The thin, reedy whistle of the boiling kettle pierced the atmosphere of the room with its shrill whine, drawing attention and ire from everybody in the room. With a bluster of air and dropped sheets, a large woman hurried through the small living room and into the adjoining kitchen. The whistling finally subsided when she drew the kettle from atop the stove and onto another, unlit hob. The room exhaled in unison. The two youngest children made an exaggerated show of unclogging their ears after the assault on their senses. Their father--the large woman's husband--merely smiled at the children knowingly, before crossing the room to join his wife in the kitchen.
The oldest of the three children, Jaim, simply looked away from the offending object and back to his reading. A tale of adventure, mystery, suspense and action; precisely the kind of tale the boy could often be found engrossing himself in. He had been poised at a moment of crucial dialogue, when the main character had opened his mouth and let forth a high pitched whistling. As a thirteen year old boy, Jaim cared least of all for the dialogue in his books, but he nevertheless found it distracting--not to mention rude--that someone would interrupt the protagonist when he was talking like that.
He scanned back down the page to find where he was up to. There.
Ser Gaudrion was steely-eyed and determined. He drew the blade of legend forth from the sheath at his hip and levelled the point of its blade at his old, immortal foe. His face was a dark mask of strength and determination. When he opened his mouth to speak, his words cut as deep as his sword ever would:
"Jaim, we're out of water again. Could you run to the Middle Sixth and get us some, son?"
It took a second for Jaim to place the voice as his Father's, and not that of Ser Gaudrion. He sighed, but did not openly complain. Neatly folding the corner of the page he was up to, he placed the book on the side table, atop an ever-increasing pile of other books, then stood and faced his Father.
"How much do we need this time? I can only carry so much".
The older man smiled again. Jaim had no option but to smile back; his father was always grinning. He barely every grumbled or frowned, and it was even more rare for him to be angry. Whenever Foster Lanse rose his voice, you knew there was real trouble somewhere.
"Oh not so much as last time, boy. Just the one large Gourd. Just enough for supper". His smile broadened into a laugh. "If you're lucky, we'll let you go again tomorrow to get some more. But only if you're lucky".
Jaim grimaced at him, then cried out when a large hand ruffled his hair. He shut his eyes tight at his Father tormented him, hearing him say "Go on then, off with you. Sooner you're back, the sooner we eat".
That was incentive enough for the boy. He headed into the kitchen, his mother smiling down on him and thanking him for being a "good lad" and fetching the water. He took the gourd--a large, peanut shaped container--from the table and hooked his arms through the straps. It sat on his back, peering over his shoulder. It wasn't very heavy, but once he filled it with water, it would be. He jostled it a few times, to get it as comfortable as it was going to get. When he was satisfied, he headed for the door.
Before leaving, he made sure the wooden sword he kept by the door to their small house was run through his belt and secured there firmly. He swung the wooden exit open and walked out into the afternoon. It was, like any other afternoon in the Third Quarters, grey. Above them, the dark smog cloud hung over the city like it always did, high enough that they didn't choke on the poisonous fumes, but so low that they were guaranteed to never see the sun. His parents had told them stories of how some people went their entire lives in Paceguard without ever seeing the raw beauty of the sun, not once. All they'd had to go on was the tales and stories they'd heard, as they slaved under the dull, charcoal sky from the cradle to the grave.
Jaim was certain he was not going to be one of those people; he would be an adventurer like all those men (and sometimes women) he had read about. He would be as great as Ser Gaudrion, and one day the sun would be an insignificant yellow speck compared to all the things he had seen and done. He would fight monsters and unlock secret mysteries. One day, Paceguard would be a tiny dot on the map to him; just another place he had visited. It would be home, always, but not where he lived.
With thought of monsters and adventures firmly in his mind, he set off along the precarious steel walkways of the Third Quarters, on his way to the Middle Sixth. All around, the sights and sounds of a typical busy day in the Third rose to meet him. He could smell sawdust, iron filings, molten metal and a host of other unidentifiable aromas. He saw people pushing wheelbarrows laden with wooden tools and components, and iron weapons all together. The men and women of the streets around him moved with a purpose, dedication and knowledge; they repeated this routine day in, day out; a clockwork monotony that kept them in business; that kept them fed.
Jaim followed the steel walkway along, staying firmly in the centre when the railings to either side of him vanished. Before long, the rickety houses and stacked buildings of the Fourth Quarter began to give up and vanish from sight as well, as the boy continued his journey across the city. To his left, the afternoon mist--or maybe it was smog, who knew--began to part, and the white stone finger of the Viscount's Tower reared up out of the murkiness, pointing its slim, pale digit at the heavens. Up, through the smog cloud and beyond. Jaime wondered what rested at the top of the edifice; he knew the Viscount lived there, and his daughter. He wondered what adventurers they were a part of, what mysteries they conspired to create or to solve. He longed for the opportunity to find out. His fingers itched along the wooden sword on his hip. He sighed and continued walking. Not today, Jaime. One day, but not today.
Smoke and smog billowed up to his right, from the factories that littered this quarter of the city. He coughed as stray fumes drifted around him. The smog was particularly thick in this sector of the city. The factory workers were required to wear masks at all times to mitigate the damage the smog did to them. It wreathed the buildings and obscured them from sight; a poisonous, overzealous blanket. The chimneys protruded from the low lying fog, the only proof that the factories existed beyond stray glimpses between the otherwise all-consuming smog. They themselves belched more of the viscous smog into the atmosphere, where great clouds of it fell to continue obscuring the work plants. The rest drifted ever higher, to eventually join the rest of the grey matter in the giant smog cloud above the city.
Luckily, Jaime didn't have to endure the smothering, choking depression of the Factory District for too long. He was taking a direct route to the Middle Sixth, which cut across the Fourth and Fifth districts only briefly, hugging along the side of the Viscount's Tower and minimizing travelling distance. Before long the smog was clearing around him and Jaim could see the seemingly endless rows of buildings that housed the factory workers. Now that Jaime considered it, they were just as depressing as the factories smothered by the swirling smog behind him. He didn't stop to consider the thousands of people down there, he wouldn't let himself. Instead, he just quickened his pace and moved on as fast as his legs would carry him.
Soon enough, the steel walkway beneath him showed its terminus. About a hundred meters ahead of him, the walkway merged into the cobbled pavement of the Middle Sixth. At last, the young boy thought. The ground, which had for a long time been so far beneath him as he traversed the Fourth and Fifth districts, was gradually rising to meet him. Here and there, small, nice looking houses dotted the landscape. As Jaim made his way from the steel walkway and onto the cobbles, the houses multiplied until, eventually, the boy was walking down a row of houses joined to each other. People were milling about outside or walking along the street. None of them towards the Fifth district he noticed. Some stopped to look at him, curiosity in their eyes. Most of them ignored him. He preferred it that way.
He reached a fork in the road. To his left was his destination, and more houses on one side of the road. On the other, stores with awnings and large, decorative signs loudly declared who they were and what they were selling. Inbetween these houses, darkened alleys skulked, hiding themselves in shadow as if, if they were seen, they would be removed. To his right was a system of shortcuts he knew to get to the public Well. He gazed off down to the right, and heard the trouble before he saw it. Loud shouting, the sound of smashing glasses and crockery, screaming. Towards the end of the street, he spotted it; a tavern, most of the patrons outside, shouting. The windows had been smashed and inside, people were hurling knives and flammable material at the bystanders. He wondered where they had come from; there was never a raucous moment in the Middle Sixth.
Jaime decided that perhaps it was best he went the other way. He turned and took a left. As he did so, he saw a group of the Viscount Household Guard rush past. Twenty six of them, clad entirely in their silver chainmail and armour, the blue half cloaks of their Lord flapping from their left shoulders. Their swords and Polearms glinted dangerously in the afternoon light. He sighed again, wishing he could be amongst them as they quelled the stupid drunkards in the tavern. Jaime took one last look at the unit of Guards before carrying on down the street.
He had not gotten far when something caught in his periphery and drew his attention. He turned just in time to see a figure vanish down the alleyway between two shops. Normally, Jaim would have done what his Father told him to do, but the Tower, the Guards, the fighting ... everything conspired against him, overriding his senses and drawing him into following the figure, who he had only been given the briefest of glances of, down the alleyway.
Jaim's hand was gripped tight to the coarse hilt of his wooden sword, his defence and his protection. He kept a reasonable distance from the figure, who he could now see was dressed entirely in black, a dark hood pulled up to hide his features. Jaim followed him down the alley, around several corners and away from the main street. His heart raced. He was wearing his courage on his sleeve. The excitement and the adrenalin spurred him on, pushing him to continue following the hooded figure, despite every other inch of his mind telling him to turn back and ignore what he saw.
Eventually, after tailing the hooded man--he assumed it was a man--for about five or ten minutes, the figure turned into a small, derelict looking building. Surprisingly, he left the door ajar. Jaim followed as close as he dared. As he got closer to the door, he heard the muffled, unintelligible yet unmistakable sound of voices talking. He drew closer, and closer, barely touching the ground with every step; a shadow in rough spun clothing. The voices detangled themselves from the air around them and finally became intelligible as he drew up alongside the door.
"Everything's going to plan" came one voice. It sounded high class, clipped, educated. He must be from the Seventh, Jaim wondered to himself. The voice continued. "The men are keeping the Household Guard busy in the tavern. By the time they realise no help is coming to aid them it will be too late for them to surrender. If we're lucky they might take some of the Household Guard with them before they're cut to ribbons" He laughed. "That crooked Senator played his part in session today as well".
"We won't be leaving him as a loose end, will we?" Another voice. This one didn't sound as smart as its companion's. It had a drawl to it that Jaim didn't recognise as regional to any of the districts of Paceguard. An outsider? That didn't make any sense of him. None of this did, come to think of it.
"No. He'll be dealt with in due time. I have my men on the way to the Tower now that the Guard is preoccupied. They should have it secured and the Viscount captured in the next hour".
The Viscount! In danger! Jaim had never been so close to real adventure in his life. It didn't feel like he thought it should; a deep, uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach. He didn't feel all that brave suddenly. He wanted to go home.
"Will the Viscount give us what we want?" the lower voice said.
"I doubt it. Not at first. But he will in the end, or I'll gut his daughter like a fish, then him".
Jaim gasped and the voices went silent. There was a sudden scuffling, and the door swung open. He stared up, wide-eyed and terrified, as the man he had been following leered down at him, his face a mixture of shock and anger. Before the boy could even more, the hooded figure--now hoodless, reached and clenched a fist around the scruff of his tunic. With a strength Jaim wasn't expecting from the man, he heaved him up to eye level.
"Who is it, Teech?" The distant voice seemed right at Jaim's ear now.
"Some child, sir. I reckon he's been here a while. I thought I felt somebody following me".
"If you think he's heard our plans, then be a good man and dispose of him, would you? We're in something of a hurry".
Teech smiled at Jaim, and uttered a mock apology. "Sorry kid, but business is business".
The flash of silver in Teech's hand was the last thing Jaime saw before the arm swung. The wooden sword clattered to the ground.
The wind sighed through the trees of the Flowmarches. Through the trees, through the leaves and barks, the stumps and flowers, and through the wisps of Truval's hair. He let the breeze play over him, and with the stray strands of brown hair that had escaped his ponytail. He continued resting lazily against the stump of the tree he had grown accustomed to.
It is a good stump, a fine stump. He thought. It is the kind of stump made to be lain against.
On the ground to his right, Truval had placed his quiver, the arrows within it lazing against the ground just as much as he was, huddled together; the fletching of each quivered as the wind continued to tickle around them playfully.
To this right lay Truval's Longbow, his pride and joy. It was 6 foot tall to the inch, almost exactly the same height as Truval himself. It was made from a single piece of Yew, gently curving outwards as a bow does, less of a "D" shape, as everybody seemed to describe it as, but more of a gentle arch. Truval often quipped that anybody who thought it looked like a D either had very cramped, squashed handwriting, or simply couldn't write.
The bowstring was drawn taught between the two ends of the arch. Small droplets of dew and water had gathered along it in the hours Truval had been relaxing; they winked at him when he turned his eyes to the bow, he winked back, chuckling.
Truval sighed a contented sigh; this was a life he could get used to.
Through the small breach in the canopy of leaves and branches above him, Truval could see the blue-orange sky, streaked with wisps of white and grey. It had rained earlier; nothing torrential, and the woods had been a faithful defence against the rain. He had even appreciated, after the shower had passed, the sounds of droplets pattering their way through the trees and to the ground; they had created a different ambience to the surroundings. Not quite the same as total silence, but peaceful in its own way.
Truval thought back to his day. It was slowly ending now, as the blue of the daytime sky began to fade into orange. Soon, the orange would cede to purplish sunset, and then finally dark night would descend. As much as he had enjoyed relaxing here, Truval did not find the prospect of spending a night in this forest particularly inviting. And yet there were others in this forest that would be spending their night here, Truval had seen to that. He was far away from them now, but he had left them a parting gift.
He had been running for days, and days. Weeks, even. Running from hunters, running from townsfolk and bounties. Running from life. When he had found this glade in the middle of the vast forest he had fled into, he felt that there was no further point from life or civilisation. Not one that he was likely to find anyway. So he had stopped, and he had fed and rested and, as it had happened, he had stayed here many hours. But all good things must he end, he supposed, and so he must move on. Already the light of the day was starting to fade. The shadows of the trees, so inviting earlier, began to lengthen and slowly blend with the forest floor, becoming more unwelcoming.
Truval got to his feet and brushed his tunic down. He kicked the stump he had been laying against firmly, knocking mud and twigs and water that had gathered from them. He grabbed his hat from the top of the stump, shook that off, and replaced it on his head. As he was reclaiming his quiver and bow, his attention was drawn by a cracking sound from deeper into the forest.
He looked up, suspicious, and quickly grabbed an arrow from his quiver and notched it lightly against his longbow. He prepared for the eventuality that some civilian--or worse, a bounty hunter, had found him and meant to claim him for the sizeable reward placed on his head. The size of the reward was a matter of some pride for Truval, but that satisfaction was tempered by a determination to never see it paid out.
"I am warning you", he began, "braver men than you have probably tried to stop me. Ask my companions some miles away in the forest. They shall be spending a long night here. Many long nights, perhaps, unless somebody finds them soon, I should think". He made himself laugh, a nervous sound, all air and bravado.
There was no response from the forest. An increasing darkness greeted him, and silence. Truval stepped away from his tree trunk and into the centre of the copse.
From the dark, silent blackness ahead of him, around him, above him, there was a slow, rattling sound. Truval was hesitant to call it a breath; it was more an exhalation, just air leaving something. It did not sound like life. It came again, this rasping dead sound. The sound of two pieces of emery paper rubbing together. Truval began to wonder if he was dealing with hunters at all anymore.
From the darkness ahead in front of him, two red slices appeared, stark against the inky forest. Thin, red, unblinking eyes.
Truval drew his bowstring back, the fletching of the arrow pressed against his breast. His voice was shaky, "I warned you". He loosed the arrow at the redness, straight for the head.
In the silence of the forest, the twang of the bowstring and the thwip of the arrow were a cacophony; birds took flight and small creatures on the forest floor hurried away. The dull thud of the arrow hitting its target unnerved Truval even more; once the arrow had landed, silence reigned again; there was no grunt, no scream, no hiss of blood. Just that redness remained; the eyes remained.
Truval took a worried step back. He stilled himself and reached back, his arm shaking, for another arrow. As he drew it out, the ground crunched. He hadn't moved. He listened. Another crunch, then another. The unmistakable sound of footsteps. Whatever it was, it was moving. Truval felt his mouth go dry. He notched another arrow, aimed, loosed.
Twang, thwip, thud.
The slightest outline of the red-eyed ... thing began to emerge as it drew slowly, slowly closer. Truval couldn't make out any details, at all, but he could see it was human in basic shape, and in the fading daylight he could also see that neither of his arrows had missed. They protruded from its head, glinting in the ebbing sun. Yet still, crunch. Crunch. Truval gritted his teeth, frowned; he was as angry now as he was afraid. He reached back, drew a third arrow, notched, aimed, loosed.
Twang, thwip, thud.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunchcrunchcrunch.
Truval nearly tripped moving backwards. He looked back, down at his feet, and when he looked back his blood ran cold.
The thing, the red eyed thing, had emerged from the clearing. The waning light of day illuminated it, highlighting in all its monstrosity. Truval assumed that once it may have been human, but not anymore, and not for some time. The two red slices of eyes stared, unrelentingly, at him. They were sunken into a colourless face, in hollow, cavernous sockets. The cheekbones were high on the face, and almost entirely visible through the translucent, grey, dead skin. The right cheekbone was higher than the other, but not through breakage. Where it should have ended, just below the eye, the cheekbone continued to spread out, up and around the eye, protruding some half inch from the face. It moved around the eye, up and across to the other side of the forehead, before trailing off to a ridge over the left side of his head.
Its nose--his nose, Truval supposed, was a broken, indiscernible mess inbetween the mutated cheeks. Two punctures marked its nostrils, amidst a mash of cartilage and grey. The mouth, a gaping, yawning cry of agony, drooped to the left, showing a row of rotten, sharpened teeth and no tongue. Truval hated that part, the mouth. It was from its mouth that the dry, dead rasping expulsion of air was emitted in long, drawn out heaves. Every shuffling step it took was accompanied by one of these protracted, scraping winds.
It ambled forward, dressed in a ripped and broken grey robe. It reached all the way down to his feet, but was so ripped and torn and tattered that it offered little to no protection in the way it should. Inbetween the rips and breaks in the fabric, Truval could see that he wore nothing, and his emaciated husk of a body had punctured so many times, ribs and collar bones poking through the paper-thin, sagging skin. Below the robe, his feet protruded, with every shuddering movement, gnarled and misshapen. They pushed dirt forward in an ever increasing pile as he scraped towards him.
But of it all, he hated the eyes most. The face was a broken, mutated mess, but its eyes were sharp, and slim. Red and staring, Truval saw them, and felt judged by them. His revulsion and his anger reared up and overwrote his fear. He dropped his bow and slid his dirk from its sheath high on his hip.
"Come on, you freak! You're just brain dead! How could I have hoped to kill you that way?"
He launched forward, shouting, bringing his sword down hard and fast against whatever part of the monstrosity he could find first. He felt the blade connect, and his arm vibrate painfully as the weapon glanced off bone. He jumped back, and threw himself forwards again, this time with a clear target in mind.
He swung the Dirk in a horizontal arc, at the creature's face. It connected just as he had wanted it to, where he wanted it to, along the outcropping of mutated cheekbone. He heard the slice of the blade joining with the bone, and the thud as it stuck there.
Truval gazed in horror at the thing, his sword now embedded an inch into its head. He tugged, but the sword wouldn’t come loose. He tugged again, more desperately, but still nothing. The red eyes gazed at him, judged him. Hated him. He gave another pull at the blade, pathetically this time. He whimpered as the eyes bored into him.
Faster than Truval could have ever imagined, the thing's arm shot forward and caught him by the throat, gripping tight, restricting.
Above the sudden lack of oxygen, Truval's first impression of the grip was how hot it was. The bony fingers clawed into his flesh and they burned. But they didn't just burn at his throat; the heat spread up and down his body, into his arms and legs, up his neck and then, finally, into his brain.
When it reached his head, Truval's eyes bulged wide. He opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came from his mouth. His tongue burned. He needed oxygen, he desperately needed to breathe, but it was nothing to how his insides burned white hot. He felt like he would go on forever like this, this searing pain inside him.
And then something gave. And Truval saw; the thousands things he wasn't, and would never be. The sheer scope of it all, and his place in it. How he had risen and fallen, less than the first breathing of a baby, and less than the final breath of the dying man. The thing gripped suddenly tighter. There was a snap, Truval's eyes went entirely white, and he went limp.
The creature dropped him unceremoniously. In death the huntsman’s face maintained that gaping, agonised expression. But the thing continued watching the archer with its crimson eyes, even as the last light of day vanished above them, and night covered them both in its blanket.
Its red eyes watched him.