Utter silence carpeted the Everwood as thickly as any moss or lichen, an eerie blanket of unnatural tranquility stretching from the uppermost boughs of the trees above to the dense undergrowth of the forest floor. Silent it may have been, but still it was not, for this was the Sior-Choille, an endless expanse of twisted life where even the trees were not content to remain where they were. For in the realm known as the ‘boundless dark’, there lurk things far worse than trees.
There were no stars above the Sior-Choille. That thought had remained with Sèran since the outset of the expedition. It was more than the simple shroud of leaf and branch that obscured the sky, more than even the supernatural shadow cast by the writhing wood, for in the boundless dark, there simply was no sky. By airship, one could fly over the wood, even land at one of the rare patches of order that were the settlements and outposts in the greater realm, but as soon as one ventured into the wood itself the simple laws of reality became supplanted by a force far greater. It wasn’t malicious, for that logic implied the Sior-Choille to be an entity capable of malice, but simply and fundamentally contradictory to logic and order. This much Sèran could attest to; anyone would if they’d spent the past two weeks in the Everwood. At least, she amended in her head, they would be able to if they were still alive. And sane.
She paused, raising one hand to halt the small band of rangers in her wake. Something was wrong, some subtle difference in the background cadence of the eternal forest, but for the life of her she couldn’t tell what. Furrowing her brow, she cocked her head to one side, trying to hear what had so unsettled her through the faint noise of swaying leaves and birdsong. Realization dawned not a moment too soon–there were no birds in the writhing wood.
“Lanterns!” she cried, hastily fumbling for her own as the chittering grew closer. Sparkflames leapt into life behind her as the rangers activated their lanterns, the magically fueled fire burning where any conventional flame would have withered in moments, their electric blue light setting the treeline into sudden and brilliant contrast. She lit her own with a touch to the activation sigil, and hooked it to the bayonet lug of her runegun with a quick, practiced motion. The chittering reached a crescendo, and something burst from the undergrowth with an ear-grating shriek and a flash of reaching claws. Sèran fired, reflexively shouldering the recoil as her weapon discharged an arc of scarlet lightning, the runes along its length glowing a faint red as they powered the mage-rifle. Her attacker fell with a second, gurgling shriek that died in its throat as her boot crushed the thing’s skull.
“A bramble-soul.” she said with a shudder, managing to keep her voice steady despite the adrenaline racing through her veins, “One of the Anam-Dris. We must be close–I’m sure you’re all aware why these things are never found far from settlements.”
Her rangers didn’t need the reminder, for one did not reach their station without knowing the horrible truth of the Anam-Dris. The ‘thing’ in question had been human once, driven mad by the meaningless secrets of the forest realm, and corrupted in both mind and body until it had been reduced to a slavering husk of flesh and wood. All things considered, they were one of the lesser dangers of the Everwood, but the nature of their origin rendered them a horror few could bear.
“Keep your lanterns bared and your rifles armed.” advised Conall, a tall, white-haired ranger with more experience than any man Sèran had ever met. His eyes, perpetually sunken and hooded, darted from side to side as he raised his own weapon, an archaic multi-chambered pistol that fired solid shot rather than harnessed magic. He was the expedition’s navigator, and the etheric compass he wore on his left arm like a wristwatch was the only reliable way to tell direction this deep in the Sior-Choille. He shot her a glance, nodding towards the direction the bramble-soul had come from.
“The captain is correct. We’re not far from the cloud-port now. If the Wayfinder is with us, we should be there before true dark.
Sèran let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding, and gestured for her company to reassume formation and continue past the corpse of the bramble-soul. There was little difference between night and day in the Everwood, but the true dark was not something she’d like to be caught out in. It was a monthly occurrence, a phenomenon prompted by the absence of the moon, when not even the faintest glimmer of light shone in through the leaves. It was not only the myriad thirsting horrors of the woods that were a danger on such nights, but the masters they answered to as well. Not even their sparkflame lanterns would avail the rangers then.
The next few hours were tense, even as their path took them out of the deep wood and into a more lightly forested border region. Despite appearances, even the edges of the Sior-Choille could be deadly, and the ranger party proceeded with all due caution, enchanted lanterns blazing a path through the unnatural shadows clinging to every branch and trunk. After what seemed to Sèran like at least three or four hours of trudging through undergrowth and ducking under low-lying branches, they came across a stream. It was no more than five feet across, but the water was clear, and it ran out of the deepest part of the woods towards the direction they had been heading. She looked at Conall, raising an eyebrow to voice her unspoken question. He checked the glowing face of his compass and nodded, turning back to her with a grim smile on his lips.
“This stream flows towards Caladhneòil, likely converging with the river Eirgenn before it reaches the settlement. We can follow it directly to the port, assuming this is not some deception of the wooded realm made to divert us from the true course.” he said, the smile dropping from his face as quickly as it had arrived.
“That’s one way to kill the mood, bodach.” muttered Myrna, slipping into the language of Cladachòrail as she shot the old ranger a disdainful glare. She was a scarred, sharp-faced woman from the great city, and wielded her long rifle’s axe bayonet with a little too much enthusiasm. “Can’t you just say something positive and leave it at that? Two weeks of grinding my teeth to your ever-present fatalist streak has done me more harm than the damn forest.”
Sèran laughed, drawing an expression of confusion from Conall and an irritated frown from Myrna. “Always at each other’s throats, the two of you never change. Cheer up, the both of you, we’re almost out of the woods, regardless of where the stream flows. Just follow my lead and try not to aim for each other if it comes to it.”
“Right, I’ll be too busy shooting at you.” Myrna grumbled, shouldering her rifle and raising her lantern with her free hand. Blue light glinted from the iron tip of the spear leveled at her chest. Figures rose from the underbrush, or emerged from behind the trees. Clad in drab browns and greens, they carried spears and crossbows, most metals carefully dulled with what looked like soot from fire. Sèran’s eyes drifted down to the razor edge of the longsword aligned with her neck, leveled across her right shoulder from an unseen figure standing behind her. All around the river clearing, the tableau repeated itself with Conall and the rest of the rangers, the light sounds of conversation and banter replaced with thin breaths and boots crunching over dead leaves. They were surrounded.