Black boots, bare feet, and sandals smashed the bramble of the forest floor. Torches blazed in the dark night with shouts of the villagers ringing through the leaves, birds and wind flying from the woods in attempts to flee from the intrusion of man.
The humans were going on a hunt.
They followed the stranger with a passion. The dark woods filled with blobs of light and distant cries. Vigor kept the men going, and Rasmus felt a certain dread. To annoy the creatures of the Wyrd was a common mistake of Man’s, one that did not end well for those without a clever ear and a tricky heart, but Rasmus couldn’t drudge up sympathy or concern for the villagers. To a certain extent, he almost hoped that a few of them would encounter severe problems as they callously clamored through the woods.
It was not going as planned. Only an hour had passed and yet the mob was already tiring. Even Rasmus, who had been at the head, ushering people to spread out and listen for sounds of any sort of find, felt his drive dwindle and his pace slow.
The air lingered damply around them, hanging down like a musky omen. Rasmus believed the forest had something against humans, as he did not get much farther than his first intrusion when the sinking desire to turn back kicked in. He stopped in his place, watching the oafs around him equal him in a mouse’s pace, anger replaced by caution.
Rasmus prodded them to continue, though he had his own doubts. Something about the way the trees leered and the darkness dangled along their branches started a depressing nature, and hopelessness barreled its way into them.
Two days was enough time for whatever might have happened to the child to already be long done.
Conversation whispered along the trees before them. The men of Rasmus’s team jerked in a unified fashion before the words grew louder. They recognized them to be their fellow humans’, a flickering light announcing their presence.
Rasmus pushed through, stating, “Keep going. I’m going to see what the other group has found.”
He had a certain level of optimism they stopped for a reason, but as he drew closer, he realized he gave them far too much credit.
“He’s like, what? Ten?”
“At least in his twenties,” another man replied.
As Rasmus pushed through the shadows and roots, the figures came into better view. A man leaned against a tree, torch out, while others just stood in a circle, talking. The young man slowed, shallow hopes dying away to his basic suspicions.
“I can’t believe I’m out here. I don’t know how the whelp got us to listen to him.”
“I wasn’t about to sit there looking heartless.”
“My wife cooked me a big meat pie, and here I am tromping in the woods.”
A hesitant foot wavered as Rasmus listened. But after the instance of annoyance, he barged forward, stepping through the bush in an easy manner. “What are you doing?”
They all looked at him, thoroughly unimpressed. No one moved, but no one spoke either.
“There’s a little girl out there.”
They glanced at each other before one finally shrugged, leaning up off his tree to say, “We’re not going to find her in the woods.”
Rasmus’s face turned hot. He tilted his head with a clenched jaw. “Even if that’s true then all we’ve wasted is the extra gut you’re toting.” He snapped. “I don’t care what you believe. I don’t care if you think you’re a stoned magic-wielder stuck in a mushroom induced fantasy existence, you’re going to help me find this child if there’s anything to find! Now go!”
Some of them started to move. One of them kept his eye on the young man. Rasmus’s hand went to the handle on his hip, a sudden urge for disobedience moving him.
Something bright exploded. Orange flaring across his vision. Wind whooshed by, slapping branches back and roots forwards. A rocket of natural projectiles took Rasmus off the ground, dirt and debris cracking down on him. His arm jabbed to protect himself, but he found he had landed flat on his back. It didn’t hurt, and for a minute, he wasn’t even sure what had happened.
His chest felt as if something hard had smashed into it. A blinding amount of dirt ate his eyes, scraping one side of his face. Mouth filled with dust and hair sticking on his skin, the sudden windedness of it all had him sitting there for a moment longer than needed.
That was still several moments shorter than those around him.
When he eventually managed to rise, stumbling as his foot bent to thwart him, the sound of the world seemed to stop. Silence enveloped him; he thought he’d gone deaf. He glanced about to assess the direction of the distress. He tripped forward, a sudden and unknown dizziness leading him, before his tearing eyes blinked out the obstruction and he walked.
The trees had been altered very little, the sudden disturbance having no effect on them, despite having bowled over several men in its wake.
Rasmus’s thoughts were running. What the hell was out here to cause such destruction? Kaia would know, but he was not his sister. He’d never seen such raw power, and for a moment he even believed that it may have been an invisible stalker attacking him, for what else could it have been that would knock him and his men down so hard and leave absolutely none of the trees even bruised?
But as this thought passed through his head, he heeled to the side of the others who had gotten up to escape.
Another explosion cracked in the distance. They passed many who stood in bewilderment, laid in pain, or invested in arguments.
He only left behind a limited number, attempting to follow the two men who also hoped to see the cause.
Rasmus, upon finding himself lost, started to slow. The signs of the destruction appeared limited and only a few wind-tousled branches demonstrated anything out of the ordinary. There was not a path to follow.
He heard shouting. The explosion went off again.
This time, he was not knocked down. A steady grip on the trunk next to him cemented him in his place. The wind ripped through again, but this time it was not so merciful on the woods.
A tree plummeted to the ground before him, slamming into the forked branches of the tree above.
Rasmus ducked, throwing a hand over his head. The ground seemed to wave underneath his feet, quaking beneath the soles of his boots. He couldn’t tell if his body betrayed him or he had stumbled into an earthquake.
The deafness died down and he ran. The farther he drew into the depths, the more the damage wrecked the world around him. Trees raped of their leaves glowed white and naked in the moonlight as they leered down on him. Going deeper, more had been uprooted. An opening in the woods appeared far out in front of him. He could see the black charred area, but no sight of anything moving. Caution overcame him and he began to slow.
Something wacked him in the head.
He stumbled first, then he heard the screams.
The club smashed into the arm. He turned on his heel, driving the tip of his weapon thick into his attacker. There was no second catch when a blade sliced into flesh. It dug harder than in skin, a satisfying chop.
He looked up. He had attacked a branch. Rasmus hesitated, then pulled the blade from the splintering wood—a hard first pull, but easy after breaking.
A battle sounded through the thicket, the men’s short cries very few in comparison. When the dagger was released, he spun back around to push farther.
Something caught him by the ankle. He fell. His hand shot out, snatching at a branch, saving him. But the grasp on his foot just jerked again. He was yanked from the earth. With ferocious force, it yanked him through the dirt. He rolled onto his back. A root laced around his leg.
He slashed. Bark flew. Any wood in his way splintered apart. One handed, he grabbed at a bush, managing to hold his ground… until it broke.
His face slammed in the dirt. The root yanked him back. Its strength was not all that great, and the friction of the hard, rocky dirt kept him from being sucked into the darkness. As he moved to slash again, he saw motion from the corner of his eye. Snakes, wormlike shadows, skitted out towards him. Branches lashed around him. Roots bound his shoulders, wood looped around his wrists, twigs dug at his shirt. He began to flail, fighting to stand.
The bark ripped along his skin with a spray of splinters. He yanked up his right hand, rolling his weight to his left. As he threw it up high above his head, the tension gave. Rasmus turned, blinking into the dark to see the root squirming in the air, only about a foot in length. Suddenly he realized it was not the trees that attacked him, but large worm-like beasts.
A surge of disgust caused him to violently shudder. The creature flew. Rasmus forced himself to his feet, beating off their still pulling arms. They popped out of the dirt with screeches of rage. They clung to him like leeches, thick brown creatures hanging along his limbs. Their fat bellies latched onto him, pointed nose and tails wrapping about his wrists like tight children’s hands.
As he attempted to fling them off, their hard bodies digging deep, those on the ground started to leap at him.
The worms came at him like catapults, their hard, wooden exteriors slamming against him like clubs. He took to fleeing, running through the forest towards the black opening, flinging the creatures off in frantic directions.
They clung to his pant legs, digging their sharp edges in as they gripped tight. Many fell, but a few remained, weighing him down. They burrowed into his ankles. Some from behind tried to give chase. As he gazed back into the dark night, he could see their flying black bodies bouncing high in the air after him.
Rasmus made it away to safety with only one very strong branch worm still sticking to his ankle, holding on for dear life.
As he rounded the fallen trees, tilted to a harrowing angle, splintering branches jutting out from demented places, he spied off in the distance where the shouting was coming from.
A body lay on the ground; he could not see why it had gone so limp. Another figure flailed, struggling in the shadows. Rasmus could not understand. He rushed forward, dagger clutched tightly in hand to attack whatever fought the panicked man.
His running suddenly turned to a stagger. The horror of the darkness sunk down around him. He stared at the small panicked man, the inability to rush forward suddenly overcoming him. Thoughts went blank.
It was a harsh scream that snapped him out of it. Rasmus surged forward, prepared to take anything on that could possibly have been in this wood.
That was when the full front of the beast came into sight.
A porcelain monster glistened in a beam of light, stepping forward with one large foot. The earth sank underneath the beast’s weight in a slow, heaving fashion. Fiery eyes burned under the shadow-heavy brow as the creature with monstrous pointed teeth clumped forward. Like a distorted man, it leered at them, a hunger devouring its human features. A raised claw almost beckoned them forward just before it lunged.
Rasmus darted as the thing tackled the villager before him. Rasmus leaped, throwing up the dagger in the air and catching the handle properly. He brought it down into the leathery back. The creature didn’t even flinch.
It threw its attacker back with one hand. Rasmus hit the tree with a shocking jolt. The man underneath it cried out. The vision of the blade slicing into the papery skin, drawing no blood, knocking the tightly wound flesh loose as though it was poorly formed wrapping, would come to Rasmus’s mind years later whenever he lay alone in the dark.
The man under the beast attempted to crawl away. It raised its hand again.
This time there was no wind. The deafening screech of the large boom was negligible in comparison. Though the deafening loudness to it still remained, this was more of a peaceful blow, one that did not affect the environment at all.
The beast fell.
Rasmus stared, eyes stuck on the creature now gaping up at the sky with the absence of life. But slowly, the man managed to tear his eyes from the dead beast, raising them to another figure in the dark. From the shadows stepped another, dropping down the gun to his side to look at his tidy work.
The stranger smiled at Rasmus. He strolled forward to make certain the deed was done. All that Rasmus could catch was the flash of crimson cloak and the defining hat. It was a Vampire Hunter. He was in trouble.