Friday, 29 July 2016

Artel - Watched

Bright sunlight was already streaming down through the treetops when Artel opened his bleary eyes. He blinked twice and shook his head, trying to dispel the leftover images from his dream. He could tell from the residual feeling of unease in the base of his stomach that it had not been a good dream, although his mind could no longer make sense of the half remembered images floating through his head.
He pulled himself upright and looked around. The ominous darkness from the night before was gone, replaced by dappled sunlight and the cheery sound of birds chirping. Artel breathed in deeply, letting the sweet air fill his lungs and wash away the distasteful feelings from the night before. A slow smile crept across his face as he wondered how he ever could have felt so troubled in such a wonderful place.
A loud crash pulled him roughly out of his reverie and he looked round to see Millon sprawled on the floor at the edge of the clearing. Unable to help himself he burst out laughing, a loud sound that seemed to fill the clearing and echo off the trees. Millon looked up, his scowl turning to a sheepish grin as his eyes met Artel's.
"Whoops!" He giggled as he picked himself up and brushed himself off, "I guess I didn't see that root there."
"Well that's hardly surprising!"
Millon looked at the knight, searching his face for the contempt that usually lived there but strangely unable to find it. He smiled as he made his way over to their small camp and began to pack away his sleep sack and prepare their breakfast. He hadn't seen Artel this happy since the beginning of their trip, in fact, now he thought about it he had never seen Artel happy at all, much less happy with him. The drastic change in the knights mood had come as a welcome relief the day before but Millon felt suddenly wary, as if he may be unknowingly walking into a trap.

The day passed without incident. The two men wound their way through the ever thickening trees, picking their way past fallen branches and through tangled bushes. Thanks to Artel's skill with a bow they had caught several rabbits and both were in high spirits, looking forward to the warm meaty meal they could enjoy that evening. The first since they had set out on their fools quest.
Time slipped by in a strange timeless way, as if it floated lazily on the breeze instead of marching onward, dragging all else with it. By the time the sun began to set it felt as if a whole year could have passed in that one day, or a second, gone in the blink of an eye.
In the fading light Artel and Millon found a spot between the trees to make their camp. Although there was no clearing in which to camp that night they soon managed to make themselves comfortable, setting a small fire on the ground between two tree trunks and setting their sleep sacks to the left of it, between another two trees.
As night fell they happily cooked and ate the fresh rabbit, talking of home, and of their quest, and of the war in the lowerlands. But neither man knew the truth of their quest, if there was indeed any truth in it at all, and the conversation slowly fizzled out, leaving them both in silence, unable to say out loud the question that really bothered them. Were they truly on a fool's errand, wasting time looking for something that had never existed in the first place?
The silence settled over the two men, drenching them in it's strange weight, making their heads feel woozy and their tongues leaden. The firelight flickered and the darkness surrounding them seemed once more to press in upon them, as if it had a will of it's own.
Millon glanced around, he had not noticed the darkness creeping up on them and now that he looked at it it seemed closer and more real than it had the night before. As if a great hand had draped a thick black covering around their small circle of light. He shivered involuntarily, there was something ominous about the darkness although he could not have said what it was. He glanced at Artel, the knight sat staring into the flickering flames of the fire, his knees drawn up to his chest, his tousled hair a mess. Millon opened his mouth to speak but changed his mind, convinced suddenly that if he dared to speak Artel would be furious. He closed his mouth and lowered his head, fixing his gaze on a fallen leaf a few feet in front of him, just inside the circle of light. He could not shake the feeling that he was being watched, that there was something in the darkness.

The silence stretched on and the darkness seemed to grow closer, as if it were slowly pushing the fire back into itself, making their circle of light smaller and smaller. Artel had not moved or seemed to notice at all, he still stared into the flickering flames, lost in thought, but Millon's nerves were increasing with every silent second that slipped by. Although the forest was silent Millon was sure he could hear whispers. Something in the darkness was whispering his name, something was calling to him. The sound of breathing echoed in his ear and he whipped around, his frantic eyes searching for the beast that had surely been there mere seconds before. He stared into the impregnable darkness, watching as it crept ever closer, slowly encroaching upon their circle of light, their circle of safety. Millon could not explain the terror that slipped into his being, filling his heart and turning his stomach. His skin crawled with goosebumps, freezing and prickling, and he felt cold sweat beginning to dribble slowly down the side of his face. His breath came in short, sharp gasps.
The darkness in front of him began to swirl and transform itself until the figure of a man stood before him. A figure made of darkness blacker than the night, so that it hurt Millon's eyes to look at it, as if it were no longer just darkness but a hole in the world. Millon tried to open his mouth to speak, but found he could not. The figure in front of him grew and stretched, it's arms and legs elongating and reaching towards the terrified man encased in the shrinking circle of light. Millon felt his heart racing, so hard he thought it might punch it's way out of his chest. He summoned what little strength he had and tore his eyes momentarily from the towering figure in front of him. They found Artel, still staring into the firelight.
"Art..." The half whispered sound was all he could produce but somehow it disturbed the static knight.
Unable to stop himself Millon let his eyes slide from Artel's form and return to the darkness in front of him.
Artel turned his head slowly until his confused eyes found Millon. His head felt strangely empty and he could not remember what he had been thinking of, if he had been thinking anything at all. He looked at Millon, taking in his shaking form, the glistening sweat dripping down the side of his face, his wide eyes fixed in front of him. Slowly Artel's gaze followed Millon's, reaching past the terrified figure to the edge of the circle of light and the darkness that lay outside of it. His eyes found the figure, darkness upon darkness, stretching up into the treetops above them. He too felt the terror wash over him as the creature opened it's eyes, huge pits of swirling fire that seemed to emit a heat that washed over him, blistering his skin. The darkness crept closer as the fire they had so happily cooked their rabbits on only a few hours before began to dim.

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