The sun had set, yet this deep into the woods, it made no difference. The overarching trees blocked all light from above, even at noon, and the density of trees made it difficult for untrained eyes to traverse.
Thankfully, although Jin was still young, he knew the forest well. From the moment he could walk, his dad had been taking him through the woods neighbouring his small village; hunting for rabbits and deer, finding medicinal plants, picking herbs for his mother to cook once back home. The forest was Jin's comfort.
Alas, Jin was not used to staying here this late into the night. A group of three rabbits had caught his eye, and carefully following them, Jin had been playing a very patient game of cat and mouse. As with all his hunts however, his trusty, hand-carved arrows and his father's bow always found their mark. These hand-crafted arrows were a passion of Jin, who spent hours labouring over each, etching symbols into the side of the shaft. Every arrow told a story, and Jin made sure never to fire one in earnest. As best he could, each arrow was recovered, fixed, and set back into the rotation.
With the rabbits successfully hunted, Jin looked out for landmarks to help his direction home. Visibility was low, making for slow progress, but soon enough Jin had found himself back on the trail towards the village.
The chill of the night compelled Jin to raise his hood, which provided warmth, yet obscured the periphery. Shadows danced back and forth through the trees, so Jin kept his bow unlatched, preparing to draw it quickly should the need arise.
The crack of a branch behind Jin broke the serenity of the forest, and he sidestepped swiftly behind a tree. Drawing his bow, he peeked out from his cover. The shadows of the trees danced in the breeze, but there was nothing sinister in his view. Breathing deeply, he lowered his bow and turned back towards the trail, which is when he saw the oddity.
A figure stood still in the middle of the path, startling Jin. A small boy, in tattered clothing and shaggy hair, stared at Jin. A chill fell over him, yet he called out to the figure. The boy remained still, staring directly at Jin. As Jin made a motion towards the figure, the child dashed to the side of the path, into the trees and out of sight. Jin took off after him, but froze immediately in a small clearing just off the trail. There were more than one set of eyes on him now. The boy who had presented himself in the middle of the path stood between a group of other boys, all similarly dishevelled and small. The child smiled.
Jin felt for his arrows, and in shock found they were not there. Turning, he saw more children, all boys, in between the trees behind him. Arrows were pointed at him. Jin put his bow down.
"Go" said the boy who had initially confronted Jin, and so he did. Running back towards the path and the village, Jin could hear commotion from behind him.
The boys were laughing.
It had now been weeks since the haunting started, yet the townspeople fell further into fear with each passing day. Some said the village was being punished, that the creatures of the forest were returning to pass judgement on the village's disrespect, or that the Old Gods were unhappy. Others recounted seeing hundreds of eyes staring at them in the dark of night, whenever they strayed too close to the edge of the woods.
Sheep and pigs had gone missing, the bloody trails lead back to the trees and then disappeared. The village guard had sent patrols into the forest to find the culprits, but they came back with more questions than answers, and no evidence of any bizarre creature or man in the dense green and brown. Fire was forbidden in the forest, lest an accidental inferno was set, so all patrols had taken place in the light of day, yet even as the sun reigned high in the sky, the guards were hesitant to venture too deeply. The branches absorbed all natural visibility, creating a biome of shadows and damp soil underfoot.
At wits end, the village council had posted a notice on their bulletin board, offering reward for any information pertaining to the disappearances of livestock, the shrieking in the woods and other happenings. Some had attempted to claim the reward, but came back empty handed from their ventures, or worse, bringing back tales that unsettled the council. Glowing eyes, blood covered faces, cannibalism, the stories grew with fervour and supernatural aspects the longer the haunting continued. Werewolves, said one man, familiars of the Old Gods said another. All more unbelievable than the last.
Jin's story had set the council talking, a pack of wild boys in the forest was unlikely, but with nothing else to go on, the tale remained too fantastical. Jin had even offered to lead a team in the night to find out the happenings, yet was denied. He was still too young, and it was too dangerous. Jin's father, growing ever more cautious after his son's disarmament, restricted Jin's forays into the woods entirely, even after Jin had fashioned more arrows. Jin's desire to retrieve his father's bow grew further, his restriction stoking the fire inside even more.
The council decided to broaden their reach, sending couriers to deliver the notice of reward to neighbouring villages. Before long, their quiet village next to the forest was beginning to welcome a slew of travellers in search of riches. Each petitioned the council with their merits, yet soon returned with naught to show for their efforts. Many fled the village after their attempts, too spooked by their experiences to glean any useful information from. They frantically muttered about eyes in the forest, and laughter, and an evil darkness. None of them stayed to be questioned for long, and the haunting continued.
One day, a hooded figure atop a small horse cantered into town. His tattered green cloak covered a thick leather cuirass, visibly scarred from many a confrontation. From his belt hung a single dagger, as well as a satchel clinking with the sound of glass, a great empty bag slouched over his back. The man made his way through the townspeople, smiling faintly as he strode past onlookers, including Jin, and presented himself to the council with the name of Rohne. He was a mercenary in need of coin, and offered knowledge that might be useful. Similar claims had been made by previous reward seekers, and the council were hesitant to believe word without proof from the sombre, stone-faced traveller. Rohne bowed courteously, and spoke calmly.
"A few villages back, I happened upon a similar haunting. I arrived with townspeople close to mania. Things kept going missing, they said; animals, jewellery, weapons. Noises kept them awake day and night, driving them to exhaustion and paranoia. It was coming from the forest, they said, and they begged for relief. Well, I arrived in that village on foot, yet I arrive here with a horse." Rohne smiled faintly.
The council convened briefly, and agreed to pay a small part of the reward upfront, with the balance handed over once the task was complete. Rohne bowed once again and left the village hall. Jin followed in tow, hoping to talk with the strange man before he left for the outskirts.
The sun was setting as Rohne reached into his satchel, drawing forth a milky white potion. Jin tried to talk to him, yet Rohne continued walking, throwing the vial into the air and catching it with small glee, paying the chatter of Jin no mind. Just before the final gate towards the forest, Jin cried out in exasperation towards the man. He just wanted the return of his bow.
Rohne stopped, turning his softly smiling face back towards Jin. With a swift motion, Rohne gulped down the concoction in his hand, his brown eyes shifting to a pallid white in full view of Jin, and he continued his strut towards the forest.
The night had been oddly quiet after Rohne had walked into the woods, and the townspeople rose with the cries of the morning birds.
Guards had been instructed to keep lookout at the furthest gate towards the forest, spectating the grand expanse of trees of which Rohne had made his way into. The morning mist began to dissipate as the sun raised high into the sky, yet there was no sign of the ragged traveller. Day turned back to night, and Jin, as well as the rest of the village, began losing hope. The guards provided Jin no new information as he checked in with them on the first day, then the second. Strange noises were heard emanating from the forest, growing louder and louder as the days rolled by.
The townspeople soon started to talk, accusing the traveller of taking the pouch of coins and running. Others thought worse, that Rohne had succumbed to whatever beast had taken over the woods. Jin did not know what to make of it all, the shifting eyes of the stranger had stayed with him in his dreams.
There was no relief in the coming days, the screeching and squeals pierced through the village like a chorus of pain. Speculation of witchcraft became common conversation, the malevolent spirits of the Old Gods had returned, said others, but no new sightings were reported, and no new evidence of anything evil or good came forth.
The council spat at the mention of the strangers name, believing him to be a thief, and further couriers were sent to try and glean information about the current haunting that was torturing the village and its people. Small snippets were made common knowledge of the townspeople, hearsay from villages near and far. A pack of werewolves came one missive, a witch of the woods came another, shapeshifters and goblins and nefarious imps, all manner of fantastical beast were reported. Nothing of use was learnt, no solution in how to combat the problem was found.
A fortnight passed before the signalling horn was sounded. In the dead of night, with the wind howling fiercely, a sentry guard ran back to the village centre with news. Someone had been spotted at the edge of the woods. Jin made his way with a small crowd to the forest gate.
Shrill cries emanated from the forest as a shadowed figure laid collapsed in a heap. The childish laughter pierced the black of night as the guards cautiously edged towards the figure, torches in hand. It was Rohne.
Helped to his feet by the guards, dried blood caked in his hair, the traveller was assisted back towards the village centre. Rohne coughed violently, leaning heavily upon the support of the guards. Finally, he was delivered to the main square, where the council began to congregate. Jin found himself a viewing spot to gaze upon the injured Rohne under the torchlight. A medic rushed to Rohne, concerning himself with a deep abrasion on the back of the traveller's head.
Letting go of his supports and falling to one knee, Rohne unholstered the large bag upon his back, and from it fell a bow and some meticulously crafted arrows.