Cold wind blew through the trees and made gray clouds race across the morning sky. There was a pall to everything, and even the rich fields around them seemed dull and faded.
As the wind blew hard, slipping beneath his cloak and chilling him, Hileon Finchlas wished fervently he was back as his desk. There he would have had a small fire going in the hearth. Perhaps a small pot of stew bubbling on a little iron hook beside the fire, as he worked his way through recording the fall tithes from the outlying villages of the march.
But instead he was standing out here. Hungry, exhausted, and freezing. Hil pulled his cloak tighter about himself and looked at the other two men waiting with him at the crossroads. They had been in the great hall last night as well. It had been good to see Riffolk there, at least. The tall young man had been Hil’s friend since their time together at the Collegium.
Though they had traveled all through the night with no sleep, Riffolk seemed more restless than normal. He paced the small stretch of road, and his hand fiddled constantly with the handle of a longsword he wore at his belt. Riffolk always wore the blade, even when working in the keep. He had once confided in Hil that had it not been for the wishes of his parents, he would have entered one of the razor schools instead of the Collegium.
Hil wore a blade today as well, but it was a strange and unusual event for him to go armed. He wore the weapon awkwardly. The belt kept sliding down from the weight of the scabbard, forcing him to reach under his cloak and adjust it.
Riffolk let out an explosive sigh. “Did your friends not know to expect you here?”
Hil’s jaw dropped at his friend’s boldness, and he shot Riffolk a cautionary look.
The man Riffolk had spoken to turned slowly toward the young magistrate. He fixed Riffolk with an icy stare. “I did not say they were my friends,” Warden Mesym Aker said, his voice low.
Unlike Hil and Riffolk, Warden Aker did not answer to the Lord of Greenhope. In truth, the warden was answerable to no one, save the king himself. It was never a good day when a warden came to do his yearly inspection, but it was an even worse day when a warden came for other reasons.
This was one of those times.
The warden stood in the road, his long, heavy cloak flapping in the frigid wind. His look shifted from Riffolk to Hil, and Hil felt himself wither under the intensity of that gaze. Aker rubbed a gloved hand along his neatly trimmed gray beard and seemed to come to a decision. “There has been some troubling reports coming out of this region,” the warden said. “Reduced tithes, disappearances on the roads. Weeks back, a royal courier was passing this way. He did not reach his destination.”
Riffolk bristled. “Greenhope is a large march, Warden. We magistrates do what we can to maintain order, but even under our scrutiny, bandit attacks will happen.”
“If I thought it was just bandits, boy, we wouldn’t be waiting out here to meet an acolyte of the Order of Talan,” the warden said sharply.
Before he could stop himself, Hil spoke out. “A witch hunter?” he breathed fearfully. “That’s who we’re out here to meet?” Even saying the term aloud seemed to cause the hair on the back of his neck to stand on end. In the old stories the acolytes of the Order of Talan hunted evil creatures. Beyond those stories there were darker rumors. Everyone knew it was bad fortune to cross paths with a witch hunter. Hil could not imagine actually being so foolish as to wait around to meet one.
Where Hil was frightened, Riffolk just shook his head. “So it is not bandits, but the monsters from children’s tales that are plaguing the village,” Riffolk said. “Well, thank goodness you called in help for us mere mortals.”
Aker rounded on the young magistrate. “Before this day is done I pray to the memory of the First King himself that you will still have reason to doubt those children’s stories. And you,” he said, pointing a finger sharply at Hil. “Do not ever use that term around one of the Order of Talan.” His voice dropped as he caught sight of two figures far off in the distance, making their way down the road toward the crossroads. “They don’t like it.”
The pair drew closer. The man was tall and lean. He walked with a sense of purpose, his long strides eating up the road. Strapped to his back was a length of something, likely a staff or a rod. The skin around his eyes and part of his forehead were painted a dark black, and Hil felt a shiver of cold apprehension. The tall acolyte was like a character come to life from one of the stories his childhood nurse had told him.
The woman who kept pace with the acolyte appeared to be a witch hunter as well. She was shorter than her tall companion, but her movements were lighter, freer. She wore a simple coat as well, though cut shorter, and she carried a heavy iron lantern, swinging it as she walked. Her hair was loose, and it blew wildly in the wind. Her face did not have the dark markings that the man’s beside her had.
Aker’s voice snapped him out of his thoughts. “Try not to say anything unless you are spoken to,” the warden said. “But listen well to what is said.”
Hil tried to draw himself up taller as the pair approached, but he felt like his nervousness was readily apparent to all. Riffolk stood with his arms crossed over his chest. The pair crossed the final distance to their group in short time and stopped before the warden.
The man with the tattooed face bowed his head. “We received your message, Warden Aker.”
Aker frowned. “Where is Cadell?”
The woman gave a small smile. “My father was called to serve at the Spire. We have come in his stead, Warden.”
At that, Aker’s eyes narrowed in understanding. “Mireia,” he said. “Your father mentioned you to me when last I had need of him.” The warden’s frown softened. “It was a long time ago.”
Mireia nodded. “Not so long that he does not remember you as his friend, Warden. He spoke well of you, always. He was impressed with your courage that day.” There was an edge of sadness in her voice, as if she spoke of something dark and unpleasant. Hil felt the change in the pit of his stomach and his unease grew.
The warden drew in a deep breath. “Let us all hope that we are not looking at something similar this day.”
“No,” said the tattooed man. He did not look at the warden or even the two magistrates. Instead his attention appeared focused along the road where the pair had come from, at a grove of trees that marked the edge of a forest a short distance away from the road. “No. It is something different.”
Aker looked to the forest that held the man’s attention. Hil could not see anything besides the branches shifting in the wind. The warden’s lips were set tightly together. “Do you know what it is, acolyte?”
Ferran shook his head, eyes bright and shining amidst the blackness of the tattoo. “Not yet,” he said. “But we will not have to wait long to find out.”
Aker lowered a hand to the hilt of his sword, and Hil felt fear blossom in his gut, cold and hard. In the wake of it, he forgot the warden’s command to remain silent. “What?” Hil whispered. “What do you mean?”
“Your liege sent you with me so that you would see proof of my concerns,” Aker said, drawing out the words. “Your proof is coming.”
“Ferran,” Mireia said, her eyes focused on the forest.
With a rasp of steel across leather, Ferran pulled the pole from behind his shoulders, and Hil saw a dark blade at the end of it. With the spear in one hand, Ferran filled his other with a length of bright silver chain.
Mireia removed her coat and rolled up her sleeves, baring intricate tattoos covering her forearms. She held the dark iron lantern in her right hand and raised it up before her. Her long hair seemed to blow in the wind, though Hil noticed that at that moment, the wind had died down.
Aker drew his sword, and Riffolk readied his weapon. Hil fumbled at the hilt with hands suddenly gone numb and clumsy. He managed to pull the sword from its sheath without dropping it to the ground.
“What’s coming?” Hil whispered.
From within the forest, shapes began to come forward. Hil fought to keep from yelling out and pointing, but it was clear the others had seen them well before he had. As they cleared the edge of the forest, Hil saw what they were.
They were… men. Just men. Their clothing was ragged and threadbare. Each of them was armed with some sort of weapon, from farming tools to old, rusted swords and axes.
Beside him, Riffolk laughed. The sound of it almost caused Hil to jump out of his skin. “Bandits?” Riffolk said. “That is what has you all so riled up? I do not know what they have taught you at your temple, but I can assure you, I have faced scum like this before.” With that, Riffolk walked forward and held up the magisterial seal bearing the crest of Greenhope March. “In the name of Lord Garre of Greenhope, I charge you to disperse.”
Even as Riffolk spoke, the men approached, each step bringing them closer. A cold feeling of dread rolled over Hil at the sight of their slow steps, and as he looked to their faces, the sensation flared. The faces of the bandits were blank and expressionless, their eyes glazed over and unfocused. Even in the strong wind, none of them blinked or changed expression. They simply continued their advance.
“What is wrong with these men?” Hil asked. The uneasy feeling inside him grew hotter and sharper.
“These are not men,” Ferran said.
In strange, horrifying unison, the group of bandits raised their weapons high and charged forward. There was no savage yell of fury or bared teeth. Their faces remained utterly blank and expressionless as they moved to attack the group.
Ferran rushed past Hil to meet them, striking with spear and chain. Hil tried to run, to gain some distance from the cruel blades and blank faces, but he stumbled and went down hard. He rolled to his back and saw one of the bandits coming for him.
Hil tried to scramble away, but the dead-eyed man closed quickly, hefting a woodcutter’s axe above his head. Hil raised his hand in a helpless gesture to ward off the coming blow.
And then Riffolk was there, his sword swinging through the air and catching the bandit’s arm, severing it just below the elbow and sending the axe falling to the ground. Hil’s stomach clenched and his eyes went wide with a maddening horror as he watched blood pour from the terrible wound the bandit had suffered, and yet the man made no sound, no expression of pain as he swung again and again at Riffolk.
Riffolk pushed the bandit away and then stabbed him in the chest. Hil was no expert at swordplay, but he knew a sword through the heart should fell any man. But the words of the witch hunter, Ferran, rang in Hil’s ears as he watched the bandit push himself forward on Riffolk’s impaling blade to claw once more.
These are not men.
Hil watched in a helpless stupor as the thing tried to kill his friend. Riffolk desperately pulled the sword free from the thing’s chest and swung again, cutting into the leg. The blow glanced off the thick bone of the leg, but it was enough to topple the bandit.
As it fell, it looked at Hil with dull eyes. Through the blood-stained face, there was no twitch of muscle, no blinking of the eyes. Just the same, flat lifelessness. Then, reaching out with its one remaining arm, it began to crawl toward him.
Riffolk moved to his side, reaching down and pulling Hil forcibly to his feet. Together, the two magistrates backed away from the thing on the ground. Hil looked around, surveying the scene of the fight around them.
All around the crossroads and grassy fields there was carnage. All of the bandits were down, their bodies twitching and shaking. Some continued trying to attack despite their maimed helplessness. And yet despite the nightmarish scene, there were no screams from the broken and bloodied men. Hil could hear no sound beside his and Riffolk’s labored breathing.
There was a pungent smell in the air, the iron tang of blood and rotten offal, and Hil felt his stomach clenching. He fought to keep from gagging.
Riffolk looked around at the scene. “What manner of drug or chemical could do this to a man?” he said. “I have never seen anything like this before.”
“Then you have lived a fortunate life,” said Warden Aker, approaching them. “This is no alchemy, boy. Though I pray that it were.”
Hil followed the warden’s gaze across the grass to where the two witch hunters stood amidst the downed bandits. Ferran stood still, spear in one hand and silver chain in the other. He scanned the field as Mireia knelt down beside one of the still-moving bodies. She carefully put her fingers on its neck and looked at her companion.
“These are no deadsteps, Ferran,” she said. “There is a pulse. They are alive, but they appear to have no control of their own bodies.”
Ferran dropped lower, his spear extended before him, and Mireia shot to her feet. Both of them looked toward the dark wood nearby.
The warden frowned and raised his sword. “There is something else out there,” he said in a low voice that chilled Hil. “They sense it.”
“Sense what?” Hil breathed out in a barely audible whisper. He could not take his eyes from the two witch hunters.
Mireia raised the small, black iron lantern and she began to chant. Her voice was strong and powerful, and in the eerie silence of the battlefield it rang out like a bell over the cold wind. Hil could not make out the words, but as she chanted and sang, the lantern began to glow with a bright light.
And then the world drowned with screams.
Hil dropped to his knees as all around him the maimed and broken bandits moaned and screamed. They writhed in pain, as if all the horrific suffering from their wounds now seemed fully felt. Hil heard men cry and gurgle their last breaths as they choked on blood.
Amidst the hellish scene, Mireia stood, her long brown hair flowing around her. “It’s loose,” she called out after she ceased her chant. “It’s free,” she whispered before she dropped the lantern and collapsed to the ground.
Ferran began moving toward Mireia, but Warden Aker was already there. “I have her, Acolyte!” the warden yelled. “Find it! Do not let it escape!”
Ferran snapped his head back, looking in all directions. Then, like a hound on the hunt, he sprang forward and moved into the forest.
All around Hil, the dying bandits writhed and screamed and he could not divert his eyes. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he held his hands to his ears, like a fearful child in a thunderstorm.
Riffolk stood beside Hil, pale and shaken, his blade still out. The tip trembled, and his eyes darted here and there. Warden Aker helped Mireia to a sitting position. He yelled something to Riffolk and the young man’s face grew ashen. The warden repeated it, and Riffolk seemed to snap out of his stupor. He gave the warden a single nod and then began to move around the field with his blade, silencing each of the bandits. But even when there was silence once more, Hil could not bring himself to remove his hands from his ears.
After what seemed an eternity, Ferran emerged from the woods further up the road and gestured for them to come. Hil rose and followed the group. His legs were shaky but remained upright.
Hil saw anger in the Ferran’s clenched jaw and narrowly set eyes. “I felt it move toward the road, then nothing,” Ferran said. “But it left this behind.” Past the edge of the tree line was a shape on the forest floor.
What he saw stole his mind. Hil found himself on the ground, retching. Whatever had done this to a human had not done it from the outside. It had come from within the man, emerging forth in some sort of terrible, violent birth. The only thing left untouched on what had once been a person were the boots. It was on this Hil focused his eyes and tried to piece his mind back together.
Riffolk’s normally strong, bold voice sounded like a child’s. “What… what did this?”
Ferran did not take his eyes off the body. “It could be any number of Ruins. There are a fair few that can do this to a host,” he said, gesturing down. “It may even be something the Order has never seen before.”
Riffolk blinked slowly, as if recovering from being struck upon the head. “Monsters? You’re talking about monsters?”
It was Warden Aker who answered him though. “Monsters are what your nana told you about to get you to set to your chores faster. These are the old woes, demons of broken night. The first Ruins.”
“That’s impossible,” Riffolk said, but there was no strength behind his words.
Yet denial was the only recourse Hil’s mind could find as well. “But they were destroyed,” he said. “In the old legends and stories, Aedan and the First Ascended fought the Ruins and defeated them. They were all banished into the Abyss.”
It was Mireia who looked over at him with an expression of sympathy. “The titans, the behemoths, the grandest of the Ruins were driven back.” She shook her head. “But the cunning ones, the ones who knew how to hide in the shadows of impossible places.” She nodded at the broken mess of the body. “Even in the very bodies of men themselves. These secreted themselves away and thus remained in the world. Since the time of Aedan to now, they hide and they prey on mankind.”
Hil wiped a hand across his mouth. “And one was here? That is what we faced?”
“That is what we still face,” Ferran said. “It has lost its host. It cannot be far.”
Riffolk cleared this throat before speaking. “No,” he said. “What you still face, sir.” He shook his head. “Our duty was to report what we have seen to Lord Garre. That is our charge and so that is what we must do. Whatever is beyond that,” he paused, trying to find the right words. “It is beyond us,” he finished.
“And what exactly will you tell the lord?” Warden Aker cut in. “That the monsters of children’s stories have come to Greenhope? Where is your proof, magistrate? Where is the evidence you were commanded to gather?”
Hil looked in shock at the Warden. “But you would come with us, Warden. You would convince him, would you not?”
Ferran had walked to the top of the hill nearby. “By then,” he called back to them. “It will be too late.” He gestured ahead, past the hill.
Riffolk and the Warden walked over to see what Ferran was pointing at. Hil followed a bit behind, but as he crested the rise his spirits sank even lower. Ahead in the distance, nestled against the forest, was a small village.
Ferran grimaced as the others saw what he was pointing at. “Too late for them. And for anyone else this thing consumes now and for centuries to come. Because in this moment we failed to do anything about it.”
Without another word, Ferran headed toward the road. Warden Aker gave Riffolk and Hil a meaningful glance and followed the witch hunter.
Riffolk sighed and turned to Hil.
Hil gave him a small nod. “Just… just give me a moment,” he said to his friend. Riffolk headed after the other two men.
Hil fought down the urge to run the other way, to flee in panic back to the keep and lock himself in his room. But then he felt someone nearby. He opened his eyes and saw Mireia offering him a flask.
“Is this some sacred potion that will give me courage?” Hil asked.
Mireia smiled at him. “Yes,” she said. “It’s brandy.”
Despite his fear, Hil smiled and took the offered flask. The burn of it down his throat was a touch of familiarity amidst the madness of the morning. He passed it back to her.
“The first step is hard,” Mireia said, catching his eyes with her own. “But it won’t be the hardest. There are far more terrible things that you will face. Things that will make you long to go back to this first step. I wish it was otherwise, but it is not.”
“Won’t I long to go back to before I knew about all this? To the blissful ignorance I used to have?”
“No,” she said. “Not when you see the full truth of what these things have done, and are still doing to us. After that, there is no going back to ignorance.”
There was such strength and fierceness to her words that Hil believed her. She smiled one last time before following the others over the hill.
Then, with a courage he did not know he possessed, Hil walked behind her.
Release: October 15, 2015
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