The Dark Woods had been silent for two weeks: it was the only thing anyone in the Kingdom was talking about. The last time there had been no monsters emerging from it to harry our lands, a dragon had taken root within. The dragon had bound all the monsters under its awful power and emerged to conquer: three cities had burned to ash before it was contained as everyone who was never there remembers. The Queen does remember: the ancient succession of ruling queens almost broken, the death and destruction that are birthright and warning both.
And so I was sent forth. Once a Knight of the Realm and now the royal Champion for my sins. Champions have leeway that knights do not, because so few last in the post. An ill-judged joke had sealed my fate but I knew destiny answered to luck as much as fate. My blade had the best poisons I could find, my armour the best enchantments that money could procure and my mount prepared for war. I had survived four weeks longer than the previous ten champions. I did not expect to survive this.
You entered the Dark Woods with armies or you did not survive it. It was almost midday, and the forest might have looked almost ordinary save for the shape of the trees and the ancient warding wall that still held it back from expanding into the known and unknown realms. “Tirel,” I whispered to my mount. “hold still.” And I rode into a forest of thick overhanging trees. Within moments, it was barely possible to see that the sun was shining at all. I whispered a word, and the blade shone with pale fire.
That the energy came from me and not from Tirel or the blade was a secret only Tirel knew. A Knight of the Realm did not use any magics – a champion far less so. I considered the matter of my own survival to me far more important than any custom, no matter how well-intentioned it was. The forest about us remained dark, but the lesser shadows skittered away from the light of the blade. There were paths that were mostly the flee routes of prey so we made our way along some to wind deeper into the wood.
The blade flickered, and I cancelled the magic within it, rested a few moments and set it to blaze again. I had no desire to waste my resources and the magic lasting only an hour let me know when a real hour had past – which was at least a solid connection to the world outside. An hour into the woods and we were not dead. Nothing had even tried to kill us.
“The Queen was right,” I said, as much for the sound as anything else. Even the insects in the woods were silent. My voice left no echo. “There is something very bad here.”
And I urged Tirel onward. I had my duty, if nothing else. It is a cold mistress, but not as cold as death.
It was three more hours before I encountered anything else. A skraeling: a small thing of shadows, too thin to be real. It emerged from a tree, or between two trees. “Human? Human unwise, being here. Dark place.”
“This is the Dark Woods.”
“No. Worse. Empty.”
“Where is everything?”
“Hiding from the monster.”
“Where is the monster?”
“Heh! Funny human. Mad human. Follow the road. All roads leads to the monster. All and every one.”
“Why are you here?”
“Home. Stayed. Everyone fled, but stayed.” It’s eyes blazed for a moment. “Everyone fled but this is my home,” it hissed.
I blinked, made sure I kept still. Gone was the odd halting, weird voice. Only a monster spoke to me now. It grinned mockingly as I raised my blade and vanished before I could do anything.
I let out a breath and pushed my mount onward. The forest remained so empty of sound that not even the dead seemed to haunt it and I had it on very good authority that they did.
We reached a grove after five more hours of travel. My sword still burned, though keeping that magic going for over seven hours had begun to tire me a little. Not a lot, but a little could be a lot when facing any kind of monster. My father taught me that a lifetime ago.
The grove was large and unnatural, as if the forest was trying to pull itself away from something more than anything else. Tirel shivered a little and I got off my mount slowly. Despite the grove, there was no light coming down from the sky: no starlight, no moonshine. Just darkness, under which sat a human boy of twelve staring into space. I knew he was twelve somehow, but had no idea why.
Tirel moved. The warbeast only looked like a horse, and had once driving a young dragon away from me long enough for me to launch the final poisoned strike into it. The beast moved, a blur of ancient magics in a horse-shape, and the boy just stood up. He moved almost slowly and Tirel wasn’t there a moment later. No clash of magics, no terrible power. Tirel was simply gone.
I meant to charge, but grief turned my steps into slower movements. “You killed Tirel.”
“I am tired of being attacked.” The voice sounds human, but there are things under the words I have no words for. “I thought I would be left alone in a dark wood.”
“You have been noticed.” My words sounded almost like an apology.
“I will leave then.” And he gestured, casual in the cruelty of it, and the world itself tore open in front of him like ripened fruit to become a doorway to some other place.
“Wait. I would have your name, to put on Tirel’s grave.”
He turned back. “You think you can use grief on me? Guilt?” And each word drove me back a step. I had no words for his expression. “My name is Jayseltosche.”
“But I know you. My grandfather defeated the demon Archon with your aid.” I didn’t mean to speak the words out loud.
“I was eleven. I was a different person then.”
I opened my mouth.
“If you ask me to be jaysome, I will end you and your world.” The words were soft, flat, and contained only truth.
I watched him step into the portal and vanish. Felt the dark woods shudder about me. I turned and walked home, and nothing that returned to the woods tried to stop me. I told the queen there was a monster, and it had left but was not gone. She asked no questions. She even let me retire a year later, which no Champion has before.
But I wasn’t a Champion anymore. I don’t know what I am anymore. I walk the streets of the Kingdom. I find children whose faces remind me of the terrible look in Jay’s eyes. And I help them, try to pull them away from something too deep to be called an abyss. It is all I can do, to make amends for being too afraid to try and help the monster in the dark woods.