The Forests of Kasa Bek
A half hour after dropping below the snowline, they stopped at the edge of the forest for a brief break. The milder air temperature forced them to remove their winter gear and store it in their saddlebags. As everyone mounted their horses in preparation to leave, Turner, Cole, Kwahu, Gilbert, and Rex approached Joshua on horseback. “Joshua…it’s time for us to go,” Turner stated, speaking for Cole, Kwahu, Gilbert, and Rex.
“I understand,” Joshua stated. “Have a safe journey to Sharindar, my friends, and thank you for your help.”
“It was our pleasure,” Rex called out.
“You’re leaving us?” Selina asked.
“Yes, milady Selina,” Turner replied. “Our home is in Sharindar in the eastern mountains of Arionath just north of here. We can save two days travel if we take Bone Pass just north of us. Besides, Joshua, David, Vergil, Timothy, Zachias, and Aragon are more than enough protection for you. They’re the best Kaal Bek has to offer.”
“Will we see you again?” Hannibal asked.
“If Fate so choses,” Turner replied. “I’m sure our paths will cross again someday.”
“I’d like that,” Hannibal stated as he reached out, shaking Turner’s hand. “May your path be safe and free of trouble, my friends.”
“I hope the same for you,” Turner answered. After the individual farewells, Turner led Cole, Kwahu, Gilbert, and Rex to the north, disappearing in the tree line.
“Did they always intend on leaving us at this point?” Hannibal asked Joshua.
“Yes,” Joshua stated. “As they said, it saves them two days riding to take Bone Pass north of here to get home. Plus, with them gone we’re not as apt to attract as much attention in the forest.”
“I understand,” Hannibal stated.
“I hope we get to see them again,” Selina called out. “I liked them.”
“So did I,” Hannibal agreed.
“I’m sure we’ll see them again at some point,” Joshua stated. “Now let’s get moving. We still have a ways to go. The gateway is a good seven hours away. We need to move quickly and quietly like ghosts and pray we reach it before nightfall. The forest is very dangerous after dark. Move out.” He spurred his horse into the lead. Everyone else quickly fell in behind Joshua as he led silently the team into the forest at a brisk pace, heading to the northwest.
“Why do they call it Bone Pass?” Arabella asked as they entered the forest.
“Because the pass is a graveyard of ancient creatures,” Joshua stated. “It’s littered with the bones of the animals that died in the Kragonar. It’s as if some wave killed thousands of animals and deposited them there in the pass in a jumble, mixed together in such a way there’s no way to really tell the animals apart. The formations created by the piles of rock and bone there are fragile and subject to collapse if disturbed, making Bone Pass a hazardous path to take. When our friends reach it, they will tread very softly and stay quiet because any loud sounds could trigger landslides of rock and bone.”
“That’s very interesting,” Hannibal stated. “We have similar places on the surface, particularly in the very northern reaches where the bones of mammoths and mastodons were piled in similar fashion, actually creating islands of ivory in the ocean.”
“Really?” Joshua replied, raising an eyebrow. “I didn’t know that. However, we must be quiet now that we’ve entered the forest. We mustn’t call attention to ourselves with idle chatter.”
“Right,” Hannibal answered as they moved on into the forest.
The trees were tall and the forest dense, with little undergrowth. Hardwood trees grew in groves interspersed amongst the towering evergreens. Shortly after entering the forest, Morrison said softly to David as they rode side-by-side, “These woods are eerie. I feel like something or someone is watching us.”
“Me too,” Arabella agreed. “There’s something wrong with this forest.”
“It’s said that these woods are haunted,” David told them. “Evil spirits roam these wilds and do not take kindly to trespassers.”
“Really?” Morrison replied. “I can’t say that I’ve ever seen one.”
“Me neither,” Arabella chimed. “And I hope I never see one too.”
“Shhh!” Joshua hissed as he heard them, “Be quiet back there! We don’t want to attract any attention to ourselves.” David looked at him, hurt by the rebuke, but accepted it and kept quiet. They moved as ghosts through the forest for nearly four hours before reaching the river. Upon reaching the river, Joshua immediately led them upstream and within a half hour, they entered a small clearing where he stopped them. “Let’s stop here for now,” he ordered. Everyone got off their horses and let the horses drink from the river, and then graze on the grass in the clearing.
Hannibal looked toward the forest and an uneasy feeling came over him again. He walked to the river and looked across it. The fifty-foot wide river churned and gurgled as its crystal-clear water passed over the rocks forming some minor rapids in its bed. While he looked, everyone except Joshua sat down to have a bite to eat, talking softly as they ate their ration of jerked meat and rolls. Joshua walked up and stood by Hannibal as he looked at the river. “Not quite what you expected is it?” he asked.
“No, it isn’t,” Hannibal said as he looked around at the forest again. “Nothing I’ve seen since I came here has been what I expected. Yet, I learned to adapt when confronted with the unexpected long ago.”
“You’re a good man, Hannibal,” Joshua said. “Come and get something to eat. We still have another two-and-a-half hour ride to reach the Gateway of Arionath.” Hannibal nodded and they joined the rest of the group in their Spartan lunch. He sat down beside Selina and started munching on his food ration.
“Can you tell us anything about this forest?” Nathanael asked. “There’s something very strange about it I’ve felt since we entered here. These woods have eyes. I swear it.”
“I must agree,” Selina declared in a concerned tone. “More than it having eyes, I’ve sensed it’s old…very old, and full of anger. The very life force of this forest is full of wrath because of a contaminating evil that feels old as this world. It’s very disconcerting.”
“So you’re feeling it too, Selina,” Hannibal asked as he nibbled on some jerked meat.
“I am,” Selina stated. “It has me on edge like something’s watching us, and I don’t think it’s that giant cat that we saw last night.”
Hannibal patted Selina on the knee. “I know,” Hannibal chimed. Turning to Joshua, he requested, “Please tell us the tale of this place, Joshua.”
“The ancient writings tell us that eons ago in the 1st Age, Kasa Bek was once a great kingdom with shining cities and tremendous mineral wealth,” Joshua stated. “It’s said that it had a great army rivaled only by the Emperor’s Army. Kasa Bek was the first kingdom to fall to the Emperor after the Emperor seized control of Amacia. When the king of Kasa Bek learned that the Emperor was coming, he met the Emperor on the plains in the southern reaches of his kingdom. The Emperor, in his greed for the mineral resources of Kasa Bek, slaughtered them when he encountered them. He then swept through the kingdom like a scythe and utterly destroyed everything in his path. The cities were laid waste, the forests burned, and the land pillaged until everything of value had been taken. Then he forsook it, laying his aim on the other kingdoms around him, including Arionath. He treated them with the same barbaric cruelty, stripping those lands as well. Many people were enslaved and many more were slain outright. It’s said that his army consisted of many unnatural things…demons, monsters, and such. When the Emperor finished with Kasa Bek, he abandoned it and it became the habitation of all manner of strange and unnatural beasts. By time the forest grew back, many strange stories were told about this savage land concerning the forest and beasts. Some believe the beasts are the king and his people come back from the dead to wreak their vengeance on any who violate their territory just like the stories about Xavier Singh and his army in Khitia.”
“What kind of population did this country hold?” Hannibal asked.
“According to the stories, Kasa Bek supported almost six million people,” Joshua replied. “When the Emperor was finished, there wasn’t a single one left. He killed all of them.”
“What kind of strange stories arose?” Selina asked, very curious about the legends concerning Kasa Bek.
“There are stories of people encountering gigantic beasts from which they narrowly escaped; beasts that were rumored to have lived long before the 1st Age before humans and the gods came to these lands. In other stories, people have seen strange beings of terrific malevolence and power,” Joshua replied. “There are even tales of the forest itself coming alive and destroying intruders. But by and far the most common story of the forest is that of the Zarukar: creatures of fierce power and evil. They roam these wilds in great bands, killing all they encounter. It’s said they were the result of some kind of genetic manipulation by the Emperor to create the ultimate soldier who would kill for him without question. They’re supposedly a crossbreed of some kind, though no one knows exactly of what. Their presence in the forests here is a proven fact. I’ve actually seen them on occasion. They tend to be slightly bigger than an average man is and are hideously ugly with dark ashen color skin, long fangs, claws, and large eyes. The ones that I’ve seen had long matted greasy hair, and they were heavily armed and armored. They move with the speed of a deer, fight with viciousness of a saber cat, and have a very keen sense of smell,” Joshua reported. “The reason I know this is because I and two others survived an attack of these brutes. I was part of a ten-man team out in the upper portions of the forest near Arionath hunting deer and elk for food when a small band of seven of them descended on us without warning. We managed to kill them all, but at a very heavy price. We lost seven in the fight and those of us who survived were wounded seriously. That was the last time we went out hunting in bands less than twenty. They’re by far the most dangerous thing out here. It is my opinion that they’re part of the Emperor’s Army that was left behind when the Emperor abandoned this land when it was no longer profitable to him. Whether they still obey the Emperor, I know not. But one thing is for certain, they’re fiercely territorial and will kill anyone they find trespassing here, even those the Emperor sends out here. So, in a way they’re not just the bane of this place, but an asset to us. They keep the Emperor’s army away from us in Arionath. How long it will stay that way is anyone’s guess.”
“If your people come out here in bands of twenty or more hunting, then why did you say smaller parties have a better chance of not being seen?” Nathanael asked.
“A legitimate question,” Joshua chimed. “We hunt in parties of twenty or more, but when we’re trying to pass through undetected, we move in smaller parties, which allow us to move more quickly and quietly.”
“It depends on why they’re in these woods,” Hannibal stated, eyeing the forest with growing agitation. The griffin amulet hanging from Hannibal’s neck inside his shirt began to slowly cool.
“I understand now,” Nathanael replied. “It’s like what happened with that crazy General and his people rescuing him from his cell with a handful of guys instead of launching another all-out attack.”
“Precisely,” Hannibal chimed.
“Is there anything else out there besides these Zarukars?” Thomas asked.
“Yes,” Joshua replied. “It’s not just the great beasts and Zarukars that make this forest dangerous. It’s filled with quicksand traps and hidden pits as well. There are strange poisonous plants that shoot barbs and it has even been rumored that, in places deep in the heart of the forest, some of the plants and trees can actually move and are capable of devouring anything that comes near them. I cannot say for sure that they truly exist because I’ve never seen them personally. But it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We have seen some small carnivorous plants on our hunts that are capable of eating squirrels or hares, but nothing big enough to take down big game or people.”
“But it doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” David stated. “The vast majority of the forest is uncharted. Our hunts are confined to the northern parts of the forest. We don’t know much about what’s south of here. Too many of our people have gone into this forest without returning, so we stay close to Arionath. Where we are now is about as far south as we ever go.”
“Your people truly fear this forest, don’t they?” Nathanael asked Joshua.
“You would too if you knew what lurked in this savage wilderness,” Joshua declared. “A person can die very easily out here because of the Zarukars and other perils. That’s why only select groups of seasoned hunters and warriors are allowed out of Arionath. No one else is capable of handling the hazards.”
“I can understand that,” Nathanael stated.
Just then, a strange roaring sound emanated from the forest and Joshua’s countenance fell. Hannibal heard it and it concerned him greatly. “I think we should be going,” he said as the griffin amulet turned noticeably colder against his chest. The horses began to fidget nervously, whining as they looked towards the forest.
“Indeed,” Joshua agreed. “Everyone mount up. There’s a tarok nearby. We need to get going now.” Everyone rose and mounted their horses. Joshua started up the river as the strange roar echoed a little louder. “Keep quiet and stay together. Maybe it won’t see us since we’re downwind of it,” he ordered. They left the clearing behind and rode on for a half hour, at which time the roaring ceased. Hannibal, Nathanael, and Selina kept their senses tuned to the forest, looking for anything that wasn’t right. Arabella held on to Morrison tightly as they moved up the river and the group stayed close together. A light breeze blew from the northwest out of the mountains that they were heading for. The forest was alive with the chatter of wildlife: birds, chipmunks, and strange-looking squirrels.