The Lichwood [Short Story]

Hey everyone! Just want to throw out a quick update that we've been hard at work on a slew of stuff, from free DLC for The Land of Glass to concepting the next big project. Between those heavy-hitters, there's also been some branching out to smaller projects--mostly music--and on the whole, we've been quite productive! I believe the goal is to have the DLC campaign out within the next two or three months. It's pretty big and does some really cool stuff with the format we have in place. It's also pretty funny. I think you'll really like the two lead characters.

In the meantime, I've been having fun with short stories, and I figured I'd share the latest one. It's a fantasy/horror piece of about 1800 words, so six pages.

Cheers!

~Chad

The Lichwood

Marcus did not want to go into the Lichwood. It wasn’t just that he was scared but rather, he had spent twelve long years watching his dad tend the path, and he knew that wasn’t the path for him. No, Marcus was going to be a knight. Or maybe a stonemason. Both held promise; neither involved living in the same house forever, raising horses that couldn’t smell, and growing weeds. Life was bigger than what his dad did. Life was bigger than the path.

“I don’t want to go,” he said, grunting yet another cask of oil into the carriage. It was only safe to complain if he was working.

“Yeah?” his father said, unimpressed. It was the fourth time Marcus had uttered the complaint. The sun had been up the first time, and it had been hotter, too. Now it was dark, and the deepening shadows were easing the glamour away from the Lichwood. The trees were beginning to smell a sweet-sour. Rotten. “What do you want to do?”

Marcus kicked at a stone, and their horse Plowzer twitched his ear. Inside the carriage, his dad made a few shallow hand movements over the oil, nothing fancy like what the wizards in the capital did, but still magic. “I like buildings. Maybe I could be an architect. Or a stonemason.”

“You’re not smart enough for that.”

“I am too!”

“Don’t see how you could be, since your mother and I raised you, and we aren’t smart enough for that.”

Marcus fumed but knew better than to talk back. He had been struck one too many times for mouthing off, even when it was deserved. “I don’t want to go,” he said again. He had to say something.

“I don’t either.” His dad flexed his broad shoulders and tried a smile, though it didn’t touch his eyes. Only the wrinkles did that. “But I have to, because this is my job. One day, it will be yours.”

“But—”

“It’s called growing up. You do things you don’t want to do.” His dad clapped his hands. “Now quit sitting there and come inside. I’ll light the first lantern, and you can do the rest.”

They set off, Plowzer moving at a slow, clip-clop pace towards the edge of the forest. The Lichwood was a scab of ridged trees that never seemed to sway with the wind. Their roots were deep, not scattering along the ground but digging straight down, all the way. They were old trees. The sun set behind them, turning the sky a foggy orange and casting a long shadow. Marcus could see the line that separated twilight from night. It was an infected line, a grey-purple, and it moved in the direction they were heading, turning everything the color of the Lich. The grass wilted before his eyes.

“Here.” Marcus’s dad produced a leather mask with a long beak. “It’ll help with the smell.”

Marcus took the mask. It sat loose, still too big, but he would grow into it. The inside smelled of strange herbs and crushed flower petals, pleasant, though not strong enough to fight the rotting smell coming from the forest.

“Why do you do this?” Marcus asked, his voice muffled behind the leather.

“You know why.”

“Not that why. The other why.”

His dad shrugged. “Because I have to.” He pointed. “First lantern is coming up. Grab the jar.”

Marcus did. The jar was its own lamp, shaped like a genie’s but ceramic beige instead of gold. It was covered with faded runes, little swirls and lines that spelled some word in some ancient language no one spoke anymore. Well, no one but the Lich. It was heavy.

The first glow of the path hazed into view, a small lantern atop a metal pole. It shone a lucid yellow, and where its light touched, the Lichwood looked like a normal wood. The grass was green, and the trees were brown and barky. It was the start of the path, the only safe route through the Lichwood. Beyond it though, the ground rotted and the grass wilted. There the trees weren’t trees but bones, thick femurs and humeri that branched into long toes and pointy fingers. They held no leaves, only flakes of grey skin.

His dad pulled on the reigns, and Plowzer came to a stop, offering one stamp of his hoof to show his disapproval.

“Two hands,” his dad said, taking the jar in one and holding a lamp in the other. “The lamp goes up high, and the jar pours. Count to five. Always five. Never four or six. Watch me.”

He hopped off the carriage, his back straight but his shoulders slightly bowed as if in shrug. It was routine, his job. He held his lamp a few inches above his head, spreading the façade of a living forest. Marcus watched him pour and counted. One, two, three, four, five. His dad stopped pouring.

“There,” he said, returning to the carriage and setting his lamp down. The decay returned, all the way to the edge of the light.

Plowzer marched to the next lantern, following the hardened road. Even during the day, barely anyone traveled the path, yet the road was flat, well-worn from thousands of hooves and thousands of feet. Marcus’s family had been tending it a long time. It was always the same direction too, straight north to the Goodworth Inn, where they would spend the day and return the next night, straight south. Tomorrow, they would do it all over again, and the next day, and the next.

The second lantern came into view, casting a bright shield to ward away the Lichwood. A twitch of the reigns moved Plowzer to a halt, and Marcus reached for the magic lamp.

“How many seconds?” his dad asked.

“Five.”

“How many seconds?” his dad repeated. Marcus rolled his eyes. With the mask on, his dad couldn’t see the sarcasm.

“Five.”

Marcus took the lamp, and with a solemn nod, left the safety of the carriage. He froze. Finger-bone limbs made desperate grasps at stars and little wispy clouds, and on the edge of the lantern, the grass was grey sludge. He sucked in a breath, expecting the sweet scents of his mask, and gagged on the stench of decay. It was everywhere, in his eyes, his nose, his lungs. Beyond the light, something gurgled, some zombie or wight. They couldn’t hurt him, couldn’t come into the light, but they were there, waiting, hoping. He had to light the lantern. He was only safe as long as the lanterns stayed lit.

“Everyone is safe as long as the lanterns stay lit,” he whispered into the leather mask. The words came out smelling of dried flower petals.

Mimicking his father, Marcus held the genie lamp high, throwing a wide shadow and covering up the glamour with the pleasantries of a normal forest. The smell retreated. He marched to the lantern, and with an unsteady hand, prepared to pour. Five seconds, that was it, then he could run back to the carriage and the safety of his father.

Marcus poured, counting in his head and out loud. “One, two, three, four, five.” He stopped, spilling a little oil onto the rim of the lantern but not getting any extra inside. He was safe. He did it.

He turned his back on the lantern and prepared to give his father a wave when the lights went out. The stench returned. A scream lodged in his throat. The trees were hands and scraps of flesh, and the grass was decay. Marcus blinked, praying the light would come back, but it didn’t. He was stuck, frozen with fear and surrounded by the Lichwood. Something moved behind him, a cold breath against his neck.

Marcus took a step, because the silhouette of the carriage was still visible, and that meant they could still run away. They weren’t deep in yet, only two lanterns. They could make it. His boot crunched against something that wasn’t dirt, and his gaze fell to the path, the well-worn road his father walked every night. With the glamour gone, it was made of teeth. Thousands of molars, incisors, and fangs were wedged together, a white-yellow lane drudged with plaque.

The scream in Marcus’s throat broke free. He dropped his magic lamp. He couldn’t move. A hand that was not his own caught the lamp before it could shatter. It was a dead hand, skeletal like the trees. The fingers were long, more like a bat’s wings than actual fingers, and the nails were bruised. A golden bracelet wound tight around the wrist.

“You dropped this,” a voice hissed, and Marcus knew it was the Lich. Zombies couldn’t talk.

Something compelled Marcus to turn back, away from the caravan, from safety. He didn’t want to, yet he had no choice. It was magic. The Lich wanted to be seen. Marcus looked at her, horror creeping into every pore, wrinkling his face and deadening his eyes. It was how his father always looked. It was how his grandfather had always looked, too.

She was the leftover scraps of a person held together by a moth-eaten robe. Her mouth hung open, most of the jaw worn away, and her hair was as white as a ghost. Jewelry adorned her neck and forehead, each piece solid gold. She held out the genie lamp, and Marcus took it.

“You are the boy,” she said. “Marcus.”

Marcus couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. He wanted to faint, but he couldn’t do that either. The Lich held him, and soon she would consume him. It’s what she did to people who strayed from the path at night.

“Your father speaks highly of you, Marcus. You will do well, because you were made to do well. You will have a wife, and you will have a son. You will not want for food. I will provide for you, and you will tend my road. You will keep my forest divided.

“All will perish if the forest is whole, Marcus. All will perish if the forest is allowed to grow.”

The Lich thrust the genie lamp into Marcus’s hands and floated back, outside of the lantern’s glow. She bowed, and the lantern came back on. The road turned back into a road, and the nearest tree turned bushy with green foliage. The glamour was back.

It took many stiff minutes for Marcus to find his way back to the carriage, but when he did, his father was waiting for him, his hands in his lap and his eyes on the ground.

“You met her.” Marcus couldn’t answer him. He wasn’t sure he could talk ever again. “We do this because we have to, Marcus. It’s our job. It’s ours, and it can be no one else’s.”

Unbidden, the words came, not from his voice but from somewhere further down, in his gut maybe. “I’ll never forgive you for this. Ever.”

Marcus’s father jerked the reigns, and Plowzer walked the path, heading for the next lantern. It had to be oiled.