The Scorned House
A shadow was cast over the Haunted Woods as dark clouds gathered. A thick haze shrouded the forest of leafless trees. Along a narrow, winding dirt path, a lone, spirited young Bori made his way down the trail, lantern held high and close, his eyes wide, glancing back and forth, watching for any sign of movement behind the trees and within the very shadows.
It was never advisable for travelers to pay a visit to the woods at such a late hour. All sorts of untold creatures of the night, living or not, were known to roam the lands, among other dangers. The Bori knew well enough that he could not afford to be careless for even a second. He understood the importance of remaining vigilant and fully aware of one’s surroundings at all times, especially in a place as vast and dangerous as the Haunted Woods.
The Bori came to a sudden stop. He squinted his eyes, focusing on a peculiar landmark a few feet right in front of him; a medium sized rock, it’s surface decked with claw marks etched deep into the stone. At that moment, he lowered his lantern.
He had crossed paths with that very same stone twice now. Now he was starting to get anxious. He recalled a story he heard not too long ago, at a local inn somewhere near the outskirts of Meridell, that the entire forest was like an ever-changing maze; almost as if in the dead of night, the trees, rocks and even the earth would shift and move, turning paths into dead-ends and open others that at first were impassable. To him, the Haunted Woods itself could be very much alive.
He proceeded to rub his eyes as he fought back a yawn. With no sign of the nearest town to be found for miles, he needed to find shelter soon, unless he was willing to risk waking up to the sight of leering eyes staring back at him in the middle of the night, or worse. He inspected his lantern; the candle was half melted, but he knew he had plenty of light left for at least the night.
He raised his head; the gloomy skies above darkened as nightfall approached. It wouldn’t be long before the Woods would be pitch-black, and without the light of his lantern or moonlight to guide him in the dark, he would be as blind as Samuel No-Eyes, only without his superior sense of direction.
“Well, at least it’s not—”
A sudden loud rumbling sounded in the sky above, catching the young Bori off guard. Droplets of water drizzling from above, at first merely a drizzle, turned into a shower in seconds, drenching him and extinguishing his lantern, soon followed by the reverberating sound of thunder.
“Raining…” he continued, “just my luck.”
Crossing his arms, he tugged on his grey cloak in an attempt to keep his head dry and his vision clear amidst the oncoming rainstorm. He trudged through the woods, keeping his head down and his eyes peeled. The wind began to pick up, casting the rain into his eyes, forcing him to squint. Mud coated his feet and his clothes were soaked.
A sharp shooting pain suddenly seared through one of his toes, he let out a gasp as he tripped, landing flat on his snout, crashing into the mud. Looking over his shoulder, he had stubbed his toe on a rock as big as his foot.
“This just isn’t my day.” he lamented as he got back up on his feet, brushing the grime off his clothes.
As he raised his head, he was surprised to find himself standing in front of a wide mouth of a cave on the side of a mountain.
Almost instantly, his spirits were lifted. Without hesitation, he dashed into the cave. He breathed a sigh of relief, glad to be out of the rain. He checked his surroundings; moss grew on the walls, pebbles and loose stones littered the floor, the air reeked with dampness and swarms of insects of various sizes and lengths slithered and crawled all around.
He cringed; the ice caves in Terror Mountain seemed like paradise compared to this. At least he never had to worry about any insects crawling over him while he slept. At first he didn’t think he would ever dare spend the night, let alone even sleep in an infested cave such as this one. He was about to turn tail, but a sudden thunderclap changed his mind in an instant.
Finding an isolated spot away from the insects, he set up camp for the night. Using a flint and stone and a few small twigs and branches stored in his knapsack, he made a small campfire. After a little bit of kindling, a small flame flickered to life. As the flames rose, he could feel warmth returning to his hands. The flames flickered, the sputtering embers moving in sync with the rising smoke. The warm blaze gave him plenty of comfort, as the radiating heat eventually warmed his whole body, drying his drenched clothes and fur.
Wrapping his cloak around him like a blanket, he slid down onto the rough ground right beside the fire, using the knapsack under his head as a pillow. It was hardly comfortable, but it was better than lying down on top of rough, stony rocks or dirty soil. He closed his eyes to fall asleep, but the sounds of the crickets, the torrential rainstorm and the crawling of the insects all around, rang in his ears, keeping his senses on full alert, despite the protests of his tired body.
Relax, Armin. It’s only for just this one night. And then I can promise myself never to set foot into the Haunted Woods ever again.
He turned his attention back to the fire, the fresh firewood started to crumble to ashes. His ears twitched, he kept his focus on the flickering flames as his eyes closed. He quickly learned to cancel out all other noise; the crackling of wood as it burned in the flames sang him to sleep.
Armin awoke sometime in the middle of the night. He was greeted by a cold, damp draft breezing through the mouth of the cave. He could hear the rain and wind outside. He shuddered; mist steamed from his breath, the sudden chill freezing him to the bone. When his vision cleared, he found himself staring directly into the long extinguished campfire, the logs and branches gone, reduced to nothing but ash. He moaned in disappointment, he had no more firewood or any material he could spare to keep the fire going. Although he may have lived in Terror Mountain his entire life and was used to freezing temperatures, he still very much welcomed the warm, comforting heat of the flame.
Feeling defeated, he closed his eyes, hoping that the next day would come soon and the rainstorm gone with the night.
A sudden loud sound reverberated off every surface in the room. Armin’s eyes bolted open, his ears twitched and his heart began to pound against his chest. He was still, his ears perked, waiting, listening.
There was nothing but the sound of rain splashing on the soil and the howling of the wind from outside. Was it his imagination? Perhaps it was just some loose pebbles collapsing from the roof of the cave down onto the floor? He wondered if his mind was playing tricks on him. He breathed a sigh of relief, calming his nerves.
There it was again! His muscles tensed. It was almost immediately followed by the sound of loose pebbles and stones crunching on the ground. The clacking continued, it grew louder and louder with every passing second. It took him only a moment to recognize the clacking as the sound of footsteps. Now he knew for sure he wasn’t just hearing things. He was definitely not alone.
He shuddered; he could sense something approaching nearby, coming from further within the cave. Suddenly the footsteps stopped. His ears twitched, it was right behind him. He didn’t dare move an inch, primal fear holding him back. He hoped that remaining perfectly still would trick it, whatever it was, into thinking he was just a rock and pass right over him unnoticed.
Seconds passed, the sound of crunching gravel sounded again. He stirred, slightly moving his head to the side. A silhouetted figure walked by him, it’s features shrouded in the absence of light. His eyes followed it as it made its way around his makeshift campsite. It knelt down beside the fire, reached out with one hand and picked up a small bit of ash from the pile.
Armin lay still as the figure inspected the campfire. A moment later, it brushed the clouds of ash off its fingers and stood back up. It then turned its head to the side. Through the dim lighting, he could just barely see a pair of pale eyes gleaming in the dark. Armin almost gasped with fright. It was staring straight at him! Then, to the young Bori’s horror, the unsettling eyes motioned towards him.
His mind raced, his nerves on edge, heart beating faster than ever.
Slowly, gently, he reached for his trusty dagger, unsheathing it as quietly as possible, holding it to his chest.
There’s no one here…just walk away…walk away…please!
He shuddered as it came closer and closer; soon its head vanished from view, until all he could see was a pair of feet inches away from his head. Now he was really scared. He couldn’t bear to look, clenching his eyes shut. He didn’t dare move a muscle, but inside he was trembling, shaking like mad, nerve-wracked, waiting for the creature to discover him at any moment.
Seconds passed. All he could hear were the sounds of shifting gravel, footsteps echoing around him. It went on for several moments, growing louder and louder.
Then suddenly, it stopped.
There was silence.
Armin froze. He opened his eyes, the figure was gone, nowhere to be seen. He breathed a sigh of relief.
Whoa, that was a close one! Could’ve sworn for sure I was—
Just then he felt a tug on his cowl, the hood wrenched off his head. His eyes widened in horror. He looked up, meeting a pair of wide, pale eyes staring straight back at him.
He tore off his makeshift blanket, jumping back in fright. To his surprise, he wasn’t the only one; the figure recoiled, slipping into the cover of darkness. Armin held his dagger close.
“Stand back! I have a dagger and a slingshot and I know how to use them!” he shouted, his voice ringing with agency, hiding any hint of fear.
“W—wait! I’m not here to fight!” the figure called back from within the shadows.
Armin was caught off guard by the mysterious figure’s voice. It belonged to that of a girl.
“You…you’re not going to rob me?” Armin asked.
“N…no! Why would you think that?”
“I mean, you were sneaking around in the dark, looking through my stuff! You could have been a thief for all I know!”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you like that. Why don’t we start over?”
The figure approached, stepping out of the shadows and into the light. It was a young Usul in a red cape. A crimson cowl concealed her face. She was short, almost his height, if not slightly taller.
This surprised Armin, he did not expect to run into anyone even remotely friendly out in the far reaches of the Haunted Woods, especially on the outskirts of any town, let alone a kid just like him.
“What’s your name?” the Usul said.
“Oh, well nice to meet you, Armin. I’m Gilly,” she lowered her head, “now that we’re properly introduced, I’d appreciate if you put away that dagger.”
Armin blinked; he stared down at the dagger he held in his trembling hands, quickly sheathing it back into the scabbard on his belt.
There was a sudden sound of stones grinding against each other. Armin glanced back towards Gilly, who was kneeling in front of the campfire, placing a lit lantern atop the pile of ashes, lighting up the cave once more in a reddish-orange glow.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” Gilly asked.
“No, I’m not. I’m from Terror Mountain.” Armin said, sitting down beside the campfire.
He extended his arms, reaching his hands over the lantern. The radiating heat was nowhere near as warm as burning firewood, but it was better than nothing.
“How about you? Do you live here?” Armin asked.
“Yes. I’ve been living in the Haunted Woods for as long as I can remember. ” Gilly said.
“I see. But, I kind of meant, do you live ‘here’.” Armin said, gesturing at the cave.
“Oh. No, not quite. I kinda used to though.”
Armin blinked, “What do you mean?”
“I mean that I used to not have a place to call home. Some nights I would sleep in caves like this one, and sometimes a hollow log would do just fine. That’s how I used to live not too long ago, before I met Sophie and her family. They let me sleep over at their home whenever I drop by nowadays.”
“Sophie?” Armin raised an eyebrow.
Gilly glanced at him for a moment, “You know, Sophie the Swamp Witch?”
“Wait, you’re friends with the witch of Bogshot?” Armin said, eyes wide, “I thought she was this hermit who turns pets into Mortogs or something if you so much as dared knock on her door?”
Gilly blinked, “Actually, that's more like Edna. But to answer your question, yes and kind of, she can be a little grouchy but she’s not like that, not anymore anyway. It’s a long story. See, have you ever heard of the Tale of Woe? It's ever so spooky…”
Armin listened carefully, as she told him the tale of the mysterious curse that haunted the town of Neovia and the unlikely trio of heroes who put an end to it…
“It was you who put a stop to the curse?” Armin asked.
“Well, actually it was Sophie who cured it. But her brother Bruno and I helped gather some crucial ingredients her potion needed. It wasn’t easy and it was pretty frightening at times, but we were able to lift the curse and save the town, and the rest is pretty much history.”
“So, what brings you all the way out here? The Haunted Woods isn’t really the safest place to be out and about on your own.”
“Well, my life in Terror Mountain was a pretty simple life. At least, not until that fateful day I…”
As he was talking, Gilly pulled back her cowl, casting away the shadows surrounding her face. Armin suddenly stopped in his tracks; she had short, wavy hair the brightest shade of orange, almost blending with the lantern’s flame. As his focus was drawn to her pale blue eyes, he couldn’t help but notice that the whites of her eyes had a strange yellowish tint to them.
That’s odd, what’s with her eyes? Armin thought.
“Until what, Armin?”
“Oh, sorry. Um…as I was saying, ever since I met Hannah, I—”
“Wait, Hannah the Brave? You know her?” Gilly’s eyes gleamed, leaning forward a little.
“Uh…yeah, I’d say I know her pretty well. In fact, I—”
“Wow! That’s amazing! I never thought I’d meet a friend of Hannah’s! What is she like? Is she anything like in her books?”
Armin just stared for a moment, caught off guard by Gilly’s sudden bright and cheery demeanor, “Well, it’s kind of a long story, so I’ll try and keep it short for you—”
“No, I want to hear everything!”
“Are…are you sure?”
“Yes, please! I love these stories!”
“Okay. I’m not much of a storyteller, but I’ll give it a try I guess. Here goes…”
Gilly sat there, giving Armin her full attention as he recounted the fateful day he met Hannah the Brave on the frozen hilltops of Terror Mountain…
“And then, it was down to just me and the Bringer himself! With just one rock left on my trusty slingshot, I leaped high into the air, then with one carefully aimed shot, BAM! He shattered into a million pieces, just like that! And that’s how I became known as the slayer of the Bringer of the Night!”
“Wow! You brought him down yourself?” Gilly said.
“Yeah, with just one shot! And it was awesome!”
“Then, shortly after Hannah and I parted ways, I felt like the call for adventure was in my blood, just waiting to be answered. I’ve been traveling the world ever since, just like her. In fact, I was on my way to Neovia just now, but as my luck would have it, I got lost, and...well, here I am now.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“As your luck would have it, I know the way.”
“You do?” Armin sat up straight, ears perked.
“Yes, I’ve been there plenty of times. I can take you now if you like.”
“I would love that, thanks! As soon as the rain,” Armin leaned forward, looking over Gilly’s shoulder towards the mouth of the cave, “stops?”
To his surprise, the rainfall had ceased, the gale-force winds reduced to a gentle breeze, the thick haze dissipated and what little light that could breach the grey skies had lit up the Haunted Woods.
“You didn’t notice?”
“About an hour ago.”
Armin’s eyes widened, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was really enjoying the story, I didn’t want to cut you off in the middle of it.”
With that, they salvaged what they could from the makeshift camp and set back out into the Haunted Woods. Lantern in hand, Gilly guided the Bori down the path, keeping close together, staying vigilant through the labyrinth of withered trees, carefully stepping over fallen trunks and branches, eyes peeled in search of any sign of civilization. Or any sign of trouble.
Gilly paid close attention to the road in front of them; marking every familiar landmark they passed by. Soon enough, they came across a rise in the path, leading to two split trails, one leading east and the other to the west. Gilly came to a stop.
Wait a second. I distinctly remember three paths splitting west, north and east. Or was it four paths? Argh! I hate it when this happens!
“Hey, how much farther until we’re there?” Armin asked.
Her train of thought was broken, she turned to face Armin, “We shouldn’t be too far away now, just a couple more miles.” She said brusquely.
“Here’s hoping,” Armin muttered, “all this walking’s really drained me. I could really use some sleep, a nice warm bowl of soup and—”
There was a gasp. Gilly skidded to a halt. Armin, caught off guard, almost stumbled to the ground at the sudden stop.
“Hey, why did you stop?” Armin asked.
“Armin, don’t move.” Gilly whispered.
Armin blinked, “What? What is—?”
Gilly smacked her hand over his mouth, cutting him off. She raised her other arm, pointing straight ahead.
For a moment, everything went quiet. Then there was a sudden snarl, joined by growling, coming from within the mist, not more than a few feet away. A shadowy figure emerged; a huge, bulky creature with a broad snout, four large paws fitted with sharp, pointy claws and a pair of gleaming eyes staring off into the distance.
Armin’s eyes widened. He started to tremble, “Gilly, is…is that a—?”
“Werelupe.” Gilly muttered, her voice just as shaky as his.
Neither of them dared to move a muscle. They stood there, waiting, watching its every move. The Werelupe turned its head, looking over to the side. Moments later, it moved away, walking back into the fog.
Armin let out a sigh of relief. They were in the clear.
Just then, the Werelupe froze in its tracks, its head reared, veering over its shoulder. Armin gasped, he found himself staring into two wild luring eyes, followed by a feral grin with bared fangs. It lifted one foot in front of the other, then the next, turning back in their direction. His eyes widened, as a second identical figure materialized from within the fog, then another one followed, and another.
“Armin, listen to me very carefully,” Gilly whispered into his ear.
Armin gulped, too frightened to reply.
To be continued…