The forest beyond Eldenborough swayed with the warm early summer breeze. The currents of unseen forces made their presence known through the motion of new growth within the oak branches. The ocean-like movements of the forest created a calm rustling like soft rolling waves. Birdsong exuded life from within, but beyond the forest walls, one would only find death.
. . .
The forest’s history was not always so bleak, and in fact, the welcoming warm glow of the forest was once not a façade. Faun and Fauna flourished within the forest in harmony with the neighboring village of Eldenborough. Local hunters provided fresh game for the village folk, ensuring the animal was honored and its whole body used. This was their way to give and take only what they needed from mother Valria. Foragers made their weekly rounds for various mushrooms, berries, and herbs while navigating the woods like their ancestors that came before. Only the fully developed mushrooms were taken while all juvenile fungi were to be delicately rustled to release their spores and ensure future offspring. Valria creates balance within Elunae, and the people of Eldenborough are careful not to disrupt this balance. It was this mutual respect that ensured life could coexist within and outside of the forest. Civilizations verging on the prehistoric which only exist through tales of their failures have fallen from tampering with this balance alone. Societies that only take from the great Valria without the forethought of their actions are doomed to fail.
A particularly chilled summer day came about while the usual hunter and gatherers carried on their individual duties within the forest walls. It was during this peculiar summer day that a village woman found herself lost in the winding foot trails between the trees. She had been in a mental fog, thinking of her husband whom she had lost the year prior in a hunting accident. The pain was still fresh on her mind, the woman stopped to breathe and think. She had traveled this same path at least a hundred times on her own and a hundred times before as a child. This was the path that her mother and grandmother took. All ancestors before her did the same. This was the same path that she learned the importance of keeping the balance of nature and respecting the life around you, be it animal or plant life. The trails were carved into her soul through her lineage. Something was not right. No, in fact, everything was wrong. She noticed that surprisingly the trees bore no life. The rustling of the wind flowing through the leaves no longer sounded calm, instead they were rattling like dead leaves in late Autumn. A piercing chill ran through the forager's bones sending waves of frost through her body. A few moments of unnerving silence passed before it was so wrongfully broken.
“Dahliah” a faint voice spoke in the distance. While this voice was faint, it was clear as day. It was the voice of her lover.
The woman’s mind was suddenly thrust back into her delirium. Her husband was killed while hunting game. The survivors explained that a bear cub was stumbled upon and frightened, triggering its mother to attack its unexpecting aggressors. Although this saddened Dahliah to no end, this was the way of the world, and she was just thankful to Valria for the time they had together. She never removed her wedding ring which symbolized her everlasting memory of him. It shone a brilliant silver with a blood-red garnet at its core. A blood bond that rooted their love deeper than the forest’s. When a bond is made in Eldenborough it is bound for this life and the next.
These roots, indestructible as they may seem, suddenly felt the lurking presence of rot. The air became stale and a brisk chill took hold of her environment.
“Uhlric?” Dahliah whispered with a shivering breath. The disparity of temperature created thick plumes from her mouth from even a whisper. “Uhlric, is that you?”
“Dahliah, please help.” The disembodied voice of her late husband spoke with gasping breath.
“Where are you!?” Shouted Dahliah frantically, her mind quickly losing all sensibility as a deeper panic set in. Her soul partner, a divine gift from Valria herself, was still alive and suffering in these mysterious hidden depths of the forest. Did he get lost too? But this was not the standard hunting path. Hunters did not travel the same routes as to not mistake the foragers' movements for wildlife.
Casting all rationality aside, she ran directly towards the sound of Uhlric’s voice. It didn’t matter how he ended up here, what mattered was that he needed her. Screaming his name louder and louder with each desperate lung forward her feet struck the earth beneath her with force. Limbs of branches lashed at her clothes and sliced her fragile skin. Her hair became tangled in twigs in an almost crown-like fashion. Panic masked all pain and exhaustion from her mind, but one thing remained. The cold.
The air became solid like a translucent block of ice around her as she suddenly froze in place in an impossible to maintain mid-run stance. It was as if she were frozen in time. Dahliah’s arms and legs were thrown back down to her sides as she was slowly lifted into the air by an invisible force. Fear. Panic. Confusion. Her mind was near its wit's end as the cold became unbearable. Uhlric’s soft voice echoed in her mind for what felt like days. The pain of the frost paired with the calming of her lover's voice tore at the fibers of her sanity.
Suddenly she was dropped to the forest floor with a limp thud. The cold still clutched her mind.
“Dahliah, my love. You’ve finally made it. Oh, how I’ve missed you,” soothed the now external voice from behind her.
Cautiously, Dahliah turned around and was greeted by something she was not prepared to see. Before her eyes was not her husband, but a candle resting comfortably on a torn tree stump. Its very presence gave her broken soul warmth and comfort in the frozen hellscape her mind had become. The light this candle emitted was vibrant, unlike anything she had seen before. Such an ordinary object with such extraordinary characteristics. Her mind was at ease. She was home, and all was right in the world.
She crawled her way over to the candle and grasped it in her once frozen hands. Such warmth filled her veins and with it flowed jubilant life.
“Oh, Uhlric! I cannot even begin to tell you how much I’ve missed you!” Sniffed Dahliah as she stared longingly into the flame as if it were her long-lost husband’s eyes. The candle never spoke again, and it very well may never have spoken before. Even so, Dahliah spoke, staring deep into the flame’s core where ember meets wick. With the feeling of warmth and the echoes of her husband's voice fresh in her mind, she was lost to the flame.
. . .
Months passed and the widow’s form grew disheveled from malnourishment. Food nor water existed to her as the flame possessed everything she needed to survive. Or maybe it was the opposite. This was the last thing on Dahlia’s mind. Peering deep into the flame gave her the source of life she now required.
Search parties reported seeing a woman peering into a dim light deep within the forest, but once they would approach her, it was like chasing a mirage. The closer you got, the farther away she was until she was no longer. This was reported by multiple members of the village, thus becoming widely accepted as an unexplainable phenomenon.
Years passed and life resumed in Eldenborough as it once did. Its people honored Dahliah’s life as it honored all life bestowed by their goddess. But unknown to them, their goddess was no more. Something had awoken and rid the world of her simple wonder. A flame in a forest once teeming with life was but a fragment of this something of many parts. A flame in a forest found by a widow, lured in by its warmth and comforting memories, was eating away at her life in return for peace of mind. A flame in a forest that was now born anew with flesh and blood. Dahliah was no more, but the will of the flame lived through her as its vessel, and the need for life was ever stronger. It was time to feed.
Over the coming decade, hundreds of village members went missing in the forest. Both faun and fauna slowly were dying out, leading to Eldenborough’s current state of hunger. Tales of a grotesque woman covered in twigs were whispered in fear amongst the remaining inhabitants. Stories of entire hunting parties growing unbearably cold on warm summer days and mumbling about a beautiful maiden in the forest offering them warmth. Many say they’ve seen the air around her glow a warm hue as she reaches out right before snagging her victims and vanishing without a trace. The allure this woman of the forest possessed was unbearable. In those moments before your fellow hunters were taken, the only thing you could think about was curling up in her comforting lap and taking a long rest. A rest so comfortable that the burden of waking need not pervade your mind. Few have lived to tell of such beautiful horrors.
The forest eventually grew silent as all life faded like Autumn's first chill. The people of Eldenborough no longer dare enter. They now struggle to survive. Their way of life, to live off the blessings of the forest that Valria gave them, was no more. But alas, even in her was their faith wavering. Their fate was sealed and it was known, but their humanity dare not let them die.
For those that remain, they live in fear of the Deadwood Maiden within the forest. A name bestowed upon her legend after the forest earned its new title, the Deadwoods. Most dare not leave their homes. The last tales of her sightings are difficult to ascertain which leaves an unpredictable nature to the maiden. She no longer lures people into her mind traps. She merely watches inquisitively in the distance as if seeing humans for the first time. However, she has been reported as almost fused with the forest. At times, her arms and legs become branches with which she crawls through the woods on all fours. But most interestingly, many have seen a glimmer of gold in the shape of a skull fixed to her face. Gold has not been sighted anywhere near the now doomed village of Eldenborough, but somehow she has fashioned a mask from it.
It is currently unknown what this means. All that the remaining few can do is helplessly pray to a lost god and await their few remaining days. The Deadwood Maiden is but a part of many. Powers much grander than the humble members of Eldenborough can comprehend are at play. The now old gods feared the times that were to come.