This is a story I've had in my head for a long, long time. I have years' worth of ideas built up for it, but every time I've tried writing I've never been happy with it. I suppose quite a few people feel that pain, ha.
The story is dark fantasy based in a vaguely Asian setting, inspired by some myths and some nightmares. The synopsis: Four young priestesses are sent as sacrifices into a forest inhabited by demons.
A THOUSAND EYES watched the woods and a thousand hearts pounded in the rhythm of fear. The soldiers in the towers were the ones tasked with watching, but it was every single man at work on the wall whose eyes scanned the darkness under the trees.
No man wanted to be so near this forest. Blanketed between the jagged hills it rose in endless waves: a dark and silent sea. The lofty pines, mist-shrouded, lifted their crooked arms to the sky.
Day in and day out the army dragged stones from the surrounding hills to the site of the construction. They dug into the earth, wearily placing each boulder. Priests made their rounds, painting marks upon the stones and swinging dishes of incense.
On the wall’s southeastern side lay the cleared land with its vast maze of hastily erected tents that served as the barracks. Further beyond, in a stretch of land thick with disturbed mud lay the graves. These were marked with humble stones or bits of wood, characters scrawled in a rough hand. Many poor souls had been claimed by the steadily growing wall. Many more had been claimed by the Forest.
The line of wagons rolled over the muddy road, approaching slowly. Metal roof decorations gleamed in the morning sun, copper dragons poised on the peaks. Rich paint glowed under delicate wooden lattices. These were not military supply wagons. Wagons of this grandeur had never been seen in these cursed lands.
The soldiers watched them come, staring with expressions of open awe. As the procession rolled past they prostrated themselves on the ground. Others began to gather, abandoning their tasks as they collected in a crowd to watch. The wagons of the Grand Sage—He of the holiest of temples atop the Mount of the Dragon God—were approaching the wall.
There was a formal gathering waiting at the wall, headed by the General in his dress armor. Informed only hours ago that the Grand Sage's wagons were arriving, the General of the Fourth Army had had minimal time to prepare. Sweat beaded his brow in spite of the cool morning air. He knew the dismal conditions of this place all too well. There were no living quarters suited to the impossibly high station of the Grand Sage or his priests. There were no living quarters suited to the humblest of peasants in this hell-hole.
What the wagons of the Grand Sage were doing here, he had no idea. For the longest time, the army at the wall had received only common priests; those poor fools condemned to walk the wall muttering useless prayers and wasting ink with their sigils. The presence of the priests were worse than useless. Wandering men untrained in even basic combat were easy prey to the Forest's demons.
What did the arrival of this procession mean? Was the Grand Sage himself within one of those beautiful wagons? A thought struck the General then, a thought that made his heart pound with desperate hope. Was the Grand Sage here to do battle with the unholy Forest himself? Was he here to drive out the darkness of this place once and for all?
Images seized him; images born out of ancient myth—sages doing battle with demons, terrible wars of the distant past that levelled mountains and set the sky on fire. The clashing of great powers. Would the Grand Sage command rivers and throw lightning to destroy the demons, as had the sages of old? Could they truly be so fortunate?
The magnificent procession slowed and stopped before the crowd. Pale-robed minor priests—those who guided the horses and performed servant work—went to the wagons and opened their doors, standing solemn and silent.
Those who emerged from the wagons were priests of the highest orders; clad in bright silks and adorned with holy amulets. They stepped out with an unhurried, regal grace. They filed forward in smooth lines, no one yet addressing the General and his gathered men.
The General watched the lines, but did not yet see anyone who could possibly be the Grand Sage. Everyone knew that the Holy One wore robes of gold, along with a headpiece that was instantly recognizable. No one here sported the strings of massive black pearls or the famed Heaven Stone.
What he did see puzzled him. Out of the most decadent wagon—this one painted with gold—stepped four masked women. Four priestesses. They were accompanied by a large entourage of white-robed priests, these who guided them forward to stand before the General. The priestesses were young; girls, really. They were clad in robes of bright crimson silk threaded with gold. They smelled of lush flowers, the scent wafting forward on the soft winds.
Nothing could be seen of their faces, which were covered completely by smooth, wooden masks. Mystical symbols were painted on the forehead of each mask, undecipherable to those who weren't of the priesthood. The sight of the silent maidens with their pale masks caused the General to shiver silently. There was something unearthly about them.
Finally, one of the high priests spoke.
"General Kugao Yaddu of the Fourth Army: his Holiness the Grand Sage has instructed us to go to the Demon's Forest to perform the Rite of Shulai."
An ancient, powerful ritual. The General blanched slightly. The presence of the priestesses... everything suddenly began to fall into place.
"The Fourth Army honours your presence." He announced in return, and bowed deeply. The high priest simply nodded, and then immediately began to lead the priestesses and their long procession toward the looming bulk of the wall. The General, slightly startled, followed behind with his own procession.
They walked to the large, metal gate, and stopped. The priests began to arrange themselves in a pattern that the General did not understand—and then the chanting began. The General couldn't understand the chanting, as it was in a language thousands of years old, but he did understand what was going to happen next.
The young priestesses were sacrifices to be given to the Forest. They would enter, and then they would perform their rituals to destroy the evil that lurked in the wilderness. They would not return.
It was the most powerful and the most ancient of magics. Benevolent self-sacrifice could drive away the darkest of evils. The pure and gentle spirits of the priestesses would remain here, guarding the Forest for all eternity.
This magic would work. The General felt his heart lift, and a terrible weight fell from his shoulders. The priestesses' sacrifice would save everyone. It would destroy the evil of the Forest. The demons would be no more. After years of horror and strife, years of building the long wall, years of watching the Forest and dying by the teeth of the hideous creatures that emerged from it...finally their work could end. Finally, they could all be free.
Joy rose in him, and he prostrated himself before the mystic ceremony. He listened to the eerie chanting, to the deep pounding of the drums that entered his blood and the bamboo flutes that sounded like mountain winds. The voices became slow, a deep hum vibrating around him, and he shivered. A powerful voice chanted the final words, and then silence fell with the swiftness of a slicing blade.
He looked up. All eyes were on the silent priestesses, who stood motionless at the center of the gathering. They looked like statues. They held themselves so still it seemed as though they would never move again.
They must be terrified, the General thought with sympathy. Of course they're terrified.
Or perhaps they weren't. Perhaps they had accepted their task and were so still simply because they had achieved inner peace.
Looking at them now, the General was mildly surprised by how different they all were from each other. Different heights, different ethnicities. One priestess had the soft, curling hair of those from southern countries; another had the deep earth-brown skin of the Idranoki. Nothing could be seen of their faces, yet it was clear that they were all lovely. That was the only commonality between them.
Two donkeys were led up to the waiting priestesses, laden with supplies. Then, the high priest gestured to the soldiers at the gate.
Chains were heaved, and the doors were slowly, gradually pulled open. The murky green shadow of the Forest was visible on the other side.
The priestesses were led forward, accompanied as far as the gates. Four maidens standing in the shadow of the massive wall. The reins of the donkeys were handed to them. There was nothing else to do; only the final step of the ceremony remained.
The priestesses stepped through the wide gate, and were promptly swallowed by the darkness of the Forest.