The Rising – Part Six
By: Jeff R. Young

The forest was tremendous and ancient, with its canopy eclipsed by oak, redwood, and poplar. Rays of light burst through their crowns, allowing a flood of ferns and brush to monopolize the soft, fertile soils below. Curling limbs dangled from the occasional tree, and a variety of flowers seeming to reach up to the light brightening up the otherwise homogeneous forest ground. A harmony of beastly noises resonated through the air and drowned out the occasional sounds of birds of prey gliding high above.

To the ranger, the woodland surrounding him was more than just a mass of trees and vegetation. It was a living, breathing entity with a life force all its own. Using his five senses, he touched upon that energy to become keenly aware of his surroundings. All he saw, heard, smelled, felt, and even tasted, offered him an excess of information. Through years of dedicated training and no small amount of blessings from the goddess of nature, Nyarae, Draven did not just walk through a forest. He became part of it.

When he first set out, he stuck strictly to the road that connected Ravenwood and Caelfall. He kept a keen eye on the ground, hoping more than expecting to see recent evidence of activity like footprints or wagon tracks. He was not surprised to find only the faded ruts of wagon wheels formed over the many years the road had been in use.

He did find plentiful signs of animal life. Deer, wolves, even bears left their prints as they crossed the dirt road. Some were faint, days old at best, while a few were more recent, which was an excellent sign. The creatures of the forest were still moving around.

Glancing up through the thick canopy of leaves, Draven figured it was somewhere near mid-day. By his calculations, he was most likely halfway to Caelfall and considered it a good sign he had yet to run into any sort of danger. But his scouting of the road alone was just the beginning of his quest, so he stopped to rest a moment before he continued.

Leaning up against a thick tree, he took out his leather canteen and claimed a healthy drink of water. As he corked the flask, he surveyed the area, sweeping his eyes through the distant woods off either side of the road. Nothing he saw seemed out of place. He noted various rodents scampering along the forest floor or climbing up the thick trees. Numerous birds fluttered from branch to branch, conversing back and forth in musical harmony. Even the buzzing and chirping of the various insects flooded and echoed through the woods.

Draven should have been content, happy with what his senses told him. Yet, deep down, he felt uneasy. The feeling nagged at him, and though he couldn't pinpoint a reason why, the very essence of the forest seemed off, haunting even. His eyes were drawn to the north-west, off the path and deeper into the woods as his mind circled, questioning that nervous feeling he felt in his gut. He looked down at the dirt road and suddenly realized what felt so off. Despite all the activities of the creatures that called it home, the woods felt empty.

His mind made up, he unshouldered his magically blessed bow and started off.

A subtle change came over him as he slipped into the overgrowth and headed further from the road. He was no longer a just a ranger, he was also a hunter. He moved with quick and light steps, leaving no visible signs of his passing. His senses became even more in tune with the land around him as he slipped from tree to tree, employing every skill he had acquired over the years to remain undetected. If he found something, like a goblin force preparing for war, he'd be damned if they would spot him before he could get the evidence back to Ravenwood.

As he wove silently through the underbrush, he risked a glance up to the treetops. What little light filtered through told him he had only a few hours before the sun would fall behind the Black Pine mountains and throw the woods into darkness. The idea of being in the woodland at night didn't worry him; it only bolstered his sense of security as the dark made him that much harder to spot.

By the time the darkness began to blanket the woods, Draven had made his way into a section littered with rock formations. When he first came upon them, they were nothing but small boulders and rocks protruding from the ground. But as he traveled further, the forest grew less dense, and the formations of stone became more massive in size.

He found a thick tree a safe distance away from the more significant formations and shouldered his bow before he began a steady climb up. The oak was tall and its branches thick, making the task easy. He made his way up as far as he dared and found a dense branch on which to perch. In what dim light was left, Draven took stock of the area and found he had quite a view and could see reasonably far into the distance.

Hours passed, and the darkness of night had a firm grip on the land. The Ranger started to grow both restless and curious. He had climbed the tree expecting to see the glowing light of campfires throughout goblin camps. But there was nothing. All he heard were the cries of the nocturnal forest creatures. Hidden in the darkness, he closed his eyes and relaxed.

***

Having woken just before dawn, Draven was back on the ground and moving carefully in and around the giant boulders, his senses once again in tune with the woods. As with the day before, he found no sign of humanoids, goblin-kin, or otherwise. Until that was, he turned to head towards Caelfall. After an hour of meticulous searching, he finally found what he had hoped to find — humanoid footprints.

The path was easy to follow, and it didn't take long for Draven to find where it ended. The tracks came to an abrupt stop at the base of a broad, tall tree. Eyebrows raised, yet ready for trouble, he gazed up into the branches and was mildly surprised to find a man clinging to one of the outstretched limbs.

"Morning," Draven called up. "You ok up there?"

The man only answered with a quick shake of his head. Draven lowered his gaze and scanned the surrounding woods. He saw nothing out of place, nothing that should scare a man into a tree.

"Are you from Caelfall?" Draven asked, looking back up. The man shifted his grip on the branch, putting a finger to his lips.

"Quiet," he whispered. "They'll hear you!"

Brows furrowed, the ranger scanned the woods again but saw nothing bizarre. He returned his gaze to the man, forcing himself not to laugh.

"I'm having the weirdest day!" he said aloud, mostly to himself. He shook his head quickly in amusement, then asked, "How long have you been up there?"

"Four days, I think," the man answered after some consideration. "I've been lost in this woods for weeks and had to hide up here."

"Four Days?" Draven balked. "Why in the hells would you stay up there for four days?" When he got no answer, he dug into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a chunk of dried meat. He waved it up toward the man. "Well, do you feel like coming down now? I have food and water to share."

The mention of food and water seemed to grab the man's attention. Pushing himself up from the branch, he slid back to lean against the thick trunk. Draven noticed the man's movements were uneasy when he slowly swung his leg over. He hesitated, looking down to the ranger with a skeptical look on his face.

"What's wrong?" Draven asked.

"I…," the man stuttered. Draven could sense the fear in his voice. "I don't think I can do this."

"Do what?"

"Climb down."

"Why? You got yourself up there!"

"I'm afraid of heights," the man called down, embarrassed.

Draven rolled his eyes. "Of course," he muttered. To the man, he called up, forcing encouragement into his tone, "You can do this. It'll be easy. Just drop from one branch to the other." The man had to be close to ten meters up, and there was little doubt in the ranger's mind should he fall, it was going to hurt.

Draven congratulated and offered more encouraging words for every branch the man descended. It was slow going, but he finally made it to the bottom branches, only to discover a new dilemma. There was nothing but air between him and the last three meters to the ground.

"Now you jump," Draven instructed, motioning him down.

Nodding slowly, the man seemed to be preparing himself for the drop. Gaining his courage, he sat down on the branch then began to slide forward. With a cry of fear, he pushed himself off, dropping to the ground like a rock. He was, of course, supposed to land feet first, but his pants must have caught on something because he landed in a belly flop, hitting the ground so hard the ranger swore he bounced a little.

Draven stood over the man currently lying in a heap in the dirt and grinned. "Thumbs up on the execution, but you're gonna need to perfect that landing!"

The man lay there for a minute, groaning and trying to catch his breath. He finally found the strength to sit up and raised a hand toward the ranger.

"Why, by the god's good names, would you climb a tree if you're afraid of heights?" Dra-ven asked, helping him to his feet.

"I was afraid," the stranger admitted.

"Makes sense, I think," Draven said, arching a brow. "You got a name?"

"Deall," he said as he brushed himself off.

"You're Deall?" Daven asked excitedly. "From Ravenwood?"

Deall nodded quickly.

"Cora's messenger?" Draven added.

Again Deall only nodded.

"Do you have any idea how many people have been looking for you?" Draven asked, his voice loud with his excitement.

Deall waved his arms in front of Draven to stop. Fear filled his eyes, "Quiet! Or they'll hear us!"

Draven frowned. "Who, who will hear us?"

"The monsters," he cried quietly.

"Monsters?" Draven asked in confusion. "What monsters?"

He was about to demand answers when his senses suddenly kicked in. The forest around them had gone silent. No birds, no chittering critters, not even the buzzing of insects.

Deall's expression changed to one of horror as he raised his arm to point behind Draven's shoulder. "That!"

Following his finger, Draven turned and looked back. He narrowed his eyes to help his gaze pierce through the thin haze of the forest, and saw a single figure off in the distance, slowly making its way toward them.

The ranger gripped his bow a bit tighter, his body growing tense with the anticipation of trouble. He watched the figure in the distance, having moved close enough for Draven to determine it was a human man. But the man seemed to walk strangely, his movements choppy, almost as if he was drunk. His thoughts snapped to those tracks he had been following.

"You can't kill it!" Deall cried. "We need to run!"

Draven spun around and grabbed Deall by the front of his shirt. "What do you mean, it?"

"The dead," Deall all but yelled.

Draven let go and turned back to find the odd man close enough for him to get a good look. What he saw sent a shiver of revulsion through his spine.

The creature, for that's what it really was, was a walking horror. Its clothing could have been that of a farmer or commoner; the material was shredded and covered in dirt and blood, exposing dead and decaying flesh underneath. Its face oozed where the skin had peeled away along the right side, revealing raged teeth and bone. Its arms swung loosely as it made it's slow and steady pace toward him.

The undead creature emitted a low groan, its lifeless eyes fixated on Draven. The ranger sighed heavily. He drew an arrow from his quiver and notched his bow.

"A zombie," Draven said, finding his calm. Traveling with Mace, a priest of Ubus, he had fought the undead many times. Mace hated the things with a passion and never hesitated to destroy them. Draven knew the creatures could be dangerous when gathered in a large group, but one by itself could be dealt with quick enough.

Draven leveled his bow, then risked a glance to Deall. He opened his mouth to speak to him, but the man was no longer there. His bow lowered a bit as he glanced around, finally spotting Deall peering sheepishly from behind a tree a distance back.

"Thanks for the confidence," Draven offered cynically, turning toward the creature and once again leveling his bow. He drew back and took aim. With the holy power instilled within the bow, killing the undead like this was rather easy. A well-placed shot to the heart always did the trick.

The monster continued to get closer as Draven let his missile fly. The arrow flew true, striking the creature in the heart. It staggered back under the blow, but to Draven's surprise continued walking closer.

"Uh," Draven grunted, scratching his head in confusion. "That was supposed to work."

He shook off his confusion and quickly locked another arrow in place, this time drawing the string back as far as it could go. He fired again, and as before the bolt hit home, striking the creature right next to the first. There was so much power behind the second shot, it passed through the beast and stuck firmly in a tree several meters behind it. Unphased, it kept moving forward.

Draven took a step back, unsure of what to do. By all rights, the thing should have been destroyed by now. The enchanted power within the bow should have quickly brought it down. And yet, it still moved.

He hesitated as he considered drawing his swords; that hesitation cost him. The zombie let out a feral growl and with a sudden burst of speed lurched forward, closing the empty space between them in a rush. Draven yelped and back peddled, but it's twisted and decaying hands grabbed his shoulders. The strength of the creature surprised him as he was pushed back even further.

Already off balance, his foot caught a raised root, flipping him backward. He landed flat on his back, the undead monster falling with him. With all his strength, Draven pushed up, muscles straining against the weight of the thing, doing all he could to keep its snapping jaws away from his face. The beast was incredibly strong, and it's iron grip had the ranger firmly pinned to the ground.

Draven cried out to Deall, begging for help. None came. Again, he pushed up, hoping to twist around and throw the beast off him, but when he shifted his arm, the creature spun its head to the right and clamped down hard on the ranger's forearm. He cried out in pain as his flesh tore from the monster's teeth. Shifting his hold, his left hand slipped up to the zombie's face. The skin under his hand gave way, sliding up over the cheekbone, leaving a flap of gory dead flesh dangling over Draven's hand. Taking advantage of the exposed bone, he hooked his thumb under what was left of the dead thing's nose and twisted its face, turning those snapping teeth to the side.

Desperation turned to panic when the creature found renewed strength and pulled itself down closer, forcing its head toward him. Its drooling snapping maw was only inches from Draven's face, and the strength in his arms was beginning to waver. The panic and fear he felt drifted away, replaced with a feeling of failure and regret as he slowly came to terms with his inevitable death. He even felt a strange pressure against his chest and wondered sardonically if that was his soul exiting his body. It seemed odd, he thought he'd be afraid to die. Instead, he felt only peace.

A sudden revelation snapped in his mind. That pressure he felt wasn't his soul; it was the arrow he had shot into the creature's chest. With a feral growl of his own, he shifted his left hand to the beast's throat. With every ounce of strength he could muster, he held the un-dead thing in place as he hooked his right arm around the monsters back. He felt around in desperation before finally finding the protruding shaft of the arrow. He snapped off the end with a quick twist, drew his arm back and rammed the arrow's head through the zombie's ear.

The undead monster suddenly went limp, becoming dead weight upon Draven's body. He wasted no time flipping the creature off to the side, where it lay motionless.

Draven lay there, fighting off the exhaustion that flooded his every muscle.

He rested a few more moments before he propped himself up. A burst of pain shot through his arm, reminding him that he had been injured. He snorted as he looked at the torn skin where he had been bitten.

Forcing himself to stand, he looked over to where Deall had hidden. The man poked out from behind his tree. "Thanks for the help!" he said sourly.

"You killed it," Deall said in amazement. He slipped out from his hiding spot, walking over to the undead thing. "You actually killed it."

"No thanks to you," Draven accused, then offered a bit of sarcasm. "I'm surprised you didn't climb back up."

"I tried, but I slipped on the moss," Deall replied, still staring at the putrid creature.

Draven dug into a pouch, pulled out a roll of cloth wrap and used it to cover his wound. When he finished, he stormed over to Deall, grabbed him by the shoulders twisting him around.

"What the hell was that thing?" Draven demanded, unconcerned by the look of terror in the Deall's eyes.

"It was the dead," he stammered, then slowly looked down to Draven's covered wound. "And you've been bitten."

"No kidding," He shot back cynically. "I tend to notice when something decides to chew on me!" Angry, frustrated, and hurt, Draven grabbed Deall by the collar of his worn-out leather armor and pulled him along to the east.

"Where are you taking me?" Deall whimpered pathetically.

"Ravenwood. You have a lot of questions to answer!"

To be continued…

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