This is a very dark story, certainly far darker than my usual stuff, if there is such a thing. The idea came to me while I was writing a scenario for my role-playing group. The party was tracking some cultists through a forest, and I wanted them to meet the only survivor of a village raid to give them their next clue. They were originally going to rescue him, but then I thought of a better idea.
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I was just drifting off to sleep when one of my alarms went off. The cultist who triggered it laughed as his body went up in flames, the sickly smell of bad meat filling the forest. He fell to the ground, other cultists rushing forwards to feed, ripping chunks of flesh from his body with yellow teeth. He stopped laughing when someone cracked his skull open with a rock to get at his brains. Once the body was gone, the surviving cultists ran towards me, setting off another alarm and causing a repeat of the feeding frenzy.
There was still five of them left, and I was sure they couldn’t see me, although they knew which tree I was in. They began to climb, their unnaturally long fingers and sticky skins allowing them to scale the branchless lower part of the tree easily. This wasn’t my first meeting with this particular bunch, nor with similar cultists, so I wasn’t too worried. I dropped a few pebbles, which lit up when they hit the floor, revealing the silhouettes of the three who had started to climb. I put an arrow in one who was still on the ground, which burst like a lightning bolt and sent his whole body into spasm, although I doubted he was dead. This didn’t seem to bother the remaining cultist, who leapt on the victim and began to chew. The three climbers hesitated, torn between getting an easy meal and going for the much sweeter meat of my living flesh. The lowest climber dropped to the ground and rushed to get his share, the other two continued to climb.
Now, as you can imagine, I was tired and getting very irritable. I’d been hunting this particular cult since they slaughtered my family, and was really looking for it all to end. I leaned out from my hiding place in the higher branches and pointed my fingers at the top climber. I let my anger and irritation go, and a ball of flames shot from my hand. It hit the climber in the face as he looked up at me, momentarily illuminating his hunger-filled eyes and a wide yellow smile. The force of the fireball broke his neck and peeled him from the trunk. He landed in a pile of limbs on the forest floor, his body covered in flames. Thick smoke rose up, almost making me puke as I pulled back into my hide. I don’t know what all this magic stuff is called, I never had any schooling, it just works when I need it. I do know I prefer fire, nothing better than warming your toes over a burning cultist.
So, one climber, two on the ground, one of which had now caught fire trying to get at his burning friend. The climber first, as he was pretty close now. Of course, I can’t just throw fireballs all day, they’d all be dead already if I could. It drains me every time I use it, drags on my soul when I over-do it. I leaned out again and dropped another pebble, this one stuck to the cultist’s cheek and began to fizz as it gave off a strong acid. At first, he ignored it, but eventually, he let go with one hand and swatted at the irritation. I dropped a couple more while he wasn’t moving, getting close enough to his eyes to blind him. He began to laugh as the acid fizzed away at his eyelids, and then his eyeballs. He let go with both hands to wipe the acid away, not realising his mistake until he hit the ground, one of his leg bones snapping underneath him. The two remaining cultists, one still smouldering, dashed over and tore him apart, ignoring both acid and flames.
I was just thinking how stupid cultists were when I heard a noise above me. Most people would just look up and try to see what had made the noise, a bat, a bird, the wind in the leaves. People like me can’t do that, we react first, and if it’s nothing so be it. I threw myself backwards, grabbing my safety rope and swinging out from the trunk. A dark shape dropped from the upper branches, landing where I had been standing, a short spear piercing the branch. The figure hissed and turned to look for me. I was moving back towards it now, with nothing to stop myself. The figure saw me, wrenched out the spear and jabbed it towards my belly. With nothing else to do I screamed, let go with everything I had, sent a massive blast of wind and anger and fire towards the figure, who flew backwards, tumbling and laughing, until he hit something with a loud crack. I woke sometime later, on the forest floor, my ankle was broken and rope burns on my hands. The sun was just rising, the red dawn of another day. It probably saved my life. Lying on the floor close to a cultist stronghold and unconscious is not a good idea. With what little strength I had, I numbed the pain in my ankle and healed it a little. It got me moving, which is what counted, everything else would have to wait. I looked up at where my hide was far above. All my stuff was up there, including the rope I‘d used to get into the tree in the first place. For the first time in a couple of years, I realised how alone I was. Maybe it was time to join up with some others, maybe a bunch of adventurers, perhaps get a bit of treasure and have some decent food for a change. Definitely time to be getting on with my life. After all, I’m a man now, thirteen come the spring. If I live that long.