It was early morning, just before the sun had risen and the dew still basked in thick drops on the meadow grass. Thick plumes of mist blanketed the farmlands and surrounding huts, and the slightest distance from any landmark would be enough to render it into a hazed shadow. It was quiet, sleepy, save for the quiet rustle of disturbed branches and hooves squishing against the moist ground.
Three men prepared their horses. They were the Lords, the holy folk, with their obscuring cowls and long brown robes made of thick sheep fleece.
The other villagers, while supposed to be asleep still, watched silently from their windows as the men fastened their steeds’ bridles and bits. They worked quickly, but with a reverent slowness.
A boy, the boy, stood some feet away, with his hands bound by a blue cloth and his head down. Even in the early dark morning, the pale ivory of the horns on his head seemed to shine. Of course, the men had polished them. They had to look nice for the journey to come.
Once the men had prepared their horses, they mounted. The smallest man took the boy in his arms and helped him on his own black gelding before climbing the saddle himself.
The boy never struggled. Even so young, he knew that he would have been even more shunned and hated if he had done so. After all, he had been told so many times that his sacrifice was for ‘the good of the village’. He had to be brave, just so that he wouldn’t be remembered as one who ran away, and those were the ones that gave people even more reason to hate them, the horned boys.
The man settled behind the boy and reached to take the reins, imprisoning the boy with his skinny arms. The horse shifted its weight, and the saddlebags resting against its flanks tilted side to side.
“Let’s go,” the tallest man said, and kicked his horse to a canter. The other two followed behind.
From his perch upon the gelding, the boy tried to crane his neck around the man just behind him, to try and catch a glimpse of the glade and huts fading away behind them. The sharp tip of one of his horns pressed at the man’s chest, and the man cursed and pushed him back.
“Don’t try that again, okay?” he asked.
The boy didn’t answer, but he did as he was told.
Two days passed of endless riding. The men never stopped for sleep or drink, and whenever they wanted for food they simply dug into the pockets of their saddlebags and produced a biscuit or two. They never offered the boy anything, nor did they even speak. It almost made the boy go mad.
On the second day, when the well-beaten trails that weaved through the forest became dizzying and the sun had reached its peak, the man behind the boy spoke.
“Are you afraid, Ico?” he asked.
The boy flinched. He wasn’t used to being called by name, let alone spoke to. He didn’t know how to answer such a question, so he kept silent and stared at his bound wrists.
Unperturbed, the man continued. “It’s just as noble to be afraid, you know. There’s no shame in it.”
“I’m not afraid,” Ico said, but he didn’t sound too sure of himself. He didn’t even know what was there to be afraid of.
“No, no I’m sure you’re not…” The man trailed off. He reached behind him into his saddlebag and pulled out a hard biscuit. Handing it to Ico, he asked “are you hungry?”
Ico stared at the biscuit for just a second before he lifted his bound hands and clumsily took it. It was stale, with the crust flaking up over the gritty insides, but it was food. Taking a small bite, Ico winced at the taste of sawdust.
The man slowed the pace of his horse, tugging gently on the reins till its canter descended into a quick walk. The other two men, silent as ever, went on ahead down the path. Their horses, just as black, were easy to spot amidst the thick greenery that seemed so endless.
“You understand why we’re doing this?” the man asked. His voice, though muffled by the cowl, seemed not much older than Ico himself. Youth was what motivated him to take the risk in talking to someone so cursed, youth and naïve kindness.
Ico shrugged his shoulders and lifted his head up and down, feeling the weight on his head. “Because I have horns, and because of that I started the summer drought.”
“I know that you didn’t mean to start it, Ico,” The man sighed and shook his head. The cowl on his face nearly slipped and he caught it in his hand. “You wouldn’t do that. No, it’s just that your presence that’s harmful.”
More silence. Ico didn’t say anything. He had heard all of it before, even since he was very small and when his horns were just budding. His entire life had culminated to this, his twelfth birthday, and the journey to his sacrifice.
An hour went by, and while neither of the two said anything, the man kept his horse at just the same pace as before, as did the men some ways ahead of them. The forest around them grew thicker, untamed and unpaved. No one ever went this far from the village, unless it was for a holy occasion such as this.
When they had reached a small, walkable brook that cut along the path, and as the horse paused to gingerly step over it, the man spoke again. “Have they ever told you?” he asked.
“Told me what?” Ico was not in the mood for speaking, and to him, anything that hadn’t already been told would have been useless.
“About why, about the curse. They told you, didn’t they?”
Ico shrugged and leaned forward across the front of the saddle. He didn’t like being so close to the man, even if he was the one out of the three that Ico hated the least. “No one ever even talked to me,” he said, “just you.”
The man’s grip on his reins loosened. “I see… but you know of the Forbidden Lands?” he asked. “Surely you’ve overheard some of those stories, at the very least?”
“A little, just about the colossi and Dormin,” Ico said. He didn’t know what the man was getting at. “They’re all dead though, aren’t they?”
“The colossi were never really ‘alive’ to begin with, just shells to house parts of Dormin’s being,” the man corrected. “Dormin himself, well, we don’t really know if he’s ‘dead’ or not, just sealed away by Great Lord Emon.” Soon as he said that name, the man lifted a hand to tap his shoulders, praising the long dead.
Ico stared at the winding trail paved in front of him, with the two other horses black dots lost against the vines and bushes. He would have liked the brush and thickets to have been more cleared out. Perhaps they could have traveled by meadow. At least that would have helped him gauge just how much time that he had left.
But then he realized that, by slowing his horse, the man was offering him those precious minutes, just to live a little bit longer. For a short, terrible second, Ico wanted to beg the man to take them away, somewhere else other than on a death path.
“Do you know the stories of the Trespassers and the Wanderer?” the man asked. “Did you ever hear any of those?”
Ico shook his head, feeling the way that the sides of his horns gently bumped against the man’s chest. “Just that people went to the Lands in the first place,” he said.
“And they were fools to do so, but all fools with different reasons and goals. They all came in with innocent intentions, but as a result by entering those Lands, their names have been completely lost.” The man tapped his shoulders again. “In time, their actions will be lost to history as well. It is only a matter of when.”
“Can you tell me about them?” Ico asked.
The man pulled back on the reins. The gelding’s walk slowed to an agonizing crawl. Its hide rippled and it snorted in annoyance, itching to get on. The man just reached to pat at its side.
“I’ll tell you the stories right now, just so that I know that you can understand.”
As Ico watched the men ahead diminish into the undergrowth, and the sounds of their horses faded off, the man took a long breath and began to tell a series of stories, all verbatim in the same fashion that he had told the other normal children in the village. It might as well have been from a script that he was reading, and soon after he began, he fell into a trance and he let his voice work for him.
“The first trespasser was a drunken man without a horse, a casual on-looker desperate for an adventure in the midst of an adulterous marriage who wandered through that narrow corridor purely on a whim. He took two full days to cross the long, precarious bridge. He wanted to sight-see. He wanted a sense of danger to spark his pathetic existence.
“He didn’t care for the hulking temple that greeted him first-hand. He wasn’t a religious man. He just wanted to go beyond it and see what was there, if there was anything in these so-called ‘Forbidden Lands’.
“He went south, towards a series of cliffs winding up to a higher plain. There was a gap between the cliffs that he could not jump, so he felled a tree with edge of his sword and made a bridge. When he reached the last ledge, the club of the Minotaur came crashing down, plunged into his back and ruptured his organs.
“The death was quick, but painful.
“The second trespasser was a young person, hardly a man yet not quite a boy either. His village had often chastised him for getting into scrapes. One day, he took his pony off on a foolhardy journey to that forbidden place that the priests had told so many stories about.
“He and the pony crossed the bridge in mere hours, eager to see what sat beyond what was once so untouchable. The temple, to them, was merely an appetizer for the tidbits of structures and timeless land that lay buried throughout, just waiting to be dug up.
“The boy and the pony went north, across one of the lower bridges, then west through the first gorge that they could find. There was a lake through there with an amazing platform raised high-up above the water, but it was dark and misty.
“The boy dismounted his pony and gathered some roundish stones. With these he lit a small fire and bid the pony to stay by it, lest she wander off.
“He swam to the platform’s winding pathway that led to it. When he reached the edge, the collapsed Knight woke and shattered the boy’s bones with the butt of his brittle sword.
“The boy died with not a scream to his voice and the pony was left to grow old and die lonely.
“The third trespasser was of a group, a guild of pilgrims seeking enlightenment through damnable means. There were five of them, all men and women who had seen decades of summers. With their horses mounted, they crossed into the lands and prayed at the temple, hoping for a voice to come.
“The voice never came, not from the deity that was fabled to be forever licking their wounds.
“Distraught, the trespassing pilgrims left the temple in search of a sign. They journeyed south, far through the canyon until they came out to find a cave on the other side, leading to a small temple.
“They went inside, thinking that there could be some inkling of spiritual gain. Once inside, the Lizard’s snarls made them scatter about the columns, and its stone-breaking poison had them drop like flies.
“The pilgrims died slowly, writhing in their cloaks as the poisoned air seeped into their blood made it flow thick as tar.
“The fourth trespasser was, unlike the others before him, not a fool. He was an adventurer, a man who had traveled all the corners of the land that he knew of. He and his old horse crossed the bridge knowing that they would not be able to go back. They didn’t care, for there was nothing left in their old world to see.
“The temple was met with seasoned astonishment, yet the man did not linger, for as hardened as he was, the very thought of being watched by a restrained god was enough to make his skin quiver.
“So the man and the horse explored. They were cautious creatures, only exploring what did not look to harbor the terrifying creatures that the priests up and down swore existed.
“Eventually, once so much of the land was taken in, the man and his horse traveled north, towards a hidden glade and the cliff that it led to.
“Once climbed, the man dismounted and swam in the great lake, towards the tall gazebos that dotted the water’s surface. As he mounted one of those stony, water-beaten structures, the great Poseidon rose up from the lake and crushed the structure to bits, leaving the adventurer smashed beneath the rubble.
“It was the proper death for a man like him, unnamed and unwanted, though his horse was left to journey alone until it wandered into the Bird’s lake. There, it was ripped apart alive. Its death was not nearly as quick.”
The man paused for a moment. He reached behind him to pull out his canteen and take a long, cold drink. He had talked non-stop, and his throat felt completely raw.
Ico, however, was not that patient. As the trees around them had begun to spread and make way for an upcoming meadow, he tried to crane his neck around and look at the man in the eye. “What about the Wanderer?” he asked.
As the man lifted the canteen from his lips and brought it back down to rest at his saddlebags, he frowned at the boy and held out a hand to gently lay three of his fingers upon one of the boy’s black-tipped horns. “That is where your curse comes into play, Ico,” he said. “Or, at least, that is what they say. Many debate on whether or not any of it is actually true.”
“I still want to hear it.”
The man nodded. “I understand,” he said, and went on to continue his story.
“The last trespasser was a boy only known now as ‘the Wanderer’.
“The Wanderer was not a traveler, nor was he even a skilled fighter. He was an archer, trained from youth to have a quick eye and a knack for shooting on horseback.
“There was a girl in his village, though the Wanderer hardly knew her personally, he admired her from afar in the same way that all boys do.
“And yes, the girl was a striking beauty, one with creamy skin untouched by the sun and blackish hair that made such a blending contrast. She was an adored specimen, one who the Wanderer was not alone in admiring.
“It was a great shock when she was sacrificed, but it had to be done, they all said. Yes, she was cursed, why shouldn’t they take a proper precaution?
“So the boys that wooed after her backed off and went on with their lives. The mothers and fathers went back to raising children who would live. The priests and Lords went back to praying.
“All but the Wanderer seemed all too eager to let the girl swallow poison and choke. No, he wouldn’t accept that. He loved her, even if she hardly knew his name and face. His infatuation was so utterly immense that he could accept nothing other than treason.
“On the second night after her death, the Wanderer took his mare and snuck into the temple to retrieve both the girl’s corpse, and the sacred sword that was said to act as a catalyst to the sleeping deity Dormin’s soul.
“The Wanderer had heard the stories and knew what the deity was capable of, that they could resurrect dead corpses if they so chose to.
“He came into the lands with his beloved war horse too big for his small stature and a half-rotting corpse draped upon its back, and as soon as he set foot into the lands with the fabled sword in hand, Dormin woke.
“While all of the trespassers before the Wanderer had merely been seen as minor annoyances, the sword was what truly piqued Dormin’s interest. What he saw wasn’t an intruder into his petrified landscape, but a means for him to find his self once more after being cursed for so long.
“So when the Wanderer entered the temple, Dormin spoke to him and struck him a deal. He said that, if the Wanderer could manage to slay the sixteen colossi that slept throughout the Lands, he would resurrect the girl and let her live once more.
“The Wanderer accepted, despite being warned that his actions would affect more than just the life of his wanted lover. On the same day in the same hour, he set off on his horse and began his work.
“Down went the Minotaur, the Taurus, the Knight, the Horse, the Bird, the Goliath, the Leviathan, the Lizard, the Turtle, the Serpent, the Tiger, the Poseidon, the Drifter, the Lion, the Sentinel and the Grand Malus… all down. With every colossi that fell and thundered against the ground, the Wanderer grew sicker, paler, weaker. His skin, once tanned and vibrant, turned grey and streaked with leprous markings that stung with every movement.
“And once the last colossus was gone, that was it. Long before, the Great Lord Emon and his men had begun their chase against time to stop it all, but they were too late. They arrived just as the Wanderer slayed the last of the earthen beasts.
“They watched, horror-struck, as the Wanderer lurched towards them. He no longer looked like a man, but a an abomination of cracked, cancerous skin and tattered rags that hung off of his emaciated body. He had the nubs of black horns jutting from his head… much like how yours did when you were young.
“Malnourished, possessed by the dead themselves, he reached for the girl on the altar, but was stabbed out of mercy for suffering any longer, but was too corrupted to die like a proper mortal.
“Dormin tried to escape through the vessel that had collected every last bit of their shattered soul, but was thwarted. Great Lord Emon sealed them away before they could completely gather together, and they fled… destroying the Land’s bridge in the process, and leaving the girl and the Wanderer in whatever form he might have been in.”
The man paused to take another long drink, and then kicked at his gelding’s flanks to urge it into a gallop. “Many think that the Wanderer survived his ordeal, sinful as he was, and that he and the revived girl copulated. Though Dormin themselves may have been sealed away, his traces still flowed in the Wanderer’s body, and through the grown horns on his head.”
There was castle in the distance, gigantic and looming before them with tan bricking that had been bleached from the sun. It was surrounded by a lake, cast off from the rest of the world, and it was where they were going.
Ico was not afraid, not of something that he knew was going to happen his whole life. “So I’m a descendant of the Wanderer?” he asked.
“That is correct. Or, at least, that is what we believe,” the man said.
“And because I have some of Dormin in me, I’m causing all of this bad stuff?”
“Yes, that is correct,” the man said, then sighed and shook his head. “I’m so sorry.”
As the three horses gathered at the riverbank and prepared an old, leaky boat that had been set for them, Ico smiled.