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The Eye Of Ludum

A Dryad's Secret

By Kenny PennPublished 2 months ago 10 min read
6
The Eye Of Ludum
Photo by Claudia Ramírez on Unsplash

"We shouldn't be here," Elna whispered.

Jochen glanced towards her but didn't stop moving forward. Elna's face troubled him more than her words. For an elf, her complexion seemed unusually pale in the torchlight. He knew better than to ignore her words, though. Elna's foresight had saved his skin at least half a dozen times.

He gave Elna’s hand a gentle squeeze. Sapphire eyes gazed into his own, filled with apprehension.

"Don't worry," he whispered back, "we're going to be fine."

In truth, Jochen shared her unease but didn’t know why. After nearly a year of searching half the world, it seemed they would finally find the Eye and be able to return home. They should all be elated.

So why did he feel like there was a target painted on his back?

It's this forest, he told himself, shuddering. The surrounding trees seemed almost eager, watching in silent anticipation. Their curved trunks bent over the party as though observing rats scurry about in a maze. No single tree stood straight or was otherwise bent in any other direction. The effect was unnerving. Long, skeletal branches spread outward like grasping talons, eager to capture unwary prey. Moonlight played tricks with the shadows, giving him impressions of slight movements at the edges of his vision.

Elna's right; I should call this off right now. Jochen's heart fluttered in his chest, but they couldn't afford to leave — not until they'd found the Eye, if indeed it was here.

And if it isn't? If this is some sort of trap or ambush?

Raising his torch, Jochen called to the two men scouting the forest before them. "Glanealle, Finnius, see anything?"

Glanealle grunted, giving Jochen an exasperated look. “As if we could.” He muttered, tracing a finger down the rough bark of a nearby tree. “Not even Elna’s eyes will see what this place doesn’t want her to see.”

For a moment, Jochen thought Glanealle’s skin tone lightened to the exact brownish-gray shade of the bark. Another trick of the shadows. What kind of place is this?

Finnius called back, "Nuthin' but more dirt n' leaves. That, an' more trees o' course. Can't see much in front o' us though, this damnable darkness is hard ta penetrate."

Jochen nodded, swinging the torch to his left. Sylvar, his longtime friend and Elna's half-brother, held a shortbow in his slim hands, an arrow half-nocked. Sharp eyes kept vigil against whatever might lay in wait in the darkness. "What about you, Sylvar?"

"No, but something smells wrong." Eyes narrowed, Sylvar studied a tree intently as if it might spring on them at any moment. "I've never scented wood like this before." He paused, inhaling deeply through his nose. "Like memories of an ancient storm. The air here is charged as though poised for a lightning strike."

"What you're smelling is the remains of old and powerful magic," Elna said. "Your human blood weakens your senses, brother, but if even you can smell it, then it is indeed potent."

Sylvar bore the comment without remark, used to Elna's constant reminders of his ancestry. "Do you know this magic, sister?"

Elna lifted her chin. "We walk the land of the Dryad now, brother." Returning her gaze to Jochen, she repeated, "We shouldn't be here."

###

Three days ago, Jochen had all but given up on finding the Eye of Ludum. If not for Sylvar's story, he would have. They'd been in Vestleton, a small town and their last stop among over a hundred villages and towns since beginning their fruitless search, when Sylvar had told it to them.

"Someone, somewhere, has to have heard something, anything, about a powerful artifact like that," Jochen said over a mouthful of bread, sitting at an inn table. “Those kinds of things leave traces, you know? Impressions. There should be stories about it—legends told by bards with nuggets of truth for the right ear."

"An artifact capable of summoning fire from thin air?" Elna snorted, rolling her eyes. "Come on, Jochen. We knew this was a long shot from the start. Even your king thought the Eye unlikely to be real; you said so yourself."

Jochen took a long sip of wine, nodding in his cup. Thank the gods he'd brought his own stock, good Aborian red. If he'd been forced to drink the piss this inn tried to pass off as ale, he might have died. "True, but you don't know the king. If he'd heard enough to send us on this hunt, he'd expect us to return with more than empty words."

"Human kings," Elna sniffed, wrinkling her nose, "are utter fools."

Jochen laughed. "Sometimes they are, my love. Unfortunately, they are also powerful, so we must bow and scrape to their whims, whether we think them foolish or not."

Elna opened her mouth - no doubt intending to add another biting comment - when the door opened. Sylvar walked in. Blue eyes - mirrors of his sister's - peered out from under bushy eyebrows. "I thought I'd find you two lovebirds here," he said.

"Where are Glanealle and Finnius?" Jochen asked, gesturing to the seat beside him.

Sylvar helped himself to some bread and cheese. "Downstairs at the bar, betting on who can bag that raven-haired serving girl. My money's on Glanealle."

"Glanealle is about as handsome as a half-eaten corpse," Elna smirked. "She'd have to be deaf and blind to go for a man like him."

"You'd be surprised to find out how charming that man can be, sister." Sylvar shrugged.

“Good man to have in a fight as well,” Jochen commented. “He’s tough, got skin that just about turns away steel.”

Elna's lips curled. "I don't like him."

"You've never given him a chance, dear heart," Jochen said, though without any heat. They'd been through this song and dance a dozen times already.

"There's something wrong with a human who smells like acorns and molasses half the time. Not to mention how he looks at me whenever he thinks I’m not paying attention—like a mother bear whose cub has gone to be raised by the wolves. It’s creepy."

Sylvar poured himself a cup of wine and leaned back in his seat. "Anyway, I might have some good news for you, Jochen."

"You've finally given up gambling? That is good news, Sylvar."

"And give up the coin I keep winning from you?" Sylvar chuckled. He leaned forward, capturing Jochen's eyes. "I’ve heard an interesting story.” He paused, tapping a slim finger against his chin. "About a giant who lost its eye in a forest nearby long ago."

Jochen’s forehead creased thoughtfully. "Really? Tell me about it."

Sylvar picked up his cup and grinned, leaning back again. "I was outside practicing sword forms when Finnius says he wants to introduce me to a guard he'd just met. An interesting fellow with a long family history in this town. We spoke for a while, and then I asked him if he knew any old stories involving this area. Well, it turned out he does.

The way he tells it, around four to five generations ago, a giant named Ludum came down from the mountain to live in the forest alone. He'd been banished for disrespecting the clan chief. Took more than his fair share of meat or some such thing. Before he left, Ludem stole a golden flask that was said to always be filled with the sweetest water or wine, depending on what the one holding the flask wished for."

"Now, that would be a trinket worth having," Jochen said, hoisting his cup. Elna laughed and shushed him.

"Yes," Sylvar agreed, taking a sip. "So, a few years go by, and the giant lived peacefully in the forest. Sometimes, he would get drunk and sing so loud the trees would shake. But this didn't happen often, so the people of that time left him alone.

Then, one day, his old clan won a fierce and bloody battle with a dragon in the mountain. The chief wanted to celebrate this great victory and remembered his golden flask. Furious that his treasure had been stolen, he sent warriors down the mountain to find the banished giant and retrieve the trinket.

But Ludem loved his flask, and when the warriors tried to take it from him, his screams of rage caused all but the bravest of them to flee in terror. One of the braver ones snuck behind and tore out the giant's eye before stripping the flask from his hand. Before they could leave with their prize, though, Ludem called out to the heavens for vengeance. In response, the gods sent down rivers of fire that scorched the ground, killing every living thing nearby.

The guard claimed his ancestor later went into the woods to ascertain what had happened, but nothing was left except ash and the giant's gorged eye, covered in amber tree sap. The man tried to take it for a souvenir, but the heat exuding from it was too great, so he left it there, where it remains to this day."

Jochen sat back in his chair and glanced across the table. Elna caught his eye and shrugged. "That's some story, Sylvar," he said, "And it's supposed to be in a forest nearby?"

Sylvar nodded. "That's what the man said. West of here. According to him, if we left in the morning, we'd make it a couple hours after midday."

"Does this forest have a name?"

"Yeah. The Blackwood, but he said it used to be called the Iphycian Grove."

Elna suddenly hissed, and they both looked at her in surprise. Her brows were furrowed as she gripped Sylva's wrist. "You're sure the guard spoke this name, brother?"

"Yes," Sylvar replied, frowning. "Why, do you know it?"

"I have heard it somewhere before. An ill-omened name, I remember that much. Something told to me long ago, in my youth." Elna shook her head. "I can't fully remember, but I don't think we should go there, Jochen."

"No one does anymore," Sylvar said. "Not in the last fifty years or so, according to the guard."

Jochen fixed his friend with a steady gaze. "Why not?"

Sylvar shrugged. "He says otherworldly beasts haunt those woods.” He paused, staring at his cup. “Glanealle’s reaction was even more strange. When I told him and Finnius the story, he got all quiet for a minute.” Sylvar turned to lock eyes with his sister. “Then he says, tell Jochen I don’t think we should go. Tell him, human greed has felled many a king, and kings never die alone.”

# ##

"What's a Dryad?" Jochen asked, not sure he wanted to know the answer.

"Ancient protectors of the oldest forests," Elna answered. Her eyes flicked nervously over the trees. "Perhaps elven ancestors, old before the first humans were flickers of imagination in the minds of gods." She licked her lips. "It seems they are still alive."

"Perhaps it would be prudent to leave, then."

But a look of dread passed over Elna's face then, quickly replaced by calm acceptance. "It's too late for that, dear heart. They are already here."

Jochen straightened and drew his sword, hearing the hiss of steel as Sylvar did the same. Together, they stared around wildly. "Are you sure? I don't see anything."

"They aren't people like us, Jochen. They are the trees."

"What -" Jochen began, then Finnius screamed. Whirling about, he raised his torch in time to see his companion jerked upright by one skinny leg, a thick branch wrapped around his calf. Jochen dashed forward, intending to slice the branch in half, but was knocked off his feet by something hard and springy.

"Jochen, HELP MEEEEE!" Finnius screamed.

Shaken, Jochen climbed to his feet. He'd managed to hold on to his sword, but Finnius was no longer in sight. "FINNIUS!" His only answer was another terrified scream, but he couldn't tell which direction it came from.

A tree to his left quivered violently. Jochen ran back to Elna, who stood calmly next to her brother, a look of pained sorrow on her face. "Did you see which way Finnius went, Sylvar? And where's Glanealle?"

Sylvar only shook his head, face slick with sweat as he tried to look everywhere at once. All around, the woods seemed to be coming to life. Loud, creaking groans accompanied a cacophony of dirt and flying rocks pelting the forest floor as something massive pulled free from the earth.

A vine shot out from the dark and wrapped itself around Sylvar's throat. Elna cried out wordlessly as it dragged her brother to the ground with the ease of a lion pulling down a gazelle. Sylvar dropped his sword, pulling desperately at the vine. Jochen screamed in rage, running forward and slashing deeply into the vine, but another wrapped around his sword arm while yet another pulled the weapon free of his hand.

Before Jochen could respond to the new threat, he heard a great rustling sound from above. He looked up to see one of the trees bending over him, grotesque limbs reaching lightning-quick to wrap themselves around his body. He looked around, screaming, as the branches began to squeeze. More wrapped around his legs, his chest, and his neck. He saw Elna's body sinking into a tree trunk as though it were made of nothing more than quicksand; her hand outstretched toward him in a final farewell.

Jochen tried to cry out to her, to tell her he was sorry. He should have heeded her warnings. His ribs cracked, then popped, and the world went black in a sea of agony.

# ##

Once the screams had faded and the woods were again filled with the music of crickets, a figure stepped out from the gloom behind the trees. With a sigh that sounded like wind passing through leaves, it knelt next to the man’s corpse.

Had Jochen been alive, he would have recognized the figure, though it had changed. Withered vines sprouting tiny flowers grew where thin strands of hair had once been. Its skin had turned a shade of brownish-gray and grew patches of verdant moss over its body, but the face was mostly the same.

"Sorry, old friend." Its voice was light, almost musical. Another change. "That guard was bad luck for you. We couldn't risk you taking the stone. It’s much too dangerous to be trusted in the hands of men."

Standing, it walked over to Elna's corpse. Her dead, pale face filled it with suffocating sorrow. An innocent granddaughter of the forest, but the Dryad's secrets had to be protected. It picked up the elf's broken form and laid it gently next to Jochen. Perhaps they would find comfort in each other's arms in the next life. These are more than just old trees. "I tried to warn you, long ago," it said. "You should have remembered. You knew what my name meant once. Glanealle. It means, 'Guardian of the Grove'."

Short StoryFantasy
6

About the Creator

Kenny Penn

Thanks for reading! I enjoy writing in various genres, my favorites being horror/thriller and dark/epic fantasies. I'll also occasionally drop a poem or two.

For a list of all my work, and to connect with me, go to www.kennypenn.com

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Comments (4)

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  • Hannah Moore2 months ago

    This is fabulous- a perfect entry to the challenge, full of fantasy and moral ambiguity.

  • Oh wow, that was intense and morbid! I didn't really like Elna so I don't mind she died. But I really like Jochen and Sylvar. Loved your fantastic story!

  • Suze Kay2 months ago

    Loved this, Kenny! Great twist and not where I saw it coming.

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