Chapter 1: A Deal with Death
In the year 913 Anno Domini, in the southern moors of Ireland, an army of five hundred men gathered to battle against a mere boy of seventeen. This boy had been a plague to the land, raising the souls of the dead wherever he traveled, and leaving chaos in his wake. He was death walking among the living, a demon never meant to belong in this world.
As dawn approached, the five hundred men took up their weapons and came down a hill that lay before an abandoned wheat field. The boy calmly awaited them in the midst of the field. A black cloak draped over his body, his face hidden within the shadow of the hood. The folds of the cloak swayed silently in the breeze, curling its long tendrils of torn cloth, as if beckoning the men to draw closer.
The morning sun began to crest the eastern horizon, as the five hundred men drew near with weapons held high. The boy stood eerily still, unthreatened by their approach. When the first row of men were almost to the field, the boy reached down into the wheat, and grabbed a scythe. Its thick wooden handle holding firm the blade long, thin, and curved like the crescent moon. The boy lifted the harvesting tool over his head, brandishing it like a weapon. With one swing, an invisible force sliced through the air, cutting out the souls of all five hundred men.
With one swift and decisive action, the boy had defeated the army of five hundred men, whose soulless forms now covered the grassy hill. Their unscathed bodies lay motionless with wide, lifeless eyes revealing Death’s merciless touch. The seventeen-year-old boy scoured the bodies before vanishing into the nearby woods, with the scythe still in hand. His cloak dancing victoriously behind him, until it too, vanished into the dark shadows of the trees.
The sun rose into the sky. Its warm, golden rays sang off the dew drops making the wheat field twinkle in bleak contrast to the carnage on the hill. All was peaceful. Then the sun’s rays illuminated the hillside and five men gasped, breathing their souls back into their bodies, forever changed. On that day, those five men formed the secret order of the Ridirean Anam, and vowed to cleanse the world of the demon’s plague. The demon known as, The Reaper.
Over a thousand years later.
Daryus Grim paused momentarily as he tried to see farther into the dark void of the Forest of Hollow, a place where no “living” thing dwelled. Even the monstrous dark trees were dead, with branches that twisted and tangled together, so thick, one could barely see the sky above. The forest was a local phenomenon in Southern Ireland. No one went in for fear the forest would devour their soul. Just looking into the forest gave Daryus the sensation of icy, damp fingers trailing up his spine and resting on the back of his neck.
As Daryus trod deeper into the forest, with an old, gray duffel bag slung over his shoulder, he listened for movement between the trees. He heard only the crunch of the frozen mud under his boots. An eerie silence engulfed him. The air tasted stale and made his mouth dry, which was contrary to Ireland’s normal humid climate. The shadows between the trees played tricks on his eyes, making it look like he was being followed. His heart raced at the thought of what lurked in the dark, and he smiled. If it wasn’t dangerous, it wasn’t fun.
Daryus had committed many unforgivable crimes against the ancient order of the Ridirean Anam, who still fought an endless shadow war against a thousand-year-old demon, known as The Reaper, an imposter of Death. In this very forest, Daryus would commit the last and worst of his offenses, that could either end the infinite war or cause an all new devastating beginning.
Stopping in the heart of the forest, he pulled out a piece of rolled up, aged yellow paper he received from an old woman a month back. He had been on his way home when he saw her standing on the muddy street near his small cottage outside a remote village in Ireland. Her matted white hair hung over her gaunt face and fell down her back like a bundle of twigs. The hag never spoke a word, but smiled the classic toothless grin of an old woman who was pushing her life span to the brink. She placed the fragile parchment in his hand and then she was gone. When Daryus unrolled the parchment he was surprised to find out it was what he had been seeking for for years; a way to summon Death.
The incantation on the parchment was simple but the location was tricky. It read:
One must stand in the heart of the lifeless.
At first, Daryus thought that he must stand on a dead thing’s heart. But after casting that thought aside, he figured that “lifeless” could mean anything that was dead. After some months of searching, he discovered the folklore surrounding the Forest of Hollow. Most of the folklore he read was rubbish. Such as, it was a hiding place for leprechaun gold and if one went in to take their gold, they’d never come out. Another read, it was a battlefield of giants that were turned into trees, forever locked in combat. There was one thing that was common in most tales: it was a dead forest.
Daryus put the duffel bag down and checked his watch. It was nearly five in the evening. He opened the bag and proceeded to take the contents out: grave dirt to represent the dead, salt to represent the living, and a black iron birdcage that held a raven within its bars. As soon as he took the large, black bird out of the bag it started squawking, and flapping about. He placed the caged raven next to the duffel bag, ignoring its loud screech.
Next, he poured the dirt, that he had taken from a nearby graveyard, in waves big enough to surround him and the caged raven. Then he poured the salt on top, interlacing it with the dirt. He unrolled the parchment, careful not to tear it, and stood in the center of the design he had created.
He checked his watch again: 5:01 p.m. It was time. Death could not be summoned during the day or the night, but only right in between—twilight. Daryus read over the words once more.
Speaking the words aloud, he began. “Open gates to the world between; the sun has set and the moon's not seen.” Daryus paused. The raven began frantically jumping about more loudly in its black cage, cawing and spreading its wings, trying to escape as if sensing what was coming. Picking up the cage, Daryus spoke his wishes, “I seek an audience with neither the living, nor the dead, but have come to strike a deal with Death instead.”
Immediately after Daryus uttered the last word, a gust of wind blew, causing the grave dirt and salt to rise in the air, creating a small funnel cloud that danced around the area as if a merry prankster performing before the court of kings. The hocus-pocus was working.
The raven was now snipping at Daryus’s hand as it thrashed around in the cage. In one quick movement, Daryus opened the cage and the raven flew straight into the tornado of grave dirt and salt. Daryus stared at the dancing twister and waited. The tornado grew until it encompassed the entire clearing, with Daryus standing perfectly in its eye. He was so focused on the spiraling dirt and salt around him that he nearly jumped out of his skin, quite literally, when a smaller blackbird, perhaps a crow, flew overhead disappearing in the same spot the raven had.
Odd, Daryus thought. The crow was the first animal Daryus had seen in the Forest of Hollow besides the raven that he’d brought with him.
Daryus looked up again into the swirling vortex of dirt and salt. White mist began to form above him and an unnatural chill filled the air. Then a powerful force, like a solid wall of air, hit him, knocking him flat on his back. He struggled to get to his knees, choking with raspy breaths to fill his lungs with air as the white mist hovered before him in the shape of a small cloud.
For a moment, Daryus saw a human face form within the mist before it came barreling toward him. He was powerless, as finger like tendrils of mist forced his mouth open, and the mysterious cloud entered his body. His whole body went rigid; his fingers curled into claws as he felt the alabaster mist fill him from head to toe. Daryus placed one hand down for support and grasped the front of his neck with the other. His dark hair hung limp over his royal blue eyes, as beads of sweat raced down his face.
Daryus could tell that there was another presence inside of him. He felt as if he was now being controlled, like a puppet at the whim of its master. Daryus couldn’t tell if he was making himself stand up or if it was whoever--or whatever--was inside him. He looked down at his hands and slowly started to rub his fingers together, an action that had come from his own thoughts. Next, his hands patted at his worn brown jacket feeling his chest underneath. It was another action that he instigated. Daryus felt as if he was regaining control, but at the same time it felt like his body was more a suit of clothes for the entity of white mist. The presence didn’t move in sync with him, not the way Daryus’s own spirit did. The intrusion was still there, and Daryus was left to wonder what it was.
“I know why you’ve summoned me, Daryus Grim,” a man’s low, steady voice echoed inside his head. “You have committed treason against your own by coming here to speak with me. What frightens you so that you would take such extreme actions?”
Before Daryus could even think of what to say, the voice spoke again. “Yes, you do have courage, but you are also young and unwise. I see you are the kind that leaps before you look. You are impulsive and eager for danger. You lead others into swift action, yet you are blind.”
Again Daryus had no chance to respond.
“You wonder how I can perceive all this. I see your thoughts before you can form them in your head. I can feel your excitement now, the anticipation, wondering whether you will live or die. I do not take life, nor give life; I merely guide the souls that have become lost. Now, why are you so desperate for my help?
"I see. You are right to believe that I am the only one who can stop him. He would be far worse than a plague to your world if ever he regained his original power. But nothing is without a price and you will pay dearly, for you will remember your foolish decision to bring me here.”
Daryus’s jaw tightened.
“You do not agree, but it was foolish—foolish because you did not know what would happen before you summoned me. It is another one of the reckless chances you take so often. You are like him!” There was a pause. “But I will stop him. I will not allow his curse to spread any farther than it has, but are you willing to give me what I require? You seem sure, as if you believe that anything is worth sacrificing as long as I can stop him. What if my price is the life of your sweet Liora?
Anger and fear surged through Daryus as he thought of his beautiful young wife. His hands became tight fists.
“So, you are not willing to sacrifice anything? I thought as much. I do not require her life. But do not be at ease yet, for what I require is only somewhat less painful. I will take the life of your next born son.”
Daryus’s mind went blank; this was not what he had expected.
“I’m pleased that you hesitate, but if you give me the life of your son, I will end this war.”
Daryus took a deep breath.
“No!” the voice snapped. “Your life will not do, though I’m sure many would think you admirable for offering.” The tone of the voice changed to a snarl. “I do not! It must be your son. Choose, Daryus Grim! You know what is at stake. You know I’m the only one with the power to stop him.”
An emptiness filled Daryus’s chest at that moment. He knew what his choice had to be.
“Then the deal is made!”
Daryus felt a pain in his right hand as a symbol, a spiral in the shape of a raindrop, materialized in his palm, searing into the flesh. He didn’t have to ask what it was for, or what he needed to do. As soon as the symbol burned his flesh, an image entered his mind. Daryus close his fingers. The mist exhaled from his body and joined the surrounding twister, then dissipated into the air. The presence was gone, leaving him alone in the cold, dead forest.Daryus collapsed onto his back and breathed in as much of the forest’s stale air as possible. As he lay there, deep within the heart of the Forest of Hollow, he wondered how he was ever going to be able to tell his dear wife Liora, that he had just given the life of their unborn son to Death!