The twelve men in gilded armour had come to our farmstead the night before. They were old, probably only a few years away from their own exaltation, their magic strong but not yet uncontrollable and their minds still unclouded. Four years ago gran had escaped on the night before her 60th birthday, run into the forest and hadn't been seen since. The temple had sent some of the local guardians in there before to apprehend her, to kill her before her power turned the whole forest into a nightmare of monsters and strangeness, but nobody had ever come back. We are far from the cities of the empire, but the tales of talking wolves, walking plants and other strange things that come out of our forest had spread, and the priest finally sent out a call for high-ranking guardians of exaltation to find and destroy whatever gran had become.
The guardians had recruited me to lead them into the forest. Papa had shouted, Mama had cried, but you do not say no to guardians as old as these were, and in any case my parents were devout people who were deeply ashamed of gran's sin. I was only 17 then, but my forest reckoning was as strong as in someone 20 years older. The priest had told them about that, damn him. We set out early in the morning, before sunrise. Around noon we had gone deep into the forest, my reckoning telling me that gran was somewhere westwards, toward the mountains. As we wandered further, we saw more and more oddly behaving animals, and the trees had strange, twisted shapes. The first guardian died when he stepped on a bright green vine that suddenly sprang up and wrapped itself around him, sprouting roots that broke his skin and sucked every last drop of blood out of him. The others tried abjurations, but when they had finally sapped the magic in the vine it was already too late. I cried in fear, but they would not let me leave.
Grimly we marched on, until night fell and we had to set up camp. They drew a circle of protection around the camp fire, but it was of little help. Seven more men died that night, of what, I can not say and refuse to think about. I will never forget the noises. The remaining four guardians and I marched on in the morning, haggard with lack of sleep and trembling after the terrors of the night. I tried to convince them that it was too dangerous, but the eldest, the one with the huge golden battleaxe, was implacable. As the sun came up we saw that the sky was an odd half-green half-blue color, and strange stars could be seen wheeling there despite the brightness of the sunlight. We had to walk very cautiously, because the very ground was changing. One guardian simply sank like a stone in what looked like unremarkable forest floor, but became liquid as he stepped on it, and he was gone without a trace. I could feel something was shadowing us, and the eldest started shouting abuse and challenges into the forest.
I led them onwards, or tried to, but my reckoning failed me and we somehow wandered in a wide circle twice. We lost another guardian on the way, and when we circled back we only saw his skeleton lying there inside rusted armour, as if he had lain there for a decade. Only the eldest and his lieutenant remained. The latter died when he suddenly foamed at the mouth, yelling nonsense and tried to strike the eldest with his warhammer. The eldest drew his battleaxe and split his skull. I lost all sense of time after that, and I and the eldest stumbled on through this nightmare.
We finally reached a clearing in which stood what looked like a hut with two scrawny legs as tall as trees. When we approached cautiously, the hut turned out to be a monstrously bloated, hollow acorn many yards across, with holes gnawed in it like windows, and the legs were gnarled, twisted wood that grew out of the underside. The eldest walked towards it purposefully, battleaxe drawn, shouting to whoever was in the acorn hut to come out. There was no reply, and the eldest pointed a finger at the hut, shouted a word I didn't understand and a blast of flame shot from his hand, setting one of the legs aflame. I heard a shriek like a woman's, and the hut started moving. It flailed its huge legs, and stomped towards the shocked eldest, who turned to run, but he was too slow. The hut kicked him like a child kicks a ball, and he flew 20 feet and smashed against a tree. I watched all this from a distance, having been too afraid to move from my hiding place in the shadows. The eldest lay there, specks of blood blowing from his mouth with every breath, while the hut fell over, consumed by the flames.
I hid in shock, too tired and confused to run. The eldest was still alive, but breathing shallowly and not moving. In time, I heard a buzzing noise that came nearer and nearer. My fear flared, but my legs would not heed me and I cowered there at the trunk of a tree, waiting. I saw bees, beetles, wasps, flies, dragonflies, gnats, a whole cloud of them swarming around me. These were what made the buzzing noise. From beyond the trees, even more were appearing, and at the centre of the cloud I saw a figure. It was gran, stark naked but for a shroud of crawling insects that covered her in a mass of thousands of gleaming little bodies. She stalked towards me, walking on all fours like a beast, until my face was just inches from hers. She spoke to me, and I recognized her voice, but the words made no sense. I wondered if she spoke backwards, if her rampant magic that came with living past the exaltation had scrambled her tongue. I could only stammer her name, and I think there was a glimmer of recognition in her addled mind, or she would have torn me apart then and there.
She turned away from me, and stalked over to the fallen elder like a cat. I still could not move, and watched as she sniffed at him, darting forward and then back again like a hungry animal, her circling cloud of insects making her look like she was in the centre of a small storm. The elder was barely alive now, but I saw the fear in his eyes, and he went for something gleaming that was hanging around his neck with his one good arm. He was speaking a prayer now, or maybe it was an incantation, and the gleaming thing seemed to give off a light now. Gran must have felt something was wrong, because she howled and sprang at him, tearing at his head to still his voice before the spell was completed. Her hands were stronger than any mere human limb should be, and his face tore like old canvas, his jaw suddenly loose in one of her hands. The gleaming thing suddenly burned as brightly as a summer sun, and a noise that was so loud I felt it more than I heard it shook me and threw me for yards. I think I passed out for a moment, and when I came to the entire forest seemed on fire. I stumbled upright and ran, my reckoning suddenly working right again. I knew gran and the elder were both dead.
This happened more than forty years ago. In the years after gran's death I prayed often at the temple, for her soul and my own, and I prayed to the gods that my own parents would not be so foolish as to flee their exaltation and would devoutly drink the chalice of poison on their 60th birthday so they would not become like gran. They both did, eventually, and I was there to kiss them farewell, and we smiled at each other knowing we would meet again in the house of the gods. I joined the order of the guardians of exaltation, where my reckoning was useful uncounted times in our search for sinners that had fled. I am the eldest of my cohort now, only a few years away from my own exaltation. I carry a luminous device on a silver chain around my neck, as a last resort. We have orders to find an old hermit who disappeared more than a decade ago, his age rumoured to be 75. May the gods protect us. The mountain where he is hiding is shrouded in an eternal rain of grey ash. My men are nervous, despite their great age and power. I am ready. We leave in the morning.