A small weak walled town sat in unrest, their people gathering around their town center. Surrounding their well, they stood staring up at one individual. She was wearing enough armor to put castles to shame, her tower shield acting as her walls. Finally, her ornate two-handed sword was raised with one arm, showing off her might before the simple town people before her.
“I have been sent from Vainor’s church; I embody the powers of the god of purity. I shall cure this forest of the cultists that poison your wood against you.” Joan reversed her grip on her sword, slamming the tip down into the soil by her feet. Sinking it in several inches. Her short speech was received with cheers from the whole crowd. She looked down at them, watching as the mud-covered people jumped around, their tattered clothes loosely clinging to their bodies. She looked down at her armor, her smile changing to a face of pity.
“As another measure from the King, there shall be no charge for this visit. For I am enacting the will of a god, not a tax collector.”
The crowd erupted with joy.
“Our king does care about us; we have not been forgotten.” One man cried.
“He has answered our calls; our messages were received.” Another shouted.
“That is right, our king is gracious and caring. I shall rest from my journey, then head into the forest tonight.” Joan yelled over the celebrations. But as she finished, the crowds slowed their cheers. All whispering among one another.
“You do know that nighttime is when it is worse?”
“It was written in our messages; night is when they are most active.”
“Fear not, with the blessings of my god, I shall travel through their evil with little effort. Cutting the rot out at the heart, this shall be a small victory for the god of purity.” Joan looked around at the lack of faith in those around her.
“Things appear at night, and we have seen their gods wandering with their practitioners. Do you believe you can take on all of their gods?”
Joan drew her sword from the ground, performing several swift strikes. Calling out, she started to glow with a divine light. Thrusting her sword upwards, the light beamed outwards with an intense heat.
“I can slay each and every one of their gods, for I am a vessel with the power of a true god at my will.”
The crowd started their calls again, their faces stinging slightly from being near the beam of light. Joan smiled, waving to the people. She made her way under a tree within the thin wooden walls of the town and leaned up against it. Sitting down on what seemed to be the only patch of earth covered with grass instead of mud.
“It seems I am being tested.” Joan said quietly. “Why else would so many details be left out of my assignment?” She puzzled over her situation but knew she needed to sleep. She cleared her mind and drifted off. The calming winds cooled her skin as she was shaded by the tree she leaned against.
A cacophony of screams woke Joan from her rest, her eyes opening instantly. Squinting, she looked through the dark. She stood quickly, wielding her tower shield; she sprinted toward the screams. Making her way back into the town, she looked on with horror as the towns folk were tying several men to posts. A faint glow in the forest silhouetted the men as they tugged against the binds. Joan ran in, pushing those in the shouting crowd apart as she approached the front.
“Why are these men tied against their will.”
The individual standing at the head of the crowd looked at Joan with confusion.
“Tonight is the night we mentioned in our messages. Those from the forest demanded sacrifice at the end of every month. One sacrifice per the number of months. If we don’t, they said they would burn our town.”
Joan stammered for words.
“I, ugh, I know. I mean, why are you doing it if I am here?”
“I don’t follow. I am sorry.” Said the man, while everyone else had fallen quiet. Even those being bound wanted to hear what was to be said.
“There is no need to worry about their wrath; I shall cut them from their home this night. No need to worry about them anymore.”
The lead man leaned down from the top of the pyre. Bringing his face close to Joan’s.
“You may be blessed and a capable fighter. But we are not risking the whole town on the promise of a stranger.” The man stood tall, projecting his voice. “If you wanted to stop this, you should have left once you arrived. Or even arrived nearly two months ago when we asked for help.”
The crowds murmured with agreement.
“You will hold off on this ritual as long as possible. I shall leave immediately; they will be slain before any more life needs to be wasted.”
“Run along then; you have until the moon reaches the peak of the sky. That is when the creatures come for them.”
Joan turned back through the crowd, her face frozen with determination. Retrieving her helmet from her resting place, she left the town for their practice.
“Four months? That is sixteen dead in this town already. I was told this was going to be a simple task.” She looked forward at the forest that lay before her, watching as the shadows seemed to shift like water. A feeling of dread passed over her entire body. She placed her full helmet on and swallowed heavily. “I get the feeling that the king has severely misjudged the situation at hand.”
Stepping forward, she could feel the air change as she crossed into the boundaries of the forest. The soil seemed different as she walked. The air felt as thick as the shadows looked.
“By the blessing of your hand, I ask for vision in this dark place.” Joan prayed, placing her hand on her shield. It beamed out with light as bright as the sun; it quickly faded to appear as bright as a large campfire.
“This forest is a truly evil place.” Joan sweated as she pushed forward.
Wielding her short sword, she carefully stepped deeper into the woods. The sounds of the town fade into the background. The deeper Joan went, the more twisted the forest appeared. Where once there was a thick green canopy, now a mess of leafless branches gnarled together to create a solid canopy.
“What was that?” Joan panicked at the sound of a strange buzzing that rang through the twisted forest. Her full helm blocking her view, she removed it, mounting it to the inside of her shield. Turning her head rapidly, she spun on the spot, trying to pinpoint the location of the sound. Her shield illuminating any area she aimed it at. As she slowed her movements, she managed to notice the direction the noise came from. Turning, she found herself staring down a long tree tunnel. Its interior is even darker than that of the rest of the forest. Her light cut in half once again. Lowering her stance, she re-equipped her helmet. Standing with focus, she stared unblinking into the dark tunnel, the odd buzzing getting louder. Beads of sweat dripped down her face as she gritted her teeth together.
“Come out, monster, face the light of lady purity.” She yelled as her wits started to thin. Six small shapes emerged and flew towards Joan. She readied herself to strike until she saw what flew before her.
“Hummingbirds?” She said, returning to a normal stance.
They flittered up to her face, darting up and down. They flew around her, examining her shape intently.
“Why aren’t you just a curious little group. What are you doing in this forest at night?”
Joan remained stationary, distracted by a single hummingbird that seemed interested in her face. It flitted forward and back, occupying her vision. Joan smiled, raising her shield beneath its feet.
“Come on, take a rest.”
The hummingbird looked down at the thick chunk of steel beneath it, examining it for hazards. Taking one last look at Joan, it landed. A harsh hissing and smoke plumed off the bird before it fell limp. Joan’s focus returned. Her eyes sharpened, and stepping out, she struggled. Gazing down, she noticed vines wrapping around her legs. With great effort and aid from her sword, she broke free from the vines. Panning her shield backward, she heard three more hisses as her shield collided with the others. Spinning back around, the final one buzzed in her face, her eyes glazing over.
“What are you doing here? Don’t you have any friends?”
Joan reached outwards with her hand to touch it. The hummingbird fled from her touch and traveled back into the tree tunnel. Joan’s focus returned as it left her reach.
“Little bastards, what are you?”
Joan watched as the last hummingbird flew towards two golden, glowing eyes. Out of reach of her light and sitting barely over two feet tall.
“Fear not, my child; the demon shall not follow us in here.” The sickly voice whispered, barely audible.
The eyes turned and faded into the black sea of shadows that swirled within the tree tunnel. Joan was affronted by the sound of feet on the ground. She turned, watching as a wave of people emerged from the dark, shielding themselves from the light as they ran past her. Joan’s head darted side to side as she parted the odd mix of dark and fair-skinned people. One blinded by her light ran straight into her. Grabbing his neck with her sword arm, she looked down at the eager individual as he rubbed his eyes.
“What are you running from? Is it a monster of the forest?”
“What? We are not running from anything; we are running to Riar; how did you miss her eyes?”
The man broke free from her grasp and followed the others through a tree tunnel. Fog rolled across the forest floor, and a man glided in with his gold and white walking stick held in both hands. Resting it down between his feet, he stopped moving forward. His skin had a strange pattern of the palest of whites and darkest of black. Joan raised her shield and readied her sword.
“Stop!” She yelled a slight warble in her voice.
“Stop? Stop, you say. Why, my dare, I appear to already be as stopped as I can. Don’t believe I could stand stiller if I tried.”
“what is wrong with your skin? Are you diseased?”
“Diseased? My, you are a simple one; never heard of vitiligo? Nothing more than skin, my dare. Although I did get told when I was a wee bub that it was a blessing from Decei. The god of lies gave me two faces to use.”
“Decei is not a god I have heard of. Are you a part of the cult that has been attacking the nearby town?”
The man’s face soured.
“Now, who are you to come to my home and call me an invader? Those townsfolk assaulted us first, taking our trees and maiming our animals. Now they must suffer for the suffering they caused our gods.”
“Your gods are false, and even if they do exist, they are no god to follow if they ask for death.”
“Ha, is that so my dare?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Well, my sweetie, you seem to be one proud of your so-called god.”
“My so-called god.” Joan interrupted. “Is none other than lady purity; she is truly powerful. I am blessed with her might and instill her justice.”
The strange man chuckled to himself.
“And what may I ask is your charge this night?”
“I have been sent to clear this forest of the cultists, ending their worship of devils.”
“Sounds mighty similar to asking you to kill, now, doesn’t it? Be a shame if your god were nothing more than mine, now wouldn’t it?”
Joan glared, tightening her grip around her blade.
“But do forgive me; I have been much too improper. My name is Toolu.”
Toolu raised his thin arm, a clattering of wooden bracelets gave a chime to his movement. Joan stepped forward, slashing at Toolu’s leg. He faded into a shapeless fog and disappeared to the sounds of him tsk’ing repetitively.
“You come to my home, call my gods violent. Then when I show the fallacy in your god and offer my service to you, what do you do. Become violent. I think someone needs to look at who they follow.”
Joan turned to see Toolu standing in front of the tree tunnel.
“Even your light is weak; it can barely cut through our darkness. If you want to see true power, come meet my gods. I guarantee you will be enthralled. You have my word, Joan.”
Joan affixed her helmet, assuring it was attached securely.
“How did you know my name?”
“You are in my domain, my dare. We have ears e’ery where.”
Toolu’s image faded into fog once again, slowly pulling back into the pitch black of the tree tunnel. His voice echoing out as he disappeared.
“Come and see. What a real god can be.”
As the fog faded completely from sight, Joan watched as a faint orange glow became visible at the end of the tunnel.
“This is it, Joan, this is our mission. We march forward for the Lady Purity, for our town, for our king.”
She lurched forward, stepping with pride as she entered the impossible blackness. Her light faded the deeper she went in.
“My lady, your light is fading. I need it if I am to continue.”
Joan’s armor started to glow as her shield did. Barely making any difference at all. The orange glow began to grow, and with it came the sound of drums. The voice of Toolu chuckled through the air.
“Why do you need that light? Come sit by the fire; Scinti made it warm; what more could you desire?”
The drums grew in volume, nearly deafening Joan.
“Come to my dare, who do you think ya are? Who do you think you’re god pretends to be?”
Joan started to panic as her light faded completely.
“You’re in the Haschi forest now. So you better learn how to worship like a Haschite.”
Toolu appeared right in Joan’s face. His face glowed along the lines where his skin changed color.
“Come to my dare, let me show ya.”
Joan slashed at his image. His visage faded into the black. Joan pressed her fist against her chest. Muttering a quiet prayer, she looked up, a fire in her eyes. She marched forward with purpose, storming the origins of the orange glow.
“By the might of the holy. Where am I?”
Joan looked around as she came out of the unholy darkness. Now she found herself in a forest that seemed to be painted a vibrant orange. The sound of the drums and other instruments. Her stride slowed but stayed purposeful. The grass was patterned and vibrant, yellows and greens, blues, purples, and pinks. The patterns swirl across the forest floor and creep up the trees. They glowed as if they were made from torchlight. The trees looked lifeless, twisted, and scarred. Their branches were pointy and in abundance. Stabbing into Joan’s armor, snapping, and falling to the ground. Leaving a colored trail of snapped twigs in her wake. The music volume leveled out; she knew she was just around the corner from Toolu and those who already ran through. She watched as the trees bounced to the music, dancing with the rhythmic beat.
“Tonight, my friends, we have a guest from lands far away. She is the messenger of a hateful god. Everyone welcome Joan!”
Joan stepped into view of Toolu; he was speaking to a large crowd of people sitting around a man in a cage. His body was on fire, illuminating what the glowing paint failed to do.
“Take a seat, my honored guest. Come learn the Haschi way.” Toolu flourished his hand and spun, disappearing into the fog. His voice cackled sickly as he disappeared.
Joan stared at the man on fire; blindly, she rushed forward, praying. Knocking those in her way to the ground.
“By your divine light, let my hands heal as yours have before.”
Her hands lit with a pale blue glow. Cutting through the fire’s orange glow, she passed her hands through the bars of the cage. Her hands reaching out to the corpse with desperation.
“Please say I am not too late.” She cried as her hands felt the lick of the flames.
The corpse recoiled from her grasp, its arms streaking upwards. It grabbed Joan’s wrists with a bone-crushing grip. Her metal bracers bent under the pressure. Shackles around his wrists clanked up against Joan’s armor. Parting her arms as wide as his shackles would let him, he leaned forward, pressing his face against the edge of the cage; every word that came out of his mouth was surrounded with fire.
“Oh, who do we have here? Let me get a better look at you.” The corpse laughed as he pressed his scorched eye sockets into the bars. Joan struggled free from their grip, falling back onto the ground. The corpse pushed his arms through the bars, his shackles catching on the bar in the middle.
“I don’t think I need any healing, but I think you could help with these shackles. They have me in a bind.” Joan looked on with horror.
“What kind of dark magic is this? How are you alive?”
Toolu apparated next to the cage, slamming his cane into the corpse’s hands. Forcing them to retreat back in.
“Come now, Scinti, don’t scare your new follower. I am trying to get her to worship you.”
“Are you trying to tell me that is your god? A caged, burning corpse that talks?”
“Oh wee, Toolu, you have switched your allegiances? Are you to worship me now?”
Toolu leaned down to eye level with Scinti. “You’re not good enough for me, flame man. It only took one of your sisters to trap you and ruin your eyes. I need a god more like…” Toolu gave a long sweeping bow with one hand and stepped to the side. A loud squealing could be heard as a short, chubby, tanned man rode in on a pig with eyes redder than the fire in Scinti’s cage.
“Did someone say a god greater than Scinti?” The strange man yelled; leaping from his pig, he landed next to the cage. Tapping into the keg on his back, he poured a drink out into a clay cup.
“Why not take a drink from me, little brother Scinti? I mean, after all, I took your eyes!” He laughed heartily, turning away before Scinti could grab the cup. His fist bashed against the cage with frustration.
“Is this the new one? Welcome, welcome. This here is my party; I am your host. Fete.”
Fete reached his hand and forcefully took Joan’s hand, shaking it vigorously. Pulling her down to his level.
“I hope my brother did not scare you. When our sister prisoned him, his eyes fell out, and I snatched them up. They are so much better than my old ones. He still has yet to forgive me.” Leaning against Joan, he took a big swig as Scinti’s body began to burn brighter. His grin turned sourer.
“Who are you? What is going on?”
“I thought you would never ask Joan; let me show you around. There are others you just have to meet.”
Fete jumped back onto his pig, running off into the forest with a drunken cheer.
Joan watched in disbelief. Her brain aching from confusion.
“God can’t walk the mortal plane. Everyone on Dolor knows that if a god does, they have to spend every second they spend here in years away from their followers. Your gods can’t be here.”
“The thing is dare-y.” Toolu said, leaning on Joan. “That is true, so my gods just decided to stay here forever. Something that has made other deities mad; that is why they party down here in the Haschi forest.”
Joan felt her religious symbol, the warmth from it faded.
“Your gods aren’t here love. Nothing but Haschi and their faithful Haschites. And we love to party.”
Toolu said, walking backward away from Joan; turning into fog, he reappeared in Scinti’s cage. The others around all stopped playing their instruments. The bobbing of the trees stopped, and the glow from the paint faded. The only light coming from Scinti, casting hard shadows on Toolu’s face.
“Gather round, come closer to the fire. Let me tell you the story about the Haschi.”
Everyone ran around the cage, taking a standing position. The band finds a place on the hill behind the cage. Fingers and lips set to play, waiting for Toolu.
“Are you is, or are you ain’t, gonna stay for the story. It won’t happen without you, Joan. After all, it is for you.”
“What if I say no? My charge is to remove you from this forest. Why shouldn’t I cut you down and chase the rest through the trees using my god’s holy light?”
“Gurl, your god can’t touch here. What do you think it means to be in the forest of Haschi? Sit for my story, then maybe you’ll understand. I promise you won’t feel harm from my hand.”
Joan tried to observe her surroundings, but outside, the orange glow was nothing but blackness.
“You taught me patience; I just pray this is the right time to be practicing it.” Joan sighed under her breath. She sheathed her sword, unclipped her helmet, she mounted it to her shield. Taking one last breath, she looked up at Toolu, nodding in agreement.
Toolu’s foot started a slow tap on the cage beneath his feet, flames licking the edges of his shoes. Staring intently at Joan, every line on his face was edged sharply by the shadows cast by Scinti’s flame. Joan stared back, her nerve slowly cracking. She felt as if Toolu was staring through her eyes and into her soul; her stomach churned as the only sound was the crackling of fire and the methodical tap of Toolu’s shoe. Then a low strum tuned in at the same pace as the tapping; one of the band members was plucking a bass string in time with Toolu. The pace quickened, Toolu’s head started to bob. His hand curling back on the topper of his cane revealed a shrunken head with strings binding its lips. Joan’s eyes were pulled to it as Toolu used his other hand to pull out a small knife. Grinning, he slit the strings extravagantly with one flush motion. Bowing his head and flinging his arm outwards in the process. The lips of the head started to twitch, the tapping beat still playing in the background. Joan’s head cocked with disbelief as the head stretched its mouth fully. The strong raspy voice of a man who smoked since he was five cried out with glee.
“We got a guest. And all you can manage is a sickly beat? Let us show her how to party; let us show her how to live. Let us show her the way of the Haschi.”
The beat stopped string magically began to rebound the head’s mouth. Letting out one last muffled sound.
“A one, a two, a one-two.” Hips lips sealed, and Toolu looked up. “Three.” He screamed, his eyes lighting up brighter than the flames that burned below him. With a loud cry from trumpets, the drums began to play a low, fast beat. Every strike of the drum made the grass around the cage flare with color before retracting slightly. Never quite reaching any of the individuals that were still standing at attention in a circle. Toolu slammed his walking stick into the side of the cage in time with the heavy drum falls. Scinti’s face frowned with every strike, his face filling with rage as he tugged at his binds relentlessly.
“That’s right, Scinti.” Toolu called out. “Get with the beat; feel that rhythm.”
Scinti gave one last strong pull against his binds, screaming his harrowing scream as his vocal cords snapped in his throat. Slamming his fists on the ground, a torrent of flame consumed Toolu, and the music picked up. The colors on the ground lit up beneath the worshippers; they stepped forward to the beat, walking round and round the cage. The flames exploded outwards, casting their heat in all directions. From the center, Toolu Erupted, face glowing, lips grinning, his eyes bugging as wide as they would go. Landing directly in front of Joan. Reactively she flung her shield outwards, catching Toolu from the neck down. As her arm passed through him, his head remained, grinning. His body reappeared below him; pressing his cane topper against her armor, he began to speak.
“My dare, your god is not here. No god of light in the forest of the Haschi; we live by the paint glow. Getting everything we need from the trees, fruits, nuts, and insects too.” Toolu bit down heavily right as a dragonfly flew by, its fluids exploding outwards. Joan recoiled as it sprayed toward her; Toolu wrapped his tongue around his lips. Lapping up the remainder of the twitching insect.
“You have met Scinti, and you have met Fete. But my dare that is not all the Haschi. They are just the beginning.”
Toolu stepped to the side, revealing another individual sitting on top of Scinti’s cage. A pale woman with bold blue tattoo’s, turning and rolling like waves. Her eyes lured Joan’s attention with their pale blue complexion.
“All this fuss over a big girl in armor, why did Fete bring me here, Toolu?”
“My dear Souss, this is a potential new follower. She just needs some convincing.”
“I am not a new follower; I follow lady purity. Her light guides my way.”
Souss smiled softly. Hoping down from Scinti’s cage, she looked back at him as he recoiled from her.
“I have met the lady purity. She is not as pure as you might think. She has incurred a greater debt of death than Cess.”
“Who is Cess?” Joan asked with a warble in her throat.
“I am cess. I hope that is okay.” Cess called out from above Joan. She looked up in a panic, made skittish at the sight of Cess. His freakishly long limbs stretched from tree top to forest floor, his dark green eyes contrasting against the painted trees dancing behind him.
“I, too, have met this lady purity. Her kill count is much higher than mine. I have been trying to catch up, but her. She is on another level.”
“You are mistaken; my lady would never kill. She maintains peace and seeks to better this world.” Joan placed her hand on the hilt of her long sword. “You are just trying to deceive me.”
“My sister Souss is a healer, and she has maimed and killed thousands. She is the one who caged our brother and removed his eyes.” Cess said, squatting down on the ground. His knees raised above his head height. His hands resting on his knees.
“Listen here, you freaks…”
“No, it is you who needs to listen.” A familiar tired voice interrupted.
A hunched-over form appeared from the darkness in the colorful trees. Her golden eyes glow behind the hood of her coat.
“I forgot, you have met Riar too. She is the god of the trees; her duty is to maintain our forest by any means.” Toolu sang out, kneeling by Riar. He helped her along.
“She is drained, using her energy to keep this forest in check. She is by far purer than your god of death.”
“Now listen here; my lady has never once asked for death. She is above that and will always take the peaceful route. The pure route.”
The Haschi deities all looked at one another, breaking out in laughter.
“Why are you laughing?” Joan drew her long sword. “You better silence yourselves, or I will silence you. No one disrespects my Lady.”
Riar croaked out once again. “Your lady has been the cause of hundreds of thousands of deaths. You forget that us deities live longer than you. We know how to make mortals think they came up with ideas that we seeded. You have been used.”
Beads of sweat ran down Joan’s face. Her eyes darted around the strange-looking mix of deities that stood before her. Her thoughts were stuck between fight and flight. Her grip tightened around her sword and shield. Adjusting her grip, she tried to rationalize her position. Accepting her inability to win this conflict, she started to back up.
“Where do you think you are going girly?” Scinti yelled out, pressing his face against the edge of his cage. “Are you not having fun? Or maybe it is the music; I am not fond of it either. It is a bit loud for my taste.” He cried out, looking back over his shoulder at the band. Ignoring him, they continued to play. Joan’s attention was pulled to Scinti.
“My dare, I would not back up there.”
Joan looked at Toolu, orientating her shield towards him. But her movements stopped as hands rested upon her shoulder. Long boney fingers gripped around her collar, knuckle after knuckle, the fingers ran down her chest. Four, five, six, then their fingertips. Joan looked down and saw the finger’s excessive length. Counting out the knuckles, she froze.
“What have we here? It looks like a lamb has been lost in my kingdom.”
The stranger’s head lowered down to Joan’s ear. Whispering with heavy breath.
“Little lambs that wander into the forest best be aware of monsters unless they want to get eaten.”
He clamped his jaw down, biting next to her ear. Joan lurched forward. Positioning herself so she could see the original group of deities and the newcomer. His hoofed legs stomped heavily, and his flowing purple robe covered his upper body. Using his freakish fingers, he re-draped it across his dark skin.
“Welcome to my forest, little lamb; I am Decei. King of the Haschi.” He spoke, grinning from ear to ear. A grin that faded as the music in the background came to a sudden stop. The colors of the forest faded, and the trees shuddered. Riar looked around, afraid.
“She is coming, way to play with Fete Decei.” Riar whispered in hushed tones. She backed away slowly. Her golden eyes glowed and faded back into the black between the trees. The other deities looked at one another with fear. One by one, they all faded from view. Scinti began to chuckle.
“Every time Decei, will you ever learn your place?”
“What is happening? Where has everyone gone?”
Toolu sauntered over to Joan.
“My dear, you are about to meet my patron. She is… Divine!”
The band began to play once again. A slow drumming with several low bass strums. The lead man stepped forward and began to sing.
You are about to see a scene little lamb
The true royalty of the Haschi
Nothing like the self-proclaimed Decei
Bow your head, and take a knee
Elan will set you free.”
Toolu moved within his mist form. Kneeling before Scinti’s cage, he lowered his head. Two large electric eels appeared above the cage. Bolts of electricity struck the cage. Illuminating the whole area in a blue light. Circling above Toolu, the electricity combined, striking with a thunderous clap of energy. A long-exasperated sigh escaped her lips as she took form. Tall and elegant, her tattered clothes hung loosely from her ebony skin. With a dirty grin, she kissed her fingertips. Her stained and split nails dug into her lips. Reaching out, she gently placed her fingers against Toolu, his body glowing gently for a moment, then faded.
“I hear we have a newcomer. Come, little lamb, step out of the blinding light, and take a moment to rest in the shade of the Haschi trees.”