comrades. I will fight them to honor my fallen men. I will fight them for the glory of Rome.
They are coming, and I am ready for them.