If you have a few minutes to spare, I’ve got a story that I think will leave you with a bit of a chill. I’m honestly not sure how to classify this one; it has elements of high fantasy in it, but it’s definitely too grim to quite fit into that category. Dark fantasy, perhaps? Maybe it crosses all the way into horror? If that’s the case, it includes some of my favorite horror elements; the paranormal, and a remote, primitive jungle setting.
This a quick read; the story finishes at around 3,200 words. Here’s to hoping it’s a creepy one for as long as it lasts you.
“There are even more of them than I imagined,” Roca said in a hoarse whisper.
He huddled within the jungles alongside two other men. Micos—the city’s chieftain—was on his right, and Amaru—the leader of the city’s guard—was on his left as the three men watched a massive army pour across the mountainside.
Roca had seen the army before, but never with such frightening numbers. The soldiers who filled the ranks were exactly as he remembered them; they were covered in thick, ashen armor, wielding weapons crafted of metal never seen by the people of the jungles and mountains. Many held tall staffs the same color of their armor, which were capped by gleaming blades with edges that seemed capable of cutting through rock.
Others carried short, stocky barrels which made each footstep an arduous task for the soldiers. Like many of his people, Roca initially did not understand the use of what appeared to be such a dawdling, cumbersome weapon.
That was until when he saw the soldiers point them, and the barrels belch fire. An unknown object sped through the flames and tore apart solid stone every time. If a person was ever caught in the mysterious thing’s path, they were obliterated is a grisly display.
Toward the rear of the sprawling army were barrels of the same appearance, only four times the size. They appeared too massive and too heavy for even a score of soldiers to carry, so they rested upon wooden wagons which the soldiers dragged behind.
Roca had also seen those barrels unleash their fury. He saw it when his home was shattered in a single flash.
He had seen all of the horrors which followed the army wherever it marched. He had seen them when his village was razed to the ground, and when his wife and children were torn apart by the soldiers’ gleaming blades.
But he had never seen so many of the armored men at once, who now moved by the thousands toward the city of Tirth, where Roca had taken refuge.
“How can we possibly challenge them?” asked Amaru, as his eyes washed over the rows of ashen-mailed men in the distance.
“I no longer believe that we can,” Roca answered flatly.
Micos turned from the marching army and showed an indignant glare. “There has to be a way to stop them,” the city’s chieftain protested, “They are from another land far beyond ours. They cannot possibly understand our kingdom as well as we do—that must be some advantage to us.”
“It is,” Roca agreed. “But until the mountains or the jungles come alive and strike them down, our land will provide no aid which will overcome their blades and their fires.”
“Or their numbers…” Amaru added, his voice grim.
“I cannot believe that a single army can possibly out-number the entire peoples of our kingdom,” Micos argued. “If we could gather together those from all of the other villages and cities, we would surely be able to overwhelm them.”
Roca shook his head. “We could have ten times as many soldiers; we still would not have a chance. But we cannot even attempt that while the army has us split off from the rest of the kingdom.”
“Roca is right,” Amaru agreed. “If we wanted to send messengers out, they would need to somehow find passes in the mountains around the army. Even if they could manage to evade them, the trek would take days—maybe weeks.”
“By then, the city would already lay in ruin,” Roca concluded.
A mixture of frustration and terror lined Micos’s aged face. “Are you certain, Roca, that the army marches to us?” the chieftain asked.
Roca nodded. “As I told you; before I escaped my village, I heard some of our warriors reveal the locations of your city, the one below in the valley, and the one eastward within the jungles. If the tales from the survivors which came to us the other day are true, then the army has already laid waste to the other cities—they now come for yours.”
It was not the first time that the horrible realization had fallen upon Micos, yet the life evaporated from his face. There was silence among them for a few moments, until Amaru stood and encouraged his companions up.
“Sitting here in the leaves while we watch them march will do us no good, any longer,” he said. “Let’s get back to the city, and we’ll do what we can to prepare.”
Micos was quick to obey, joining the warrior-captain as they set off down the jungle path away from the mountain and to their city. Yet Roca started in a different direction.
“I’ll return later, I’d like to scout the army from some of the passes on the mountains above,” he announced.
Micos looked back at the man in dismay. “Roca, they’ll kill you if you’re spotted!” he cried.
Micos began to give chase, but Amaru took hold of the chieftain before he took two steps. “Let him go,” Amaru said quietly, “The man no longer has concern for his own life, nor should he after what he’s lost. Perhaps he welcomes death; I would not blame him.”
Roca continued toward the mountains, while Amaru and Micos once again started towards their city.
* * *
Roca made his way up the slope, eventually stepping onto a wide overhang which jutted from the side of the mountain. A ring of boulders sat about the space. A lone rock stood in the very center of the cliff. Roca knew that they were placed by his people countless ages ago, and with purpose; each one would have been set meticulously to form what was once a place for prayer, worship, even sacrifice to the spirits.
He came to the center, stopping in front of the lone rock at the heart of the overhang. Roca stood there silent and unmoving, only gazing into the rock as his mind saw far more than what his eyes beheld. Reluctantly, he reached into the small pouch tied to his waist.
A small stone idol emerged within his grasp. It was shaped like a pillar, with a pair of wings running out from the top. Capping those were two skulls which sat back-to-back. One appeared human; the other from an unknown, ghastly creature, perhaps a demon.
Roca trembled as he stared at the object’s cold, charcoal shape. His family held the idol since the dawn of his people, his father once told him years ago. It came from an era when their people were conquerors. In those days, they spread across the land and claimed all of which would become their great mountain kingdom—bringing war, horror, and death with them as they forged their empire.
Roca feared the idol, yet he had no choice but to seek its power once more.
He placed the object atop the lone rock before him. His hands closed into fists and came together. Bowing his head, a chant began to pass his lips.
He spoke the incantation in a language long forgotten by most of his people. Only those families who still carried artifacts of worship from the empire’s earliest days would have been able to speak in the ancient tongue.
The stone idol began to glow. Circles of eerie green light wrapped about its base, and the eyes within the skulls were illuminated just after.
Roca lifted his head and ceased the chant. A shrill gale passed by the mountain. Had he not uttered the same chant once before and witnessed what followed, he would not believe that it could be real as the air seemed to grow still. A greenish haze materialized all around him, as if the ring of boulders became locked away from the rest of the world by some ghostly grip.
Suddenly, four streams of light sprang from the idol and surrounded Roca. The lights quickly formed into shapes that were vaguely human. Long, flowing robes concealed all but clawed hands and strange faces which stared into Roca. One looked like a vulture, another a lizard, another a panther, and the last a baboon. Each was jarringly animated, like a human’s, but with hideous features that suggested a monster from beyond the earthly realm.
“You have summoned us yet again, mortal,” the vulture-faced spirit spoke, its voice menacing. “Even after our last warning, you are foolish enough to disturb our slumber.”
Roca averted his eyes from the spirit’s icy gaze as he answered. “Please forgive my irreverence, but—”
“It is not irreverence which angers us,” the lizard-face spirit interrupted. “You are too reverent; it sickens us. What draws our anger is that you call upon us believing that we will do whatever you plead for us to.”
Roca lifted his face and fought to show confidence. “I have not summoned you for my own dealings,” he stated with conviction.
The panther-faced spirit’s eyes flickered.“So, you have not called upon us this time begging to see your slaughtered family again?” it asked mockingly.
The other spirits grinned and chuckled in ghoulish delight.
Roca’s eyes hardened. “No, I have come to you spirits on behalf of my entire people. I seek your power for protection from the army which continues to march through our lands.” Roca’s expression and tone softened when he continued. “I beg of you; if you can do nothing for me and my family, please do something, anything to stop the army from wiping out the rest of my people, and our whole kingdom.”
The spirits’ devilish grins vanished. They stood with blank looks on their ghastly countenances, staring silently at Roca as his eyes bounced between them, waiting for their answer.
“We will not,” the vulture-faced spirit declared.
Roca felt the air leave his throat. “B-but how can you—”
The baboon-faced spirit offered an explanation before Roca could finish. “Just as we saw no reason to lend our powers when you asked us to bring back your family from the dead, we see no reason to lend our powers to protect the people of this kingdom.”
Roca quivered in anger. “How can you say that!?” he roared. “My people worshiped you for countless years. We looked to you for aid since the dawn of our kingdom; how can you just stand by and watch us be destroyed without a single concern!?”
“Because those days where your people served us are from ages long past,” the vulture-faced spirit answered. “There was a time when we admired your peoples’ strength. In those days, you stretched your numbers far throughout the jungles and across the mountains, conquering all those who opposed you. That pleased us very much, as did the sacrifices your people made to us—sacrifices of the living. But since then, your people have become tame, and have chosen to venerate other spirits. Your worship of us is but a distant memory.”
“We are actually quite fond of these soldiers who have invaded the land,” the panther-faced spirit added with a vile smirk. “Their lust for war and terror is much more becoming than the weak, pitiful animals your people have become.”
Roca’s teeth grinded together in frustration. “This army has no intent to honor you,” he said. “They will destroy every last trace of our empire, until one day you are forever lost from our world!”
“Then, at least, we will no longer be disturbed by a naïve mortal who we want no part of,” the lizard-faced spirit replied.
Roca’s vigor all-but faded. His eyes fell away from the spirits, and a soundless, pained sigh passed over his lips.
“So allow us to warn you a final time,” the vulture-faced spirit began, drawing Roca’s attention. “If you call upon us again, you will suffer a fate more horrible beyond anything which your mind can dream; you will wish that it was the army which found you first.”
Roca stared back with desperation etched on his face, but no words could escape his mouth.
A shrill wind swept through the mountain and across the overhang. The spirits began to dissipate until they were only the long trails of light as they appeared before. Their wispy forms flew back into the idol, which then went dark as the eerie glow was lost. The ghostly fog about the overhang dispersed until clarity returned to the air.
Roca stood alone with only the idol resting before him.
* * *
Roca trudged up the stony path, and the city of Tirth came into full view. Tirth was considered to be the grandest and mightiest stronghold in the mountain kingdom, and it was for that reason that Roca chose to take refuge within after his village was destroyed. The city was built upon three levels, like steps at the base of the towering peak it was carved into. In an ancient time, when Roca’s people were in chaos and warred amongst one another, Tirth had repelled an untold number of attacks by various tribes. Its daunting walls of pure rock have never once been breached in all of the centuries that they stood.
They would fall today, Roca knew.
He approached the city dispassionately. From his spot on the road, he could hear the hysteria.
The massive wooden doors which served as the entry to Tirth lay open as they allowed any remaining stragglers safe passage into the city. It was through the portal that Roca witnessed the masses in absolute panic. Nearly all men and even young boys ran in one direction—to the ramparts atop the city walls where hundreds gathered to make a desperate stand against the forthcoming army. Women and children, many wailing in horror, ran in another direction—into the furthest reaches of the city where they would hold up and pray that the soldiers and makeshift warriors would possibly defend their home.
They wouldn’t, Roca knew. The city would be decimated, and the people would be slaughtered. They would suffer the same fate as his village and his family—a fate worse than anything his people could have ever imagined.
Suddenly, the spirits’ words echoed—
“If you call upon us again, you will suffer a fate more horrible beyond anything which your mind can dream.”
Roca stopped fifty yards from the city’s entry, and his eyes widened.
A collective gasp emerged from atop the walls. Roca broke out of his trace and looked behind. Not half a mile away, the very first ranks of the army began to rise from the jungles. Entire regiments of the armored soldiers poured from the trees as they marched taciturnly toward their quarry.
“Hurry, Roca! Get inside!” Roca heard someone from atop the walls yell to him, likely Amaru. Several men began to push the huge doors closed, beckoning him to come into the city before they shut the entry.
Roca reached into his pouch and pulled free the stone idol. Turning away from the city, he set forth toward the army.
“Roca, no! What are you doing!?” he heard Amaru scream from the ramparts.
Roca marched down the mountainous trail until he was halfway between Tirth and the approaching army. He stopped on the middle of the road, and set the idol down onto its rocky surface. He closed his eyes, and began to chant.
At the front of the army was a man coated in silver mail and wearing a round helmet. He stood out glaringly amongst the thousands covered by ashen armor, likely to signify his role of command.
The man stopped about one hundred yards from Roca. With a single raise of his arm, the entire army halted behind him.
They watched Roca curiously. Between them and the city stood a single man, apparently praying to a small statue as he stood before thousands of armed men. Many of the soldiers laughed, wondering whether the person of the mountains was either insane, or simply hoped to meet his end sooner rather than later.
The commander nearly began to utter an order before a screaming wind mysteriously tore across the mountainside. The sky’s pale blue canvas almost immediately became as dark as the mountains themselves.
The soldiers looked about in confusion. There had not been even a light breeze the entire day, and the sky had been clear since the first traces of dawn; yet it seemed as if a storm had suddenly materialized in seconds.
A shout came from the front of the army as one of the soldiers pointed ahead at Roca, and the glowing idol beneath him.
A ghostly fog enveloped the whole mountainside. No sooner than when Roca’s lips went still and his eyes opened, four wisps of eerie light flew from the idol. They morphed into the spirits which he spoke to earlier that day, and surrounded him just as they had at the overhang.
Every soldier became like stone at the sight of them.
Roca’s eyes darted in all directions at the spirits who encircled him, their expressions cold and ruthless as they glared at the man who called upon them yet another time.
“You are perhaps the bravest man amongst your people,” the vulture-faced spirit said, and pointed a long, crooked claw at Roca. “But that bravery has spelled your doom this day.”
“We warned you the last time we spoke to never summon us again,” said the lizard-faced spirit, its voice low. “Your refusal to heed that warning will now be your demise.”
A grin slowly crawled across Roca’s face.
The spirits spread their arms out, and Roca was lifted off the ground by an unseen force as he became bathed in a pale light. In unison, the spirits shouted a single word in an ancient language long forgotten by the world.
Roca’s head bent back, and he loosed a hideous howl.
His people, standing on the city walls, and the soldiers of the invading army all watched on in horror, their minds unable to comprehend what their eyes beheld. The eerie light began to envelop more and more of Roca’s body with each passing second. His cry grew so loud that it rang out across the whole mountain, into the jungles, and down into the valleys below.
At last, Roca was lost in a tremendous flash which blinded every person who witnessed the spirits’ wrath. When the light dispersed, he was nowhere to be seen; the only thing which the spirits surrounded was the glowing idol.
A screaming wind raced throughout the mountain. The spirits returned to their wispy forms and flew back into the idol. The ghostly fog which once enshrouded the mountainside began to dissipate until the sun’s rays broke through and revealed the sky’s soft blue canopy above.
And yet, the soldiers of the invading army had never known such fear. The panic-stricken commander turned and began to push his way through the ranks. One by one, each of the terrified soldiers threw down their weapons and followed behind him.
The people of Tirth watched with astonishment as the entire army retreated into the jungles, leaving the city far behind them as they fled. Before long, every last soldier was gone from their sight, and all that remained of the army was a carpet of their gleaming blades and metal barrels.
The people of Tirth looked back at where Roca and the spirits once stood. No longer glowing, the stone idol sat alone on the mountain floor.