The trees were filled with sounds. Birds chirped overhead, invisible in the trees as he and the rest of the sell-swords trekked through the undergrowth. Branches rustled in the wind, blowing towards the darker parts of the forest.
The hair on the back of his neck stood on end right before he felt teeth dig into his neck. He spun, knocking his attacker off, but, when he turned, there was no one there. Then, the others started dying. Heads fell from shoulders, arms were torn from sockets, and hearts were ripped out from chests. The forest filled with screams.
He rushed to one of his comrades right as she was ripped apart.
“No!” He charged, swinging his sword through the air. “Fight me, you coward! Show your face!” His voice bounced off the trees, off the dead bodies, and his heart crumbled as he looked down and saw pale, dull eyes staring up at him. He looked around, searching for life.
They were all dead, with limbs strewn about the undergrowth, blood dripping from the leaves, and dead eyes staring at a black sky.
“What is this monster?” he whispered.
The air shifted his brown hair and sliced at his skin in answer. Fingers touched his shoulders, and he turned again to find a woman.
She was lean, her dress a rag, and her fingers bloody. She grinned at him-her smile never reaching her eyes-as she vanished again.
He lifted his shield and held his sword steady as he began to circle around, waiting for her to attack.
“I’ve killed so many” she whispered from nowhere and everywhere. “Why have you come? What do you hope to gain?”
He didn’t answer, just swung his sword at random.
The trees echoed with her laughter as his sword met nothing. “I can see you’re driven. Who paid you?” Her breath touched his ear as she whispered into it. He lashed out, but his sword was knocked from his hand. She solidified in front of him, tossing the weapon aside. “Answer me.”
He spit at her feet. She wouldn’t get the better of him. He still had a chance to escape.
She rolled her eyes, and, with a quick hand, she grabbed his neck. Her nails dug in, trickling blood down his neck. “I don’t want to kill you, because you actually seem to care what happens to others.” He struggled for breath. “But you have no power here. Now, tell me who sent you?” She released him.
He staggered back, gasping for breath. “The king,” he wheezed.
“Let me guess, ‘there’s a monster that terrorizes the kingdom. Bring me its head.’” She crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Am I right?”
“Are you not a monster?”
She scowled at him.
“You slaughter men and women without even showing your face.” he accused.
She raised an eyebrow. “That’s not the point. You’re the invader. We do what we must to protect ourselves and our home.”
She smiled as other women appeared behind her. They walked out of the shadows like wraiths, and he guessed there was about eleven of them. His heart beat against his chest as he realized he was surrounded and alone in a hornet’s nest.
The leader’s voice cut through his thoughts. “It is a well-kept secret,” she said, “that my family is cursed, to have daughters that are monsters.”
He studied her face closely. Beneath the grime, and muss of dark hair, there was a familiarity. A certain dignity that reminded him of the king. His heart rose to his throat. He looked into the eyes of the other women. The features of the king were in every one of them.
“The kingdom was told that the king lost all of his children to sickness. Obviously, that was a lie, but surely your strengths would do the kingdom a service.” He couldn’t quite believe what he was learning. How could the king just abandon his flesh and blood? Even if they were cursed, they were still his. Was any of this true?
The leader smiled sadly “Unfortunately, no one saw it that way.”
“And the king just abandoned all of you?”
Every head nodded.
“He was too afraid to love his own daughters,” the leader said. She held her head high, anger burning in her eyes. “Now, we cannot be left alone. It seems Father fears retribution.”
He considered her words. Could she truly be telling the truth? Or was she just pulling on his sympathy? But surely no one would choose to live in hiding, and their powers… He looked them all over, noticing how the shadows played with them, and how some of them even had the features of monsters. There was no hiding that.
“What do you want of me?” he finally asked.
The leader sidled up to him. “I want you to spread the word that the cursed are coming. I want you to tell our story.” She turned back to her sisters. “We plan on building an army.” She glanced over her shoulder at him. “You should think about which side you want to be on. Now, get running.”
With an invisible force, he was spun around, and, without a backwards glance, he ran towards the entrance of the forest disappearing amongst the trees.