Hidden Realm: Prologue
Silver moonlight fought its way through the thick fog, casting the woods in a hazy glow of silver. The air was stale and thick, filling his nose with the suffocating stench of decay. His heavy boots moved soundlessly over the hard ground as he navigated the Dead Wood, searching. His search felt like an eternity, the end hidden beneath the fog. The other Huntsman gave up hope long ago. There was little hope left in the lands anymore, only a fool’s hope. His hope. The snapping of a branch echoed through the twisted dead trees. Raising his crossbow he surveilled his surroundings, listening. Holding his breath, the beating of his heart was the only sound he made. He saw them in the distance, the wolves. They were hideous creatures to behold with long thin arms, patchy fur, and large snouts full of yellowed teeth that smelled of rot. Worst of all were their eyes, devoid of any compassion and glowing crimson. The wolves claimed these woods after the great wars, but that was long before his time when the trees still lived. After they infested the forest everything died, as if festering with an incurable poison. Now no leaves grew on the trees, their bark left hollow and dry. Humans no longer ventured here, and the inhabitants of villages bordering the woods migrated further south every year. But over the past few years the wolves had grown restless. On nights when the moon was full they ventured away from the wood; each moon traveling further south, terrorizing the villages. A storm was coming, he could feel it. The threat of war hung over the horizon. He slipped away unheard, disappearing among the trees. Unlike the other Huntsman, he didn’t go looking for blood nor vengeance against the monsters; he fought only when needed. For now, he needed to save his strength. He needed to keep searching. He couldn’t falter, not now—not with so much at stake. Everywhere the wolves went they left a bloody trail and rumors of a Crimson Shadow, but that’s all they were, rumors. No one knew what it was or where it came from, even the name was an epithet. Some say it was a warrior, others said a sorcerer. Others, a creature of the deep caves or a poisonous fog. One thing was certain: where the Crimson Shadow was sighted a veil of darkness was cast, and the wolves were close at hand. There were questions without answers while the threat grew in the darkness, so he continued to search when all others gave up. He searched the endless stretch of dead and twisted trees hoping for something, anything, that would lead him closer. The only information any of them had was a general location, with no idea of who or what they would find. But he knew it would be the one they were waiting for. One like the others from the legends of long ago—the one who would save them all. Finding them was the land’s only hope of survival, and he could not fail. Not again. Once more, there was something within him telling him he was meant to be there. He was fated to be the idealistic fool that never gave up. Why else would he be the only one who kept looking, the only one who knew the Prophecy? Why hadn’t Blue told anyone else? A streak of lightning flashed across the still sky. The twisted dead trees were illuminated in a flash of brilliant blue light, casting crooked shadows across the forest floor. His awareness heightened, nerves on edge. He stood listening, scanning his surroundings; he didn’t dare make a wrong move. Branches broke and footfalls echoed around him. They were not the sounds of a wolf pack, but rather the unmistakable sounds of someone, something, stumbling lost through the wood. Heart pounding in his head he ran through the maze of dead trees, his footfalls coming swiftly and silently from years of practice. Drawing near the source of the noise he slowed, pulling his hood low over his face. Normally the Dead Wood was the one place he didn’t need to hide, but this was different. He followed the figure through the fog, and to his relief he saw it was human. A small woman in a strange manner of dress stumbled, grabbing at trees for support. No matter how many times her footing failed she picked herself up and continued to walk, determined to get wherever she was going. His pounding heart slowed, and he felt an indescribable sense of peace watching her. Whoever she was, her spirit enamored him. Raven hair cascaded around her shoulders, and her pale skin glowed beneath the hazy moonlight. Stepping forward, he swallowed the lump in his throat.
“Is it you, then? Have you finally arrived?”