In the western part of the Balt Kingdom there is a place called the Ancient Aldin Forest, a very old location filled with unusual creatures and plants, including magical beasts or, as the common folk call them, monsters.
The forest is blocked off to the north by the Keeper’s Plateau, but it extends in all other directions till eventually the trees, bushes and other plants start becoming sparse, turning the scenery into plains as far as the eyes can see.
The people of Balt prosper on these plains, farming grains, raising animals and expanding their communities, but the fear of the forest and its creatures is ever prevalent on these folks. As such, there are no towns or villages where you can see the border of the forest with your own eyes on the distant horizon.
In one of the hamlets closer to the southern border of the Ancient Aldin Forest, in a small and somewhat dirty tavern, a group of eight people were huddled together around a table, talking in low voices. Like most foreign people that came to the villages near the ancient forest, it was easy to spot that this was a group of adventurers or monster hunters.
It was a common sight due to the saying “where there is danger, there is opportunity”. Many of the things one could obtain from the forest were worth a lot of gold, you only needed to risk your life to obtain it. That being the case, the profession of adventurer (or monster hunter) was a popular one, albeit with a huge mortality rate, where many people confident in their swordplay, archery or magical skills tried to make it big.
One could tell that this group was experienced due to the quality of their equipment and its roughness. Both the gear and the people wearing it were full of scars, trophies of their many battles, showing the history of the struggle and success of these adventurers.
A stout red-headed dwarf was sitting at one of the ends of the rectangular table. He was donning a full plate armor, carrying a shield taller than his height and a small but heavy mace. He finished gurgling down a tankard of mead and shifted his body to the front a bit, making the wooden stool beneath him creak under the heavy weight.
“Are you absolutely sure about this, Mr. Yorick?” said the dwarf.
“Master dwarf, I would never lie to you. I make my living by offering aid to the adventurers that barely manage to get out of the forest with their lives and are to hurt to make it back here in time. So, from dawn to dusk I am always at the border of the ancient forest and it’s been at least two months since I heard the master of the forest roar,” said the person sitting at the other end of the table, a tall and lanky man wearing coarse linen clothes.
[Yeah, right! You rat bastard. I bet if the poor sod is broke, or without much strength left in them, you would wait for their death and rob them afterwards, leaving a naked corpse to rot in the grasslands.]
Although the dwarf thought that, he didn’t say it out loud. He grabbed his helmet that was resting on the table with one hand, holding it under his arm, while the other hand snatched the remaining chicken leg on his plate. He stood up.
He made a gesture with his head, nodding to a woman at his side who was wearing a black silk robe with a few leather armor pieces strapped on top, protecting her more vital areas. She too stood up, as did the rest of the group, leaving only the tall and lanky man sitting.
The woman took her staff in hand, a fine piece made with oak and a ruby on top, and said a few words in an unknown language, followed by some hand gestures. A black orb formed in front of her, floating in the air at chest height. The orb expanded, it quickly went from the size of a pea to that of a melon before it finally stopped growing.
She casually put her arm into the orb, which made her hand and wrist disappear inside of it. After a few seconds, she withdrew her hand and the orb collapsed on itself, disappearing. She then tossed a few silver coins on the table, in the direction of the lanky man.
“Well, thanks for your information. We should get going,” said the red-headed dwarf.
“Any time for you sir, any time,” said the lanky man, smiling as he quickly collected the money and hid it somewhere inside his clothes.
The group of adventurers headed for the stairs to the second floor, where the rooms they rented for the night were. When they were far enough from the common area the woman in the black robe said:
“Why make me take money from our stash? You have more than enough silver on your pouch, don’t be a lazy dwarf.”
“There was a group of masked people a few tables away watching us. They gave me a weird feeling, so I thought it would be better to show them a bit of our capabilities, before they think of anything stupid,” replied the red-headed dwarf.
“Let them come, me and my stone blade could chop them off instantly, like *zap-zoom*!” said a blond youth with freckles as he swung his arms in the air, like he was chopping at something.
“That is not a good idea, it’s best to avoid trouble whenever we can,” said the dwarf.
[Oh no, here comes the nagging,] thought the youth.
“You are new to the group Ivan, so let me tell you something. You need to chill down a bit. Maybe you never had much trouble before, since you are decently skilled and lucky enough to get an amazing magic weapon so soon in your career, but there are experienced fighters everywhere. The moment you let your guard down, thinking you are hot shit, you will pay, and badly,” said the dwarf in a matter-of-fact tone.
“I know, you said that a bunch of times already, sorry, sorry,” said the youth, not feeling sorry at all.
The rest of the group snickered lightly, it looked like that kind of banter was a somewhat common occurrence.
Meanwhile, the lanky man left at the table had a silly smile on his face. He was passing his hands repeatedly on his oily, shoulder length black hair.
[I really should change jobs! A few pieces of silver just for knowing a tidbit of information that is not exactly a secret! I could exploit the newcomers or teach adventurers what I know about the region for easy money. And better yet, it’s risk-free! Most of the people I find near dead at the border of the forest are penniless anyway. They drop their gear along the way and use all their lifesaving measures trying to escape even a little bit faster. And all that is only IF they manage to make it out of the forest, it’s not a profitable business.]
The red-headed dwarf and his group were now walking along the second-floor corridor. One could track their movement due to the old and dusty floorboards that creaked constantly when they moved.
“Alright, it seems the theory that the master of the forest hibernates may be real after all, so tomorrow we will go very deep into the woods. Let’s sleep early, because we need to get up before the sun is out and walk till there. No point in bringing the horses if we can’t take them inside the forest. So, don’t go out looking for lasses tonight Vaati,” said the dwarf.
“I know, don’t worry,” said a regular looking man.
In the afternoon of next day, in a small village near the edge of the Keeper’s Plateau, a bunch of small children were playing in a nearby thicket, their cheerful voices and laughter scaring the small animals that resided there.
“It’s your turn to search Alice,” said one of the children.
“Ah, ok… 1, 2, 3…” said Alice as she turned her face to a nearby tree and closed her eyes.
“Let’s go to the edge Rudi, Alice is afraid of going near it, she will never find us,” whispered one of the boys to another.
“That is a good idea Rufus, let’s run,” replied the other boy.
All the children started to run and hide in different locations, whereas the two boys went deeper inside the thicket. When they got close to the edge of the Keeper’s Plateau they stopped and looked down at the forest below.
One could barely tell there was a forest there. A thick white mist covered most of the treetops, making it look like a calm white lake that extended as far as the eyes could see. But the children knew that under that mist was a very dangerous place, filled with beasts and magical creatures.
At that same time, inside that deadly forest, a group of seven people led by a stout red-headed dwarf were making their way deeper and deeper into the woods.
“We haven’t been attacked by anything for some time. It seems we are inside the master of the forest territory. We are getting closer to the objective, keep your guard up!” said the dwarf to the others in a hushed tone.
The sun was starting to set in the horizon, making that lake of mist turn from white to an orange and pink color, truly a spectacle to see. The two kids that were sitting on the edge of the plateau got up on their feet and patted their clothes to brush off the dirt.
“I think we waited long enough, we are probably the only ones left to find,” said Rudi as he began walking back.
“You are right,” said Rufus who was about to follow him.
A loud bellow was heard from inside the forest, making everything tremble and causing the birds to scatter in fright. The ground shook, making Rufus, who was close to the ledge, lose his balance. He flailed his arms, desperately trying to recover his equilibrium and not fall down.
Everything happened in an instant. Rudi ran to Rufus, his arm stretched in an attempt to catch his friend, while Rufus instinctively grabbed his friend’s arm and pulled it, trying to get his balance back. Rudi wasn’t expecting the sudden pull and lost his footing going forward. As such, the two kids exchanged places, with Rufus falling on his knees on top of the plateau, and Rudi going off the edge.
Rufus was sweating, his heart was beating like crazy and his hands were trembling. After a moment, his brain processed what had just happened and he turned to look down the cliff, at that mist filled forest where his best friend just disappeared into. He just sat there, hugged his knees and cried.
“Fuck! Hibernating my ass! Who came up with that stupid idea!” cursed a blond youth with a face filled with freckles.
A massive serpent head dived towards him as he dodged to the side, avoiding the huge gaping mouth of the creature by a thin margin. He just barely escaped the fate that two of his companions already suffered: being split in the middle and gulped down in one bite.
He took the opportunity to swing his strange weapon, a great sword made of stone that was surrounded by a pale blue light, to the serpent’s neck. The sword cut reasonably deep and managed to get stuck in the creature, which was a testament to how good the weapon was, but it gave him no comfort right now as the monster didn’t seem to be fazed. He let go of the weapon and backed a few meters, his face dark and somber.
The master of the forest, the terrifying creature that they hoped to sneak past by, was a hydra. The serpent-like monster had four thick legs and a tail connected to a huge lower body from which spawned five long serpent heads. The creature was sixteen meters tall and its presence alone was able to chill someone to the bone, making people unable to react or respond. That is how it easily ate up the archer and the cleric of the group. When it suddenly appeared from under the lake it froze the party for an instant, and an instant in combat is long enough.
The fight was going on for a while, the adventurers looked disheveled and one could see they were injured in many places, but they were managing to survive at least. No one seemed to notice that at that time, not very far from where they were fighting, the small body of a child landed on the shore of the lake, after falling through a tree.
His clothes were torn apart everywhere, his entire body was covered with cuts and puncture wounds, with the occasional tree branch impaled here and there. He was bleeding from those injuries, making what remained of his simple clothes into a dark red color. His right arm and both legs were hanging in a weird angle, with parts of his broken bones exposed. Like that, the poor child lay there, unconscious and unaware of everything happening not very far from him.
“Sorry friends, I think this is it…” said the red-headed dwarf as he braced himself for impact, creating a blue translucent barrier from his shield to block the incoming attack.
“We have been doing this for a long time, we all know how it works, no need to apologize,” said the woman in the black silk robe who was carrying a staff. Her tone was casual, but it was impossible to hide the sorrow in her voice.
“We all know my ass! You are all crazy, I am getting away from here!” said the freckled youth.
“You spoiled brat! You try to run…” said another member of the group when he was interrupted by a loud crash followed up by a tremor, making him bite his tongue.
The five heads of the hydra slammed into that translucent blue barrier, making the earth shake. It didn’t break it, but the smooth and perfect barrier was now filled with cracks. The monster looked impressed as it withdrew its heads and gazed upon that shiny surface. It would probably strike again in a moment and finish its business, which prompted the people inside to speak hurriedly.
“Let the kid run if he wants, is not his fault. It is up to the gods if he will manage to make it out of the forest with his injuries and no weapon in hand,” said the dwarf.
The man that was cursing the youth spat out, showing his contempt, or maybe he was just clearing his mouth from the blood after he bitted his tongue.
“I could use all the magical items we have and make an explosion to heavily harm or perhaps even kill this monster, only thing is, we wouldn’t make it out either…” said the woman in the black silk robe.
“Do it, let’s show this green bastard we are not so easy to deal with!” replied the dwarf.
The woman didn’t wait for another opinion. In an instant, a black orb was floating in the air like the night before in the tavern, only this time many items and equipment were falling from the orb to the ground, making a small pile of wondrous things. After a moment, nothing else fell from the black orb and it disappeared after collapsing on itself.
She then struck her staff into the earth and began chanting in an unknown language while making a few hand gestures. A small stream of bluish-purple glows started to congregate from that pile on the ground and the equipment they were wearing, all flying towards her hands where a small bluish flame took form.
The hydra had only stopped for a bit and immediately reared its heads for another strike. The five heads dived down, going towards that barrier that looked like it would break at any moment now. Then, a lot of things happened at the same time.
The barrier shattered before the heads of the hydra reached it. A youth leapt away and dashed in the opposite direction from the fight with all his speed. The remaining people leapt forward, running to the hydra, a crazy smile on their faces, while a small arrow made of bluish flames shot towards the monster’s chest.
The hydra’s heads trashed the oncoming party, killing them on the spot. The flaming arrow penetrated the thick dark green scales of the monster, lodging itself to one of the necks for a brief instant before it exploded.
The creature’s chest was blown open, scales, flesh and blood spilling everywhere. Its necks were blasted off from the rest of the body, sprawling in all directions. The remainder of its lower body flipped a few times on the ground before stopping near the shore of the lake, near that unconscious boy that nobody seemed to notice, covering him in dark blue blood.
The blast from the explosion carried Ivan, the freckled youth, even further away from the fight, making him roll in the bushes and get tangled in some plants. He scurried up, noticing he could no longer see the lake, and with a smile on his lips made his way limping towards the south.
One day later, at noon, a blond youth filled with freckles made his way out of the Ancient Aldin Forest. He looked to be on his last legs, but his eyes and face were filled with vigor. He had managed to survive a trip in hell. Some distance away, a tall and lanky figure could be seen heading towards him, with both arms open wide, like he was receiving an old friend.
“Yorick, thank god! Help me man, I am bleeding bad. I can definitely pay you!”
“Of course, my friend, of course! You know that is why I do this job, to help courageous people like yourself,” said Yorick as he scrutinized the youth up and down. “Lie down in the grass, I will need to patch you up.”
Ivan felt a shiver on his spine when Yorick was looking at him from top to bottom, but after he saw the man taking a few bandages from his rucksack he relaxed and lay down as told.
“You know, you will be my last costumer, I am changing business. I’ve found a much better line of work. I need to thank your group for that, it was you guys that showed me the way. But tell me, what happened to you and your party?” said Yorick with a smile after he saw the youth lying down on the ground.
Ivan recounted what happened to his group. Yorick was pretty interested in the tale, exclaiming and nodding at the right times, while bandaging the young man. Ivan didn’t notice the wild gleam on the lanky man’s eyes as he told his tale. It was as if he was just happy to get it out of his chest.
“Well, you had it rough, but it’s alright now, you can relax, you are safe,” said Yorick as the youth finished his story.
With a precise and practiced movement, Yorick drew a knife from his belt and stabbed the fully bandaged Ivan in the throat. The blood that had just stopped flowing from the other wounds in his body was now leaking out at an even faster rate from his neck.
Ivan looked at Yorick with incredulity, but soon he wasn’t looking at anything at all. Yorick stripped everything of value he found in the corpse of the young man, put it inside his rucksack and made his way back to the village while humming happily.
At that same time, a child on top of Keeper’s Plateau silently stood up. His eyes were bloodshot due to crying, his complexion terrible, like someone without a soul.
He looked down the cliff towards the forest below one last time, in an absent-minded manner, and dragged his feet out of that thicket.
He didn’t seem to be conscious of it, since the direction he was facing wasn’t going to take him back to that small village he knew so well, but to a different, unknown location.
A few days later, inside the deepest part of the Ancient Aldin Forest, a small child woke up by the lake shore. He looked dazed and confused. His eyes were initially blurry, but they focused and went wide-open in the next moment, as he felt pain like never before and gave a hollow cry. He was hurting so much he didn’t have strength to shout. After a bit he noticed that if he didn’t try to move around it didn’t hurt as much, so he got used to it.
He looked at himself and found out he was covered in a dark blue dried-up substance from head to toe. Both of his legs and his right arm were broken. He felt like his head was splitting apart and he couldn’t remember who he was or how he got to this place. Touching his head with his only good hand he could feel a large bump to the left side and he was even more puzzled. After confirming he was in a pretty bad shape, but at least alive, he looked around.
He was near the shore of a big lake, in what looked like a forest. There were huge trees everywhere and the vegetation was dense, making it hard to see further than a few meters. The lake water was completely still and very clear, except in some parts were a dark blue substance was slowly spreading and mixing with the water, similar to how a very thick paint would. There was a small island in the center of the lake, with a very simple and small pagoda build upon it. He felt it was weird to find such a place inside a forest, but he didn’t dwell on it, because he suddenly found out how hungry he was.
He knew he was in no condition to try looking for fruits, so he looked to that terrifying carcass that blocked most of his view. Making a swift decision, he began to crawl with the help of his left arm, clenching his teeth till they hurt because of the pain associated with the effort. After what felt like an eternity, he could see inside that monster’s corpse.
The upper parts were charred black, but inside the abdominal cavity a lot of organs could be seen and, weirdly enough, they seemed fresh, like you would find on an animal after just slaughtering it. The boy gulped. Not because it looked tasty, but because the prospect of eating raw monster parts was ghastly.
He reached his hand inside of it, grabbing what appeared to be the heart of the creature and started to munch on it. It was still somewhat warm, it tasted bad, but it was “food”. The small child filled his belly entirely and fell asleep there, with half of his body inside the corpse of the master of the forest.
In a place not so far away from that ancient forest, another child was starving. Walking mindlessly, Rufus kept repeating “It’s my fault. It’s my fault,” over and over again. He was feeling weak, hungry and tired, but kept walking aimlessly nonetheless.
Eventually, he came across a carriage carrying twelve people from different races, genders and ages, all with iron shackles on their wrists and ankles. It was a slave trader carriage. The fat man in the driver seat stopped the horses and looked at the child with interest. He seemed to confirm something after a moment and gave a big smile.
“It’s all my fault. It’s all my fault,” Rufus kept saying over and over.
“It sure is kiddo, but don’t worry, you don’t need to think about it anymore,” said the fat man as he turned to look at the back of the carriage, shaking his fat belly in the process. “You, the bald one, bring the kid up and strap him. Hahaha, nothing better than free merchandise, today is really a good day.”
One of the slaves got down from the carriage, looked at the small kid with pity in his eyes and lifted him up, putting him inside the carriage. He then jumped back on top and tied the small wrists and ankles of the child with a hemp rope.
Rufus didn’t resist, it was like he didn’t register what was happening to him at all. He just kept mumbling on and on as the fat man stirred the carriage on its way again.
That night, screams of pain could be heard deep inside the ancient forest. In the shore by the lake, that kid who had filled his belly eating a raw hydra heart woke up, his body burning and feeling intense pain.
It was a different kind of pain from the one he had earlier that day, this time it felt like his body was melting, his blood boiling, and a thousand needles were striking his nerves. His mouth was full of pus and blood, which he spat out as he screamed like a madman. He trashed about for a short period of time, before finally passing out due to the pain.
The next day he woke up again, feeling weak. His hair now had a hint of blue mixed with his usual light brown color, but he couldn’t see that, so when he checked his body and found nothing different he sighed, feeling relieved.
He felt thirsty, so he crawled to the lake to drink some water and found, to his astonishment, that dragging his body with one arm was much easier this time than the day before. Maybe some of his strength was coming back?
He refused to eat from the monster that day, but the next day the hunger was too intense, and he could not resist. Again, he woke up at night in extreme pain and screamed till he passed out. This cycle repeated itself: drinking water from the lake, which was now a weird milky blue color, eating the remains of the hydra and suffering incredible pain afterwards.
He got used to the routine after a month and could definitely tell he was getting better, so he kept at it. After two months he was fully recovered. He looked older, his hair was now of a dark blue color, so dark it looked black unless the sun was shining directly on it. His body was bigger and buffer, filled with vigor and strength. All the scars from his fall were completely gone as well, making him look like a different person.
The first thing he did after recovering was to swim towards that small island in the center of the lake. He walked to the front of the pagoda, his heart calm. He didn’t expect to find anyone inside, because if someone lived there he would have seen that person in the past two months.
It was a square building made of wood, with only one floor and a single room. He was stumped at first by the entrance, the door didn’t have a knob, but after a while he discovered it slid to the side. Inside there was a beautifully crafted wooden cradle, with an egg as big as his chest resting on it and nothing else. He lifted the egg in his hands. It was of a pure white color, perfect in all respects, looking more like a polished gem than a creature’s egg. He put it back in the cradle, feeling intrigued.
Time passed for that child lost in the Ancient Aldin Forest. He didn’t remember who he was or knew what he should do, so he made the small pagoda his home. He explored the forest by day, foraging food for his livelihood, and returned to the small temple at night. He would then talk to the egg till he fell asleep.
He had some close encounters, but he learned he was unusually strong, stronger than many of the weird creatures he came across. After a year, he stopped talking to the egg, but he still slept besides it every night. And as such, time kept on passing.
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Hi, Norlum here. Thanks for reading the first chapter of Sanctuary! This was the prologue to the story, so it turned out really long, because there were a lot of important things I wanted to set up and establish. But worry not as the next chapters will be of a more digestible size. So, what did you think about it? Leave your comment and let me know.