Eons ago, the invaders came from beyond the stars.
They travelled through portals that tore space and time apart, riding on steeds that trampled all in their wake. They were bright and glittering and malicious, beautiful and terrible. Their faces could conjure love in a mortal’s heart, and their smiles held no mercy.
They rode into a world where magic came from the earth and from the blood, and where the people worshipped their Old Ones. They cut the forests and raised their cities and palaces. They enslaved those they found on this world, calling them monsters.
And they waged war upon each other, until two peoples were formed: One bright and merciless, and one dark and vicious.
But as the years passed, they forgot the power of those that lurked in the forests. They stopped placing salt on their windows, and ignored those monsters that prayed to their Old Ones and made sacrifices in the places where power dwelled.
Until one day, those Old Ones rose.
A new war began. The Wars of Light and Shadow.
The bright ones won. They trapped the Old Ones within those precious Hallows where power lingers. And they forgot once again.
But the Old Ones merely wait.
For they are immortal, and their memories long.
And they know…. That the prison walls are weakening.
—Prophecies of Arcaedia
Kill the beast.
And don’t disappoint me this time….
My mother’s words play in my head in time to the drumming hoofbeats of my gelding.
It’s a song that’s been repeating itself for years, though the verses often change depending on her latest critique. Disappointing my mother seems to be my greatest ability these days.
Golden leaves drip from the trees in a steady tumble as autumn starts its slow, seductive slide into winter. I ease Jaeger to a halt, and he snorts, no doubt catching scent of the rank musk I too can smell.
“I know, boy.” I pat his neck as I slip from the saddle, landing lightly on the leaf mulch. Smells like a troll’s breath the morning after a feast of decayed corpse.
Late afternoon sunlight ripples over the ground, the wind whispering through silent trees. It feels like the forest itself is holding its breath.
Drawing my sword, I tie Jaeger to a tree and then creep toward the ruins.
There are eyes upon me.
I can feel them.
“That’s right, you ugly bastard. I’m here.”
The trail of blood leads directly toward the thorny tangle ahead. Where it fell, the leaves have shriveled into brittle shreds, as if the blood itself is tainted.
The news came from the borders three days ago. An empty hamlet discovered on the edges of Vervain Forest, the woodcutters within vanished. Instead, there’d been claw marks in the door and a bloodied fingernail on the floor inside, as if someone had been dragged out by the ankles.
Other empty cabins were slowly discovered. Tales of a beast stalking the edges of Vervain and whispers of hunters not returning from relatively easy hunts began to grow in strength. Chickens slaughtered in their coops over the summer months, though nobody had mentioned it until it was too late.
It always starts with the chickens.
Banes are big, ugly brutes, curse-twisted into half-animal, half-human shapes. It takes a powerful witch or spell to create them; and to break the curse is both dangerous and difficult. True love’s kiss. Eating the heart of the witch. Sometimes another spell will gift them with the ability to remain a man during the day and a beast at night, but magic often sloughs off them.
Which leaves me with one option.
The cold kiss of iron, straight through the heart.
It’s my first bane hunt.
Preferably not my last.
“Let’s make this nice and easy,” I mutter as I slip through the forest with murder—or mercy—on my mind.
Thorns encircle the ruins, some of them bearing spikes as long as my forearm. Poison drips from their tips; they call this particular bramble Sorrow’s Tears. It sprang from the ground the night the King of the Sorrows was slaughtered by his new Unseelie queen. Where his people wept, the brambles grew. It’s deadly to the Unseelie and excruciating to my kind, though it won’t kill us.
How, in Maia’s name, am I going to get inside the ruins?
I can hear the snuffling of the bane in the distance. No doubt it made its lair deep inside where it will be safe from predators. Which means there must be a way in. I just have to find it.
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