A sour, irritating stench had wafted through the air and troubled the boy’s nose. He reached an arm up to scratch it, just as the beast leaped towards him.
“My father told me never to go into the forest,” said Olivia as she let herself be dragged along. “He says that it’s dangerous.”
“Well, your father ain’t here,” said Elias, keeping a firm grasp on her wrist. “And there’s nothing in those woods that I can’t handle.”
As they hurried along, they crunched dry leaves underfoot and wiped the sweat from their brows. A slight breeze was blowing, which was cool enough for Elias, but not for Olivia, who found her patience waning.
“Elias…Elias, stop!” she said, as she wrenched her arm from his grasp. “I can’t walk anymore. I’m tired and my feet hurt. Let me rest for a while.”
Almost breathless, Elias turned and gesticulated towards the rough path they were following. “Resting is what I’m trying to do. The lake I was telling you about is just over yonder. We can rest there.”
Olivia smiled as she remembered when Elias first told her of his secret spot. He had been so animated as he described the crystal clear water flowing atop soft mossy rocks that tickled your feet as you walked across them. She had giggled when he waxed poetically about melodious songbirds and butterflies that landed on your hand like in fairy tales. Elias had recounted the place’s beauty so well that Olivia had almost believed him.
“Okay, Elias,” she said, interrupting him. “I heard you the first time. Don’t talk yourself into a fit.”
He gave her a small grin that turned into a wide smile as he sat down next to her. “You know, you’re probably right. We should rest here for a bit. In fact, there’s something I want to show you that will help us relax.”
“Oh, really?” said Olivia, as Elias reached up and gently pulled her down into his lap. “Something more relaxing than this magical lake?”
“Almost as. It’s a special massage my brother learned from the knights at the Circle. It relaxes muscles and soothes the soul.”
“It isn’t obscene, is it?” said Olivia, as Elias reached under her dress. “My father warned me about the obscene things you boys like to do.”
“Your father ain’t here,” repeated Elias, “And if you keep this a secret, he won’t ever find out.”
“He might,” said Olivia, between quick breaths. “Especially if this massage dirties up my dress.”
“Just to be safe, maybe you should take it off,” said Elias, as one hand moved up her leg while the other rested on the sticky, damp mud. “Just to make sure it stays…”
Just then, Elias remembered the crunching leaves, the incessant sun, and the dry earth. He raised his hand from the ground and found that it was now completely red. “…clean?”
Olivia sprang away from him and screamed. “Dear God! Elias, you’re… you’re wounded.”
Elias stood up and looked himself over. The back and bottom of his overalls were stained a dark red. Looking down at where he was sitting, he saw a pool of red liquid.
“It… it’s not me, Liv. I thu… think it’s coming from there.” he said, pointing a red finger towards the thick woods. Like the long tail of a ruby snake, a red trail led from the pool deeper into a tangle of bushes and branches.
“Elias?” said Olivia. But he was already following the trail. “Elias, don’t go in there!”
Worried about her sudden isolation, Olivia rushed to follow him, batting away low branches and kicking away rocks and fallen twigs. Due to her dress and unfamiliarity with the area, she soon lost sight of Elias entirely, as he barreled deeper into the increasingly dense, green overgrowth. Olivia worried about getting lost, but then remembered she had a trail to follow. A trail that seemed more like a small river. It reminded her of the floor of her father’s slaughterhouse the day after a fresh batch of pigs came in. When she finally crashed through a bush into another clearing, Olivia saw that the source of the trail was a single animal. All around were tall trees whose branches, full of leaves, were spread out in a way as to let only a small circle of light into the clearing below. And in that circle, surrounded by a large pool of blood, missing his left arm, was the body of a young boy. Standing beside the boy, just outside the pool, was Elias.
“Oh God, Liv,” said Elias. “Don’t look. He’s…”
But Olivia had already turned away to vomit. When all that was left were dry heaves, she wiped her mouth with her sleeve, turned back towards the body, and screamed. “Elias, what are you doing?”
While she had been retching, Elias had taken a few tentative steps into the pool of blood. With a violent wince, he knelt down beside the boy. “Checking to see if he’s still breathing.”
“Breathing? His arm’s off, Elias!”
Everything below the boy’s left elbow was gone, and everything above it was a mangled mess. As he moved closer, Elias closed his eyes so that he wouldn’t see the butchered remains of the arm.
“Elias?” said Olivia. “Elias, what’s happening? Is he still alive?”
Elias leaned down towards the boy’s face. To steady himself, Elias rested a hand on the boy’s chest—which caused the boy to violently jerk and cough blood into Elias’s face. Elias screamed and scrambled away, and something loud and shrill died in Olivia’s throat.
The boy slowly sat up and looked around. He first saw Elias, who was on his hands and knees, vomiting copiously. Next, his gaze turned to Olivia, who, upon meeting his, whimpered and crumpled to a heap on the ground. Finally, he looked down at his mutilated stump, considered it for a moment, and then began to scream.
Even before fully awakening, the boy was able to pick up on snatches of conversation.
“… make sense… that much… should be dead,” said a gruff voice.
“… beastly business… my daughter… don’t let her… even the pigs,” said a softer, more tired one.
Then came another voice. A voice filled with worry and anxiousness. One the boy knew well.
“Mu-Mother?” said the boy, opening his eyes. “Is that you?”
His mother pushed past two men, ran over to where he was lying in bed, and pulled him into a tight hug. “Oh, lord, Joshua. What’s happened to you?”
Crushed in his mother’s embrace, Joshua looked around, trying to get his bearings. Above him was the jumbled mess of a ceiling that his father had laboured for weeks on. On the walls were paintings of tall mountains, barren deserts, and thick jungles. In one corner was a bookshelf full of atlases, almanacs, and travel guides. In another corner, was a desk with dozens of sketches scattered across it, and just above it on the wall, was a map of the Kingdom, with all the major cities highlighted.
Joshua was back home in his room.
“What’s going on?” asked Joshua. “I was in the forest and… something happened. How did I get here?”
“I can answer that, “said the gruff voice from before. The man it came from was standing next to the pinned map, tracing a finger along a longitudinal line. His skin was tan and littered with liver spots. He was clad in large, washed-out overalls splattered with permanent stains, and a straw hat that he held in his hand. “Best we can tell, you were involved in a bad scuffle with something vicious. After bloodying you up, it must have taken you for dead and left you in the forest. Luckily, my boy happened upon you in just the nick of time. He ran back home, told me what happened, and we went and got you.”
Joshua’s mother tightened her grip on her son. “What were you doing in the forest in the first place, Joshua?”
“That, unfortunately, seems to be my fault,” said the soft, tired voice. The man it belonged to had wandered over to the bookshelf and began looking over the collection. He was dressed in a neatly pressed, beige-coloured suit and a black tie. He was very pale, and the skin around his face and neck had been powdered. Down at his hip, he held a brown low-brimmed hat, and on every other finger were rings adorned with colourful gemstones.
“My name is Wilfred,” said the man as he approached the bed. “And unfortunately, I may be partly to blame for your gruesome misfortune.”
His words caused Joshua to look down at his arm. Thick bandages had been wrapped around the damaged end, but already, tiny dark pinpricks of red were beginning to show.
He stared for a few seconds at his disfigurement before wrenching his gaze back to the smartly dressed man. “Mr. Wilfred, I… don’t even know who you are.”
Mr. Horton raised a thin finger and tapped a small golden badge pinned to his lapel. “Ah, but you know this, I’m sure.” And Joshua did. He had seen that golden badge on the fences that kept the village’s livestock safe. It was on the tools that his father used to fell the trees in the forest and cut the logs into lumber. It was on the sheds where the pigs spent their last hours. And most recently, he had seen it on the gloves of the man that had offered him a job.
Joshua’s eyes widened. “Wilfred Horton? Of Horton Industries?”
The man leaned down in an exaggerated bow. “In the flesh.”
“My word,” exclaimed Joshua’s mother, as she straightened her posture. “I thought you were a friend of Elias’s father, I had no idea… If I had known, I would have—”
“That’s quite alright, madame. Your hospitality has been excellent in any case,” said Horton. “And to answer your earlier question, young man, for the last few weeks, my livestock has been under continuous attack by wild animals. It has become such a problem that I instructed my deputies to hire some additional watchmen to keep an eye on the animals. That, presumably, is where you came in.”
“Too young, in my opinion,” said Elias’s father. “Much too young.”
“Yes.” Horton approached the bed and inspected Joshua’s face. “Yes, I can see that now. Perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I should have been when I made my request. Maybe too much of my own anxiety leaked through when talking to my deputies. In any case, I feel a sort of responsibility for what has transpired.”
Horton turned to Joshua’s mother. “Madame, you must allow me to assuage my guilt by financing your son’s recovery. Medicine, doctors, whatever the poor boy needs. In fact, until he’s as fit as he was before, you’ll not have to spend a silver of your own funds.”
“Oh, wow. This is, uh, all so very sudden,” she replied. “I, uh, don’t quite know what to say…”
“Then say nothing, dear gentlewoman,” said Horton, as he straightened up, and put his hat back on. “At least not until after your husband comes home and we can hammer out all the details. Until then, I think I saw some coffee grounds downstairs.”
Joshua’s mother reluctantly released him from her grip and followed the wealthy man downstairs. This left Joshua, who had long before stopped listening to anything going on around him, to stare once more at his missing appendage.
“What does this blue line mean?”
Joshua jumped a little. He hadn’t noticed that Elias’s father was still standing beside his map. “What?”
“I know the other lines are longitude and latitude,” he said, tracing a finger along the relevant lines. “But there’s a big blue line near the middle that doesn’t match up with either of them.”
“It’s the, uh, Civic Meridian. It’s a line that runs through the capital and the Circle. It’s supposed to be holy.”
Elias’s father turned to look at Joshua. “Do you know who I am, boy?”
He held his hat in both hands now and started walking towards the bed. “My name is Roy Merril. I’m responsible for all of Mr. Horton’s fields and a lot of his livestock. I’ve done this for many years. And in those years I’ve met all sorts of people. Do you believe that?”
“Good. So you’ll believe me when I say I’ve met a lot of people who’ve gone through what you’ve gone through. Men who’ve lost fingers, hands, legs. Even knew a man who lost the better half of his face to a raging bull. Can you believe that?”
“Good, good. I’ve known these men, and I can say with certainty, that the ones who held onto their values and ignored the thoughts that often come after events like this, turned out to be some of the best men that I’ve ever had the privilege to know. Do you get my meaning, son?”
“I… I don’t know, sir. I think I do.”
“Good,” he said, putting his hat back on. “I just wanted you to know that.”
And then he walked out of the room and closed the door, finally leaving Joshua completely alone.
Hours later, after the sun had gone down, after his mother had dutifully washed him and changed his clothes, after she had blown out the candle next to his bed and kissed him goodnight, after everything good and god-fearing had laid their heads to rest, Joshua was sat up in bed, caressing his injured arm, and staring into nothingness.
The darkness did strange things to the room. The seams in the walls seemed to split apart as the room breathed like a dying animal, and the floor bubbled like a tar lake. Joshua frowned, how could he possibly get to sleep with all of that going on? And then there was the noise. Heavy footsteps and hushed whispers that started in the kitchen, but soon moved to just outside his room.
“No, don’t,” said his mother. “You’ll wake him.”
“I just want to see it,” said his father. “I just want to see how bad it is.”
“Mr. Horton already told you. He’s probably got some broken ribs and his arm—”
“Yes, yes, but how much?” said his father quickly. “The hand, for sure, but how much of the wrist?”
“Why does that matter?”
His father’s voice started walking up and down the hall outside. “A missing hand is terrible, but not irreplaceable. I could devise a realistic replacement that would allow him something like a normal life. But if the damage is worse than that… ”
“Darling,” said his mother in a soft voice. “Mr. Horton said he would take care of all that…”
“Oh, really,” said his father, just outside the door. “Is he going to give him a job where it’s okay to be half as productive as a regular worker. Will he pay someone to carry him around in a litter so that he won’t see the women whispering, or hear the children laugh at him?”
“Lower your voice,” hissed his mother. “You’re being too loud.”
“Perhaps he can even purchase him a wife that won’t mind being married to a figure of mockery.”
“Darling, you’re shouting,” shouted his mother. “You’re going to wake him up.”
“Then, tell me,” said his father. “How bad is it?”
There was a slight pause.
“It’s bad,” said his mother, in a slow whisper. “It’s horrible.”
Joshua heard heavy footsteps move away from the door and disappear into the night, and soon after, softer ones followed it.
When all the sounds had faded, and all the shadows laid still, then, and only then, did Joshua fall back into bed and finally fall asleep.
“You look like you slept well,” said a blonde head, peeking out from behind the door into Joshua’s room. “But I might be biased by how you were when I saw you last.”
Joshua stared as the intruder walked into the room, sat down on his bed, and began to look around. The stranger wore wrinkled overalls that were baggy and ill-fitting.
“I’m sorry,” Joshua said. “But do I know you?”
“I should hope so,” said the young man with a small smile. “Although, you probably don’t recognize me because my face isn’t covered in blood.”
Joshua’s eyes widened. “You’re the boy that found me in the forest. Mr. Merril’s son.”
“The man that found you in the forest,” corrected the boy. “And you’re very welcome, by the way. My name’s Elias.”
Elias got up and began to wander around the room, running his hands across the shelves and walls as he did so. Then he stopped in front of the map pinned on the wall.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“It’s the Civic Meridian,” answered Joshua. “It’s supposed to be—”
“The what?” said Elias, turning to look at Joshua. “What are you talking about? Look, I wanted to ask if Olivia came by here yet.”
“At least, I think her name was Olivia,” said Elias, walking back towards the bed. “See, I always called her Liv, so I’m not sure what everyone else knows her by.”
“Sorry, I don’t know who that is.”
“Which one? Liv or Olivia?”
“Both,” said Joshua. “Or neither. I don’t know. Look, Elias, what exactly do you—”
“Actually, follow-up question,” said Elias, looking Joshua over. “I only remember your arm being wounded, but your ma said that you’ve been laid up in bed since we brought you home.”
“That’s not a question.”
“To the best of my knowledge, you can walk fine, so why aren’t you at least stretching your legs.”
“Whatever took my arm off in the forest also dug its claws into my chest,” said Joshua, pulling the front of his shirt down to show the extensive scars on his midsection. “I can’t stay on my feet for too long.”
“The Doctor tell you that?”
“No, my mother did. The doctor hasn’t come yet.”
“So, it might not be true?”
Joshua gave a non-committal shrug and reclined further into the bed, which caused Elias to sigh.
“Look, I might not be a fancy-schmancy doctor from a shiny, clean doctor school, but I like to think I’ve learned a few things in my sixteen years of being a man, as well my two days of being a hero. One of those being that almost no ailment can’t be solved by two things.”
“Fresh air,” he said, as he pulled back the curtains from the window and walked to the side of the bed with a hand outstretched. “And exercise.”
Hesitating for just a moment, Joshua finally took Elias’ hand and began to rise from his bed. Wrapping an arm around Elias’ shoulders, Joshua put some of his weight on the fair-haired boy and put a tentative foot on the wooden floor.
“There we go,” said Elias. “One foot in front of the other, easy as pie.”
With every step, pain shot through Joshua’s abdomen, and he had to take deep breaths to try and ward it off. Sometimes the pain would be too much, and he would come to a stop, but whenever that happened, Elias would give him a small nudge that convinced him to keep going. Soon, the pain gave way to mild discomfort, and Joshua was able to put less and less weight on Elias as they walked around the room.
“See?” asked Elias, “What did I say? Easy as pie.”
Just then, the door to the room opened to reveal three people, and at the sight of them, Elias let go of Joshua, who lost his balance and plummeted to the floor. Joshua screamed as pain tore through his chest, and tears blurred his vision. He rolled around on the floor as everything was lost in an agonizing haze. In his torment, he didn’t feel strong hands lift him off the ground and carry him back to bed. He was dumped back down and writhed like a wounded lamb, unknowingly fighting against the rough hands that tried to restrain him.
Then, another hand touched his cheek, and Joshua immediately fell still. From his cheek, a warm comfort spread throughout his body and the agony that wracked his body faded. Eventually, so too did the comfort fade, leaving only the feeling of a hand tenderly cradling his cheek. He opened his eyes, and leaning over him was a woman.
“Help…” said Joshua without knowing why.
“Yes, that’s right,” said the woman, with a smile. “I’m here to help you.”
“I just wanted to help him, is all,” said Elias, sheepishly. “Didn’t think it would hurt none.”
“You could have fooled me,” said Olivia, picking up the apples she had dropped when Joshua had screamed. “The way you had him dancing about like a puppet.”
Standing off to the side, watching the bickering couple was the last of the visiting trio. When Joshua had screamed, the tall hooded man had hefted his two beefy arms in front of Olivia and the woman, as if to protect them. Even after Olivia ducked underneath an arm and rushed into the room, the man insisted the woman stayed outside. At the same time, he walked in and gave the room a brief survey before finally picking up Joshua and carrying him back to the bed.
Even now, he occasionally shot glances towards the bed, as if at any moment, Joshua would spring from it and attack someone. The woman herself was unconcerned, continuing to caress Joshua’s cheek, smiling at his amazement. Finally, the woman turned towards the rest of the room.
“Don’t be too hard on him, young lady.” said the woman. “I’m sure he had the best of intentions.”
At her words, Olivia stood up straight, smoothed out her clothes, and mumbled something under her breath. Elias, seeing this, opened his mouth to speak, but closed it as his eyes flitted back and forth between the man and woman. A look of panic flashed across his face, and he tried to rub the wrinkles out of his dirty overalls.
“F-Forgive me, sirs. I beg of you a thousand pardons,” said Elias, bowing low to the floor. “I-I had no idea you were from the Circle.”
At Elias’ words, Joshua leaned forward in bed and took a closer look at the visitors. Adorning the man’s broad chest was a red, studded leather tunic with a golden lion sewn into it. On his legs were red greaves with gold trimmings, and hanging on his hip was an empty scabbard. The woman, on the other hand, was wearing an oversized, grey travelling cloak that covered almost all of her body. A piece of parchment, attached to the nape of her cloak by a wax seal, reached down to her knees. From his studies, Joshua recognized the paper and seal as a Vitae, a record of a Circle adept’s accomplishments. Of the many he had encountered during his personal studies, he had never seen one so long.
“Please raise your heads,” said the woman. “And while you’re at it, drop the sir. I recognize no lord and own no lands. My name is Marie, priestess of the Circle. My surly companion goes by the name of Cleitus.”
Marie turned back towards the bed. “But you, Joshua, will do well to think of me as your healer and Cleitus as your confidant. We were both hired by Mr. Horton.”
At this, Cleitus crossed his arms and grunted, which elicited a laugh from Marie.
“At least I was,” she said. “My companion has his own reasons for being here. Which I’ll leave to him to explain.”
She walked over to Olvia and Elias and put a hand on both their shoulders. “Come, children. Let’s go to the kitchen and prepare these apples, while these two talk.”
With that, Marie shepherded the two out of the room, leaving Joshua and Cleitus alone. Cleitus was silent at first, opting to investigate the room for a few moments while ignoring Joshua. The injured boy watched as the large man ran his hands down the back of his bookshelf, tapped the walls in different places, and looked underneath every piece of furniture that he was able to. Then, after he was finished, he quickly strode over to the side of the bed and suddenly addressed Joshua.
“I’m going to ask you some questions, and I would appreciate it if , where applicable, you limit your responses to either a nod or shake. Understand?”
“Uh…” said Joshua before realizing what was being asked of him.
“From the books on your shelf and the papers on your desk, would I be right in assuming that you have some knowledge of our order?”
Joshua nodded slowly.
“Then you must recognize this?” said Cleitus, pointing to the lion on his chest. “You know what this marks me as?”
Joshua nodded, recognizing the symbol of a Paladin of the Circle.
“Then you know I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important.”
Cleitus leaned closer to Joshua and lowered his voice. “Do you know what attacked you in the forest?”
Joshua took a few moments to answer. “Mr. Horton said he thinks it might have been a wolf.”
“Well, Mr. Horton wasn’t there so he wouldn’t know, would he?” scoffed Cleitus. “Besides, wolves don’t make a habit of attacking human beings, especially this close to settlements.”
“No bears in these forests.”
“Then what, Mr. Cleitus?” said Joshua, throwing his hands up. “What was it that attacked me?”
“That’s what I’m here to find out,” said Cleitus, straightening up and fixing Joshua with a deep glare. “That’s why I need your help. You need to tell me everything you know about the attack so that I can find this creature and kill it.”
A soft knock interrupted their conversation, and Cleitus stepped away just as Marie poked her head into the room. “Have you boys finished up yet? I’d like to get a look at those injuries before we leave for the day.”
“Yes, I do believe we are finished,” said Cleitus in a more reserved tone. “At least for today..”
In long massive strides, he walked towards the door and held it open for Marie to enter.
“He’s all yours, Priestess,” said Cleitus, as he left the room.
As soon as the door closed behind him, Marie turned towards Joshua and smiled. Joshua responded by blushing and avoiding the woman’s gaze. He heard her walk over and felt her sit on the edge of his bed. He flinched as she reached over and began to pull the blanket from off of him.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll do my best not to hurt you.”
True to her word, her touch was soft and gentle as she lifted Joshua’s shirt and ran a slender finger all over his chest. While she examined him, Joshua tried his best to keep his face still, but whenever she put even the slightest pressure on one of his scars, he would wince and grunt.
“The lacerations themselves are mostly healing nicely,” she said, finishing up. “But the force of the attack also broke several of your ribs.”
“Am I going to be alright?”
“You’re going to be fine,” said Marie, reaching inside her cloak and pulling out a small vial. “I have a concoction of my own making, that should help your lacerations heal.”
“What about my ribs? Will it also heal them?”
Marie shook her head. “The only thing that will help your ribs heal is bed rest. Make sure not to bind your chest, or leave anything heavy on it, like a blanket.”
She uncorked the vial, from which a sickly sweet smell tickled Joshua’s nose, and began to lightly apply the substance to his chest. As she leaned over, her lengthy, black hair fell away from her face, allowing Joshua a good look. This was the first time he had been so close to a woman. The closeness made his cheeks redden.
“It must be nice to be so coveted,” said Marie, with a smirk.
“When I was downstairs, I told the little girl her presence might, uh, aggravate your condition. She then insisted on visiting you some other time. Of course, once your valiant saviour heard that, he also insisted on visiting you. So, if my math is right, you’ve got at least four guests to entertain.”
Marie stopped up her vial and rested her elbows on the bed. “Looks like you’re going to have your hands full.”
As Joshua bit into the plump apple, the juice ran down his face and through his fingers.
“Of course, I was a bit upset the old woman asked me to leave,” said Olivia, in a huff. “But that did allow me to exchange those apples for a breed that is better suited to someone with injuries. Apologies for not cutting up these as well.”
“It’s fine like this,” said Joshua, tearing off another piece of apple.
“I’m glad,” said Olivia, “These ones are bigger and softer. Easier to chew, you see? Unfortunately, they bruise easier, and their taste can be quite tart. Although, you don’t seem to mind.”
“Uh, huh,” said Joshua, with his mouth full. Truthfully, he thought the apples were a bit too sour, but lately, he had been particularly hungry. Although he had eaten not long before Olivia had shown up, he was already on his fourth apple. Letting the remains of his last apple fall into the plate on his lap, Joshua picked up another and sank his teeth into it. In his haste, he bit into the core but barely tasted it as he chewed. Instead, he was focused on the warm liquid running down his—
“Um, Joshua,” said Olivia, from where she stood next to the bookcase.
“You’re staring at me.”
Joshua realized, with a start, that he had been. Olivia was dressed in a silky white dress that went down past her knees, but as Joshua continued to stare, she reached down and slowly began tugging at the hem.
Joshua quickly looked away. “I’m sorry. I was just admiring your dress. It’s beautiful.”
Olivia blushed. “You don’t mean that. You’re just saying that.”
“I do mean it,” said Joshua as his eyes wandered back over to her. “And when Elias gets here, I’m sure he’ll say the same thing. Where is he, by the way? I thought you two would come together.”
Olivia scowled and stomped over to the window. “Even though I graciously offered, Elias declined to align his visit with mine. He cited some prior engagement that was obviously more significant than me.”
. . .
“She wasn’t mad, right?” said Elias as he helped Joshua walk around the room. “I mean, she seemed disappointed when I told her. But she wasn’t too sore, was she? She wasn’t upset?”
Joshua remembered how Olivia’s face would scrunch up in a scowl whenever he said Elias’s name. “No. Not too upset, I would imagine.”
“That’s good,” said Elias as they completed another lap. “Speaking of, you sure your doctor won’t be upset with you doing this?”
“No, she says it will help me heal. Keep my muscles healthy and prevent bed sores. Besides, I’m feeling much better. Look.”
Joshua pulled away and started walking by himself. His first few steps were unsteady, but soon he could keep a steady pace, and was even able to throw in a few exaggerated movements with equally exaggerated sound effects.
“You certainly seem peachier,” said Elias. “Though it does make me wonder why you asked me to help you around if you’re so proficient.”
“Truth be told,” said Joshua walking back over to Elias. “Until my ribs heal, I’m prohibited from having a blanket. It gets really cold at night, and that coat you’ve got on keeps the chill off.”
Elias puffed out his chest so that the large fur coat he was wearing was even more prominent. “Do you like it?”
The coat was obviously too big for him, and the thick hair all over the exterior went every which way, giving an image of extreme shabbiness overall. “It’s undoubtedly authentic, I’ll say that much. Where did you get it?”
Elias turned away. “I, uh, don’t think I should say. Mr. Horton was clear on that point. I shouldn’t talk about it with anyone.”
“I understand,” said Joshua as an itch ran across his chest and through his throat. “But Mr. Horton isn’t here now.”
Elias’s eyes bulged as he looked back at Joshua. “Uh, what?”
Joshua walked over to the bed and sat down. “Trust me, No one appreciates Mr. Horton more than me. But he’s not here right now. It’s just us talking. Two friends making conversation. Besides, what harm could it do?”
Elias rubbed his head. “You’re…you’re probably right. Maybe I can inform you of the present goings-on. That is, uh, if you can keep a secret.”
Using a finger to draw in the air, Joshua made the sign of a cross with a circle passing through its four ends. “I swear it.”
“Well… the reason I didn’t come here with Liv was that her dad had asked to meet with me. He thinks that the animal that has been tearing up his livestock for the last little while is the same one that attacked you in the forest. His deputies have been hiring every able-bodied man hand in the village, like yours truly, to form up a hunting party.”
Elias walked over to the open window and pointed towards a thick crop of trees just outside the boundaries of the village. “When the details are finalized, we’ll march into the forest through there and go on a hunt.”
“You seem ready now,” said Joshua. “What more could you want?”
Elias turned away from the window. “An idea about what exactly we’re dealing with.”
. . .
“I had been watching the sheep since morning,” said Joshua. “And just before I was supposed to head back for lunch, I saw someone out of the corner of my eye.”
This caused Cleitus, who was sitting on the edge of the desk, to perk up.
“At first, I thought that it was my replacement coming a bit early, but when I tried to get a better look, the person was gone.”
“Poacher?” asked Cleitus.
“That’s what I thought,” said Joshua. “So, I ran towards where I thought I saw them. It was near the edge of the property, where the wooden fence touches the forest. Just outside the fence, I could see broken branches and tracks leading deeper in.”
“And you decided to follow it?”
Joshua nodded. “I wanted to see if I could get a good look at him. But as I went deeper and deeper into the forest, the trail of disturbed foliage petered out.”
Cleitus tensed up. “Did you see the poacher?”
Joshua shook his head. “I didn’t see anything but the forest. I had been so intent on following the trail that I didn’t even notice how far I had gone until it was too late.”
Cleitus considered him for a moment. “Then what happened?”
“Then… I smelled something.”
“You smelled something?”
“Yeah, something really sweet,” said Joshua, reaching up with his left stump out of habit. “It caused my nose to itch.”
“And?” said Cleitus, somewhat impatiently.
“And that’s it. That’s all I remember. Next thing I know, Elias is kneeling over me.”
Cleitus considered Joshua very carefully.
“Maybe,” continued Joshua. “Maybe you can try and find this poacher. He was in the forest around the same time I was. He might have seen something.”
Cleitus stayed silent.
“Of course,” continued Joshua. “He’ll probably be hard to find because he doesn’t want to be found, but it’s worth looking—”
“Are you sure,” interrupted Cleitus. “that it was a person you saw?”
“What do you mean?” said Joshua. “Of course. Why do you ask?”
Cleitus got off the desk and slowly walked over to the bed. “How tall is the fence?”
Cleitus held a hand up to his broad chest. “You’re about this tall. Compared to that, how tall was the fence?”
Joshua closed his eyes and imagined the fence. “It’s, uh, a head taller than I am.”
“So, just under six feet,” mumbled Cleitus. “I see.”
“What is this all about Mr. Cleitus?”
“This thing you saw,” said Cleitus. “It was taller than the fence, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was.”
Cleitus put his hand against his chest again. “Think about what you saw. I’m going to raise my hand and you stop me when it reaches how tall this thing seemed to be, alright?”
Cleitus slowly moved his hand upward as Joshua intently observed. The boy’s eyes widened as the hand passed the man’s thick neck and continued on over his head, but still, the boy remained silent. It was only when the man, fully extending his arm, touched the ceiling did Joshua involuntarily let out a small gasp.
Cleitus swore, swung around on the heels of his feet, and walked out of the room.
On his way out, he didn’t bother to shut the door. Standing wide open, the door framed a small corridor that was engulfed in darkness.
. . .
The man stumbled around the forest with only a small lantern to keep the darkness at bay. He tried to stifle his desperate panting, but it was of no use. The monster was already there. It could hear his beating heart. It could smell the salt in his tears. It could see the fear in his eyes.
The monster made the smallest movement and the man was pinned under it. It enjoyed, for a time, the man’s anguished pleading before closing its jaws around the man’s head and applying pressure. The deafening snap was swallowed up by the tall trees.
Joshua awoke to a loud bang. Before his eyes could adjust to the early morning light, his father had dragged him out of bed and begun to measure him with a knotted rope. Joshua swallowed and opened his mouth to speak. “Hey—,”
His father nodded, finished his last measurement, walked out of the room and closed the door behind him.
As he considered what had just happened, Joshua noticed that there was a strange taste on his lips.
. . .
“I’m sorry for visiting so early, ” said Mr. Horton, from the doorway. “I hope I haven’t disturbed you.”
Joshua, suppressing his shock, waved his stump around his empty room. “No worries, sir. As you can see, I am not otherwise engaged.”
Mr. Horton nodded and walked in. “Do you mind if I open up a window?”
“Feel free. Just don’t let my mother see you. She worries enough that I’ll die of cold.”
The window was old and prone to sticking, and it was only with a great effort that Mr. Horton was able to open it.
Mopping his sweaty face with a handkerchief, Mr. Horton let out a sigh as he looked out over the village. “You know, from up here, it looks so peaceful.”
There was a twinge of sadness in his voice, and a heavy feeling began to grow in the pit of Joshua’s stomach. “Is there something wrong, sir?”
The well-dressed man stiffened and turned to look at Joshua. “Do you remember my deputy, George Miller?”
“The name seems familiar.”
“He was the one who hired you to watch my flock.”
The image of a frowning, tight-lipped man with glasses appeared in Joshua’s mind. “Yes, I think I do remember him. Did something happen?”
“No one’s seen him since last night.”
Joshua nervously licked his lips and found that there was still a hint of that strange taste on them. “Do you have any idea where he might be?”
Mr. Horton turned back to the window. “Cleitus and your healer have their suspicions.”
With a wave of his hand, he beckoned Joshua to stand beside me by the window. “There’s going to be a lot of movement outside this window for the next few days, along with a lot of gossip. I wanted you, at least, to know the truth.”
He pointed to the main path in and out of the village, where a group of men holding spears, swords, and pikes had gathered. “I’ve been assembling a group of hired swords and men from the village to take care of our mutual problem. However, finding George will be their new priority, at least for the time being.”
In the early morning light, the men’s weapons, at least to Joshua, seemed to gleam in a sinister way.
Mr. Horton rested a hand on Joshua’s shoulder. “Can I ask you a question, my boy?”
Joshua could feel Mr. Horton’s pulse through the skin of his hand. “Go ahead, sir.”
“Why did you accept the job of looking over my animals?” asked Mr. Horton, glancing at the papers strewn across the desk. “Forgive my saying it, but you don’t seem like the outdoorsy type.”
“That is exactly why I took the job,” said Joshua. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do things I was perhaps ill-suited to.”
Joshua walked over to his table and picked up some of the papers. On them were rough sketches of the map stuck to the wall. “I wanted to go to the capital and become an explorer for the circle. I wanted to go out there and brave thick wilderness and discover strange, new creatures.
Without realizing, Joshua had begun crushing the papers in his hand. “But I was so scared of everything. Scared of getting hurt, scared of animals, scared of the forest. I thought if I took that job, I could overcome those fears.”
Relaxing his hand, Joshua let the papers fall to the floor. “But in the end, it was all pointless. It’s over.”
“My boy,” said a voice laden with sadness. “It’s never over. Not while you’re still alive”
Joshua turned back towards Mr. Horton and gasped at the sight of him. His once broad shoulders were now stooped low. His bright eyes were cloudy and unfocused. And his once deep, commanding voice was now a light whisper. “I was born to two farmers who had only a shack and a rocky, unproductive field to call their own. My mother died during a particularly hard winter and my father wandered off one day when I was tending to our meagre crops.”
Taking a deep breath, the man managed to somewhat compose himself. “I don’t tell you this to devalue your own struggles. I tell you this because I know that there is no better arbiter to change than despair. You’ve lost a lot, but if you harness your loss and use it as motivation, you’d be surprised at what you can achieve.”
Mr. Horton straightened his suit and made for the door. Stopping just before the threshold, he looked back. “One more thing, young man. I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t pass on anything about this business to my daughter. It’s a distressing situation and I have a feeling that the worst is yet to come.”
. . .
Marie’s delicate balancing act of handling a tray laden with porridge, fruit, and a black concoction abruptly ended when she nudged open the door and found Joshua perched on the window sill. With the balls of his feet set squarely on the bottom, and his hand gripping the top, the rest of Joshua’s body was hanging outside the window. He turned when the tray crashed to the ground. Seeing his healer, he descended from his perch in a smooth motion and, keeping low like a stalking predator, he crawled to the colourful mess at her feet. Swirling a finger through the mixture, Joshua brought some of it to his tongue. He pondered the taste for a few moments before spitting it out and standing back up to his full height. Marie’s breaths were shallow and quick, and her face was fully flushed.
“Thank you, Marie,” said Joshua. “But that’s not it. That’s not what I want.”
The next couple of days were very strange for Joshua. Every night he would restlessly turn to and fro in bed. Every night sleep would elude him for hours. Every night the shadows consumed him and he would change. He would hear every breath taken in the village, he could see through the darkness, and he could feel the slightest change in the wind. During the night he was different, but during the day he entertained visitors. Cleitus, for one, relentlessly interrogated him day after day.
. . .
“Don’t let him get under your skin, my dear,” said Marie softly. “He’s upset that he hasn’t tracked down that beast in the forest, and he’s taking it out on you.”
. . .
Whenever his mother could find the time, she would visit his room and read to him. Usually a travel guide or an old, dilapidated history book from the very back of the bookshelf. Sometimes, she would read to him from a book of fairytales, like she had when he was younger.
. . .
“A lovely, caring woman. Whenever we meet, she questions me on your health in a way that would give even Cleitus pause. A tad overbearing, I think.”
. . .
Elias and Olivia would often come as a pair, greeting him almost as a formality before spending the rest of their visit talking to each other. Every so often, they would talk in whispers so that he couldn’t hear, then one of them would come over to him and ask for a favour. It was always the same favour and Joshua always agreed. The two would sneak off together and if anyone were to ask, he was to make something up. As it turned out, the only one that did ask was the one person that Joshua found himself unable to lie to.
. . .
“Is there anything more desirable or more tragic than love?”
. . .
Mr. Horton would stop by from time to time, and they’d talk for hours. The reason given was to keep Joshua informed on the hunt’s progress, but there was little information to share.
The large group of men would leave whooping and loudly beating their chests, perhaps hoping to drown out their fearful hearts, but they always came back in sullen silence. Sometimes, Marie and Cleitus would join in the search, but the only difference would be in the intensity of Cleitus’s questions the next day.
Comparatively, the talks with Mr. Horton were much more pleasant. His visits would start out very formal, but eventually, he would take off his hat, throw off his businessman mystique, and talk very plainly.
“Sometimes people ask me where Olivia’s mother is,” said Mr. Horton, during one such visit. “I tell them she died. I tell them that a rainy fall gave way to a cold winter which made her sick.”
Mr. Horton was sitting on the bed with his hat in his lap.
“But that was a lie,” he said. “She ran off with some man that I worked with sometimes. I didn’t have that much at the time, but what I did have they took, including Olivia. When I found out, I grabbed a gun and a horse and went after them.”
He looked at Joshua with narrow and unfocused eyes. It was as if he wasn’t there anymore, but instead back on that horse looking for his wife and child.
“I found Olivia’s mother first,” said Mr. Horton, in a very flat voice. “He’d taken her clothes and her jewelry, and left the body in a ditch by the road. When I saw that, I damn near killed the horse I was riding. But it was worth it, cause I caught up to them at around nightfall. The next day when men from the village caught up, I told them that he made me do it. That he had drawn first.”
Mr. Horton suddenly stood up. “But that was a lie. He was unarmed and unnerved, but I killed him just the same. He stole my daughter. He had his hands up but I shot him like—-”
As if overcome by a sudden realization, Mr. Horton cut himself off, straightened his clothes, and left the room without another word.
Joshua had to admit, he sometimes felt a certain tension whenever Mr. Horton visited. Strange as it was, Joshua had a feeling that Mr. Horton was suspicious of him.
. . .
“Suspicious of you?” asked Marie, stopping back up one of her vials and returning it to her bag. “What on earth would he be suspicious about?”
“You know,” said Joshua, wiping a bit of leftover concoction from the sides of his lips. “The visions and cravings that I get. As well as the… the thing that happens at night.”
Marie took Joshua’s hand in her own. “My dear, I’ve already told you. You’ve been in a very traumatic situation and your mind is still trying to make sense of it. It’s only natural you would be confused and see things that aren’t there.”
Joshua wasn’t so sure. How could such vivid experiences be mere imagination?
“Trust me, dear,” said Marie, as if reading his mind. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
Something was brewing, thought Joshua. Through his open window, he had a clear view of the path leading out of the village, where, since first light, a group had been gathering.
Joshua hadn’t slept. The sounds of the sleeping village had been too loud. Even with a pillow crammed against his ears and a wooden floor between them, Joshua could hear his parents snores as if they came from inside his own head. He also found that if he concentrated he could hear the beating hearts, steady breathing, and restless shiftings of every person in the village.
Right now, he was concentrating on the slowly growing group of men as they gossiped, jeered, and told jokes. From their talk, he gathered that there was an upcoming hunt. One built on sturdier premises. They’d come up with nothing before, but today they expected to confront the creature and triumph over it. All that was left was to wait for everyone to arrive.
“Speaking of,” said one of the men. “Where’s Horton and those two hires from the circle?”
“I don’t know about the giant,” replied another. “But I remember seeing the robed woman talking with Mr. Horton. They’ll probably show up when they’re finished.”
“They should hurry up or else they’ll miss all the…”
The sound of a creaky door opening broke Joshua’s concentration. Someone had entered his house and was slowly walking towards him. The footsteps were heavy, too heavy to be anyone else. But why was he here? Shouldn’t he be with the men? Shouldn’t he be hunting the monster?
“What are you doing here, Cleitus?” said Joshua, when the footsteps were just outside his door.
Without answering, Cleitus opened the door and stepped inside the room. His hand rested on the pommel of his sword and his eyes quickly scanned the room before settling on Joshua.
“I came to see you, Joshua,” said Cleitus, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “You’re looking well.”
Fear bubbled up inside Joshua. A deep dread that put a lump in his throat and a shake in his knees. But alongside the fear was a flicker of emotion that Joshua couldn’t place.
“What’s it been?” continued Cleitus. “Two weeks since the incident? The incident that lost you your arm and broke your ribs. I knew a man twice your size that suffered half of what you did. It took half a year for him to recover and even then he needed assistance to walk.”
“What can I say?” said Joshua. “I had a fantastic healer.”
Cleitus frowned and took a few steps towards Joshua. His hand was still on his sword. “Quite a disrespectful tongue for someone usually so timid.”
The strange emotion from before flickered through Joshua once again. “Why are you here?”
“Like I said, I’m here to see you.”
“Well, now you’ve seen me.”
With speed and grace uncommon to one so large, Cleitus closed the distance between them, grabbed Joshua by the throat, and smashed him into the wall.
Joshua screamed and clawed fruitlessly at Cleitus’s arm. “Let me go! Please, let me go!”
“I was a fool not to see it,” said Cleitus. “I thought you were an ignorant sheep.”
As Joshua struggled, the strange emotion flared up inside of him.
“But you’re no sheep, are you boy?”
The emotion was now burning inside Joshua. Burning away his doubts, and burning away his fear. Only then was he able to recognize the emotion as hate. Joshua’s hand darted to the fingers around his neck and began to peel them away with a surprising burst of strength. “Let me go. NOW!”
Cleitus’s eyes bulged at this newfound strength. As the young man’s struggling became more effective, Cleitus’s grip on his sword tightened.
“STOP!” shouted a voice from behind them.
Startled, Cleitus dropped Joshua like a thief caught with his wares. He spun around and stiffened at the sight of the interloper.
“At any other time, I would demand an explanation for why you were victimizing my ward,” said Marie, as she bared her teeth and glared at Cleitus. “But luckily for you, circumstances are dire. It’s time for us to go, paladin. They’ve found the beast.”
Cleitus’s face went pale and his eyes darted to where Joshua was crumpled on the floor. “But… I thought—”
“Be quiet,” snarled Marie. “You’ve wasted enough of everyone’s time. Wait outside for me. I won’t be long.”
Cleitus, at first, tried to stand defiant and mumble an objection, but in the end, he wilted under Marie’s steady gaze. Without a word, he shuffled past her and stomped outside.
Joshua, still on the floor, massaged his throat as the large man left. With a few quick steps, Marie was beside him helping him to his feet. Before he could say anything, she shushed him and placed an uncorked vial in his hand. “Don’t worry, dear. Soon this will all be over.”
Then she gave him a peck on the lips, and as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone again. The concoction she left behind was a different colour than the ones before, and it smelled even worse. But Joshua drank it anyway, emptying the vial in a single large gulp.
. . .
Joshua didn’t remember falling asleep. All he remembered was forcing the disgusting liquid down his throat and the next thing he knew, he was being shaken awake.
“Oh god, please wake up, Joshua. Please, please, please wake up.”
Joshua opened his eyes and looked around. The light coming in from the windows had changed from the bright early morning light to the cool rays of dusk. He must have been asleep for hours. Then, as his eyes focused a bit more, he recognized the person standing over him.
“What are you doing here, Elias?” said Joshua, groggily. “Shouldn’t you be with the men hunting down the monster?”
“Oh, Joshua,” said Elias. There were tears streaking down his cheeks and he spoke in between halting gasps. “Joshua, you have to help me.”
Out of habit, Joshua reached out to the crying young man with his mutilated arm and was surprised to find that there was now weight at the end of it. A metal prosthetic had been attached to the remnants of his left arm. With a flexing effort, he found that he could make the thin metal tabs at the end close and open like the fingers they were fashioned to replace. The whole thing was heavy, slow, and very unnatural to operate. Still, it instilled a feeling of breathless joy in Joshua.
“I didn’t think my father would be able to do it,” said Joshua. “I didn’t think he was even really trying.”
“Joshua, please,” begged Elias. “You have to listen. He could be here any minute.”
Joshua was finding it very difficult to focus on Elias’s words. He must have been asleep for hours, but it felt like at any minute he would pass out again. “You’re my friend, Elias. Of course, I’ll help you. But I might not be able to. I… don’t think I’m well yet.”
“We told you, Joshua,” said Elias. “We told you to cover for us. We both did. Olivia did too, remember? Olivia wanted to go, right?”
“Of course. ” Joshua tried to rub the fatigue out of his eyes but to no avail. His metal arm scratched his face but Joshua barely felt it. “I was so jealous of you, Elias. But you saved my life and I never thanked you properly. I never thanked Mr. Horton, properly either. Is that it, Elias? Did Mr. Horton find out?”
At the mention of Mr. Horton, Elias’s lips began to tremble. He knelt down and grabbed Joshua’s shoulders. “Olivia… Olivia was hurt in a very bad way. And Mr. Horton thinks… he thinks I…”
Elias started crying again.
“You told us once that you two were close,” Elias managed to get out. “You’ll talk to him, won’t you? Tell him I would never hurt Liv. You’ll help me, won’t you?”
Joshua didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer. Fatigue had been building up all this time and it was all he could do to keep his eyes open. If he could talk, he would tell Elias that of course, he would help. He would say how thankful he was that Elias had found him in the forest that day. He would say how grateful he was for another chance. But most of all, if he could talk, he would tell Elias that someone else was in the house with them.
Elias didn’t hear the person approach, but he heard the door to the room open, and instinctively knew who it was. He jumped up in surprise and held his arms out in front of him. “Mr. Horton, wait—”
The shot assaulted all of Joshua’s senses. The loud bang deafened him, the acrid smoke irritated his nose, the muzzle flash blinded him, and the shockwave, though small, was felt by every nerve in his body. Joshua didn’t see Elias get hit, but he felt a warm splash against his face and heard a heavy thud beside him.
A minute passed before Joshua’s senses started to return to normal, and by that time Mr. Horton had left the house, and according to what Joshua could hear, and walked over to a large group of people. Mr. Horton then, in very plain terms, describes what he just did. Most of the group sound confused, but one of the men gives a pitiable moan and begins threatening to shoot Mr. Horton. From the resulting shouts and yells, Joshua figures that the man is Elias’s father.
“You don’t understand,” said Mr. Horton, flatly. “He made me do it.”
Another shot rang out. Another thud. Then the world outside Joshua’s room degenerated into one of shouting, shooting and crying. Soon, it became impossible for Joshua to make anything out in the sea of noise, and his attention was diverted back to his immediate condition.
While he had been concentrating, Elias’s blood had dripped down his face, over his lips, and into his mouth. With the sweet taste, came a familiar warm feeling that spread throughout his body. Joshua relaxed and allowed the numbness he had been fighting to overtake him.
The silence was what woke Joshua up. He jerked himself awake and began to rub his ears, suspecting that they were blocked. That must be it, he thought, that’s why he couldn’t hear anyone.
As he stood up, Joshua noticed that although a thick pool of blood remained, Elias’s body was gone. Shaking a naive hope of Elias’s survival out of his head, Joshua once again concentrated. He could hear the chirping of the crickets, the scampering of the woodland animals, the sound of birds taking off after them, but he couldn’t hear a single person.
Joshua’s nose twitched and he gave the air in his room an inquisitive sniff. The hairs on the back of his neck were raised and he flexed the muscles in his remaining arm. The creature had been here. Right here, while he had been unconscious. It had done something, but Joshua didn’t know what. For some reason, his nose was now more sensitive. Maybe if I focus, he thought, like with my hearing…
Joshua took a deep sniff trying to pick out traces of the creature. He moved around as he did so, taking care to avoid where Elias had been shot. The bookcase? No, too faint. The table? No, but the scent was a bit stronger there. Perhaps the wall?
Joshua walked over to the wall behind the desk and examined the map that hung there. A red dot had been put roughly where the village was, with a small red trail leading off from it. A quick sniff told Joshua that the red marks had been made with blood. The creature’s blood.
The red mark followed the small path out of the village, but then detoured deep into the forest. Right around where Joshua had been found by Elias and Olivia. Joshua’s jaw tightened at the thought, and he glanced at the blood splatter by the window for a moment before quickly looking away.
The mark on the map seemed quite a ways away, but that was okay with Joshua. He was feeling much better. Walking over to the window, he easily wrenched it open and jumped out. Landing on his feet, he took a moment to look around.
It had become night while he had been sleeping, but the skies were clear of clouds and the moon was out in full, illuminating the village. The scent of gunpowder and blood hung in the air, but outside of blood splatters and spent cartridges, there was no sign of anyone. Not a scent of a corpse nor the sound of breathing or heartbeats. It was like they had all been taken somewhere. Where? Joshua didn’t know. But he knew where to find something that did.
. . .
The world around Joshua was a blur. The wind lapped at him as he ran, but he barely felt it. Rocks and sticks were crushed underfoot, but they didn’t slow him down. That night, he moved as he had never done before.
Joshua slowed down as he neared the almost invisible path that led to the clearing where he was found. As he passed, he gave the entrance a sad glance, before speeding back up and continuing on.
When he reached about where the blood trail had directed him to, he sprang off the path and into the surrounding forest. Branches and leaves whipped past him as he hurried along. It was harder to move here than it had been on the path, but Joshua was getting the hang of it. Then, he heard something that stopped in his tracks. Short, pained breaths that were occasionally interrupted by coughs.
The sounds were coming from behind a tree, and as Joshua approached it, his nostrils were assaulted by a terrible stench. The smell of blood mixed with a rancid odour, like diseased meat. The wheezing quickened when Joshua got closer but relaxed somewhat when Joshua rounded the tree and exposed himself.
Laying there, in a pool of his own blood, was Cleitus. One of his arms was bent at an unnatural angle, while the other had long gashes running down the side. His tunic hung haphazardly from its last surviving strap, revealing an extremely lacerated chest. His stomach had been ripped open, and his intestines were draped down over his legs. A long claw mark ran from the top of his head, through one of his eyes and down across his throat.
The surviving eye widened at the sight of Joshua.
The last time they were together Joshua had been filled with rage at the paladin. But now, seeing him in such a state was causing a lump to form in Joshua’s throat. Kneeling down, Joshua used his artificial arm to place Cleitus’s head in his lap. Then, not sure of what to do, Joshua began running his real hand through the paladin’s hair, like his mother had done when he was younger. When Cleitus’s breathing changed, Joshua was scared that he had somehow hurt the paladin. But a closer look revealed that Cleitus had started crying when he saw what Joshua was trying to do.
“I want to help you, Mr. Cleitus,” said Joshua, in a hitched voice. “But I don’t know how.”
With the trembling remains of his unbroken arm, Cleitus tapped his waist, where his sword was still in its scabbard. Joshua immediately understood what the paladin was asking of him.
Taking a deep breath, Joshua reached down and unsheathed the weapon in a smooth motion. Cleitus, at first, stared at Joshua as he easily handled the weapon’s heft, but then at his hushed request, the paladin closed his eyes and tilted his chip up.
Don’t think too hard, thought Joshua, as he brought the blade in close. Do it quickly. Like the workers do with the pigs. Don’t think too hard. Don’t think at all.
The sword was sharp and Joshua’s movements were swift. There was a quick gurgle and the large paladin went limp in Joshua’s hands. For a few moments after, Joshua was tempted to do the same to his own throat.
He was still considering that course of action when he noticed a trail of blood leading from under Cleitus towards the interior of the forest.
Summoning up some of his previous convictions, Joshua gently laid Cleitus’s head down on the ground and stood up. After taking one last look at Cleitus, Joshua began following the trail, sword in hand.
As he walked forward as the trail beside him began to thin, the hairs on Joshua’s body began to stand up. He wasn’t sure why, but a sense of danger pervaded the area up ahead. In the distance was a small opening that seemed to lead into a clearing. Holding up the sword, Joshua crept towards it. When he was near the opening, he jumped out with the sword held high. What he saw stopped him in his tracks.
Taking up most of the clearing was a lake almost as large as the entire village. In the moonlight, the water’s pristine surface acted as a reflection of the world above it. The banks of the lake were made up of rocks that ranged from large boulders to small pebbles, each with a healthy coating of moss. Near one of these banks, washing herself in the clear water, was a naked woman.
Mouth agape, Joshua stared at the woman, unable to wrap his mind around what he was seeing.
“I don’t understand,” he said, finally. “What’s going on?”
“I’m doing what you should be doing, dear,” said Marie. “I’m cleaning up.”
Making no effort to cover herself, she strode out of the water and up to Joshua. As she approached, Joshua noticed that scars, similar to his own, ran across her chest. When she reached him, Marie took a moment to examine Joshua’s ruined clothes.
“Those clothes wouldn’t get clean if we washed them for an entire week,” said Marie. “We’d be better off getting you new ones, don’t you think?”
Joshua shook his head vigorously. “Marie, you have to tell me why you… how you… I mean, It was you, all this time.”
“Yes,” said Marie. “All this time.”
Taking him by his empty metal hand, Marie began pulling Joshua towards the lake. Try as he might, Joshua couldn’t summon the will to stop her. Even though he knew she was responsible for what happened to him, all he could see when he looked at her now was the woman that had nursed him day after day. Reaching the water, they waded into the lake until the level was up to Joshua’s knees, and then Marie pulled him down into the water.
The sudden cold caused Joshua to gasp, while Marie seemed unbothered.
“The day you followed me into the forest, I was planning on killing you,” she said. “I was going to rip your throat out. But at the last second, you used your arm to block me.”
Joshua’s nose twitched at the memory. “Why didn’t you finish me off?”
Marie smiled. “How old do you think I am, dear?”
Even considering the situation, the way Marie had asked the question caused Joshua’s face to become red. “Uh, around fifty?”
“That’s flattering, dear, but incorrect. When I was a young woman, I was attacked in much the same manner as you were. That was about a hundred years ago.”
Joshua gasped and his eyes examined her face for any hint of falsehood.
Marie continued. “I woke up after, naked and bloody. I managed to make my way back to my parents, but I was little more than a corpse for an entire month. In that month, my wounds would ooze pus and blood, and I would cry throughout the night because I was in too much pain to sleep. Every day I would pray that I would fall asleep one night and never wake up.”
While she had been talking, a deep scowl had begun to form on Marie’s face, but as she continued, a smile began to creep back in. “Obviously, that didn’t happen. Instead, one day I woke up with the taste of blood in my mouth and the bodies of my parents at my feet. As I stood there looking over them, all I could think about was how great I felt.”
Marie’s face became more animated. “Not only was my pain gone, but I was also experiencing the world in new ways. It was like I had been living my life imprisoned in my own body and now I was free. I had to flee of course, because of what happened with my parents, and the next few weeks I spent as a homeless vagrant.”
For a second, Marie’s eyes became hard and she bared her teeth, which seemed just a bit larger than usual, but then the second passes and her face relaxes. “The only good thing that happened to me during that time was when a priest found me and brought me to the Circle. Thinking me a regular beggar, they decided to educate and train me in their ways. It was there that I learned that I was no longer human. That I was now something more. I was stronger, faster, and more resilient than any other creature, and the only downside was an ‘urge’ that I needed to sate every once in a while. After I graduated from the circle, sating my urges became so much easier. As a priestess, I could go anywhere and do anything without being questioned. But as the years went on, what once thrilled me soon became unsatisfying. I had everything that I had dreamed about on my worst days on the street, but inside, a hole had begun to grow that I just didn’t know how to fill.”
Marie looked at Joshua, and it seemed to him that her skin began to take on a radiant glow. “That is until I saw you bleeding under me, looking so much like I did a hundred years ago. I knew then that I had to turn you like I was turned. Because that’s what I was missing, see? Companionship. Someone to consort with for the rest of my days. So you see, this is what everything was for, what everything was leading to. The two of us being together.”
As Marie finished speaking, Joshua sat for a few seconds in dazed silence and when he eventually did speak, he did so in a halting but forceful voice. “Us together? Are you out of your mind? You tried to kill me. You tore my arm off and broke my ribs. You tortured Cleitus. If you weren’t there, then maybe I could have helped Elias…”
Just then, a realization dawned on Joshua. “Was it you? Did you lie to Mr. Horton about Elias and Olivia?”
“I didn’t lie,” said Marie. “Olivia had been found brutalized in a barn or someplace, and when the old man sought my counsel, I mentioned that I had seen her whoring around with that farmer boy. How was I to know that he would react that way?”
Joshua began to feel lightheaded and he began crawling backwards away from. “Oh God, it was you all this time. You’ve ruined my life.”
Marie stood up and smiled at Joshua as if he was an ignorant child.“Don’t be dramatic, dear. Yes, I’ve taken much from you, but look at what I’ve given in return. I’ve taken your humanity but made you something so much better. I’ve taken your friends but offered all of me in return. When you were injured, I would sneak in and feed you blood and medicine to save you the pain that came with transforming. Even that arm of yours. Yes, Horton provided the materials, and your father designed and crafted the thing, but it was I who installed it correctly.”
Joshua waved the sword in front of him as he continued to back away. “Don’t come any closer. Stay back. I mean it, stop. If you don’t stop, I’ll—”
“You’ll what?” said Marie. “You’ll kill me with that sword? You can try if you like, but just so you know, Cleitus was trained since he was a babe to wield weapons of war, and he didn’t stand a chance…”
Marie looked upwards at the full moon, which seemed to be looking back down on the two of them. “… especially on a night like this.”
Joshua tried to get to his feet but kept slipping on the mossy rocks that laid just underneath the shallow water. “Where’s the rest? What did you do with them?”
Marie frowned and cocked her head to the side. “Huh?”
“My parents, along with everyone else. Where did they go? I didn’t smell any corpses, so I know you didn’t kill them. Where are they?”
Marie considered the question for several moments, before finally sighing. “Whatever happens, sooner or later people will be sent to investigate what happened here.”
For a reason he couldn’t quite understand, Joshua’s hands began to shake.
“With someone as prominent as Horton involved they’ll probably even send experts from the circle.”
Joshua’s vision became cloudy and his breaths became laboured.
“I thought it best that there be no witnesses for them to speak to.”
The sword tumbled out of Joshua’s loosened grasp and splashed into the shallow part of the lake.
“I also thought it wise to leave no trace, so I used a mixture I learned of at the circle to mask the smell.”
Joshua’s eyes burned and he felt like he was being suffocated.
“I’ve got them neatly packed away already, but if you insist,” said Marie. “If you really insist on knowing, I left them all in the clearing where you were found.”
Joshua collapsed to his knees, screaming with tears streaming down his face. Every emotion he had pushed down or ignored came bubbling out in an exclamation that surprised even Marie with its intensity. Joshua didn’t know how long he sat there bawling, but when it finally abated, Marie was staring at him with a steely expression.
“I don’t suppose that will be the end of it?”
“Leave me alone.”
“You are alone, Joshua,” said Marie. “And if you don’t let me help you, you’ll die alone. Without me, you’ll be dead within a week. Either by the hands of a paladin or a mob of peasants after they find you eating one of their horses. Trust me, you’re not ready for what the world has in store for people like us. I can take care of you, I can show you things that you won’t believe. You may have gotten a taste of what it means to be more than human, but that’s all it was. A taste. I can show you the full extent of your new life, along with the new abilities that you can wield. I can protect and let you experience things that regular men can only dream of. All you need to do is accept the situation. Accept it, and accept me.”
Joshua was tired. His eyes stung, his head hurt, and his stomach was beginning to gurgle. He glanced at the submerged sword and then looked quickly the woman just a few feet away. Her eyes met his, and then as if anticipating what he would do, she licked her lips in excitement. Joshua knew that if he picked up the sword then Marie would quickly overpower him. She no longer resembled anything human, tonight she was something more primal and vicious. Ideas raced through Joshua’s head, and each one was dismissed for being more ludicrous than the last. Finally, Joshua decided on the only path left open for him and stopped thinking altogether.
“Alright,” said Joshua. “Let’s try it.”
As Joshua walked towards her, Marie opened her arms to embrace him, beaming all the while.
. . .
As he saw the horse gallop towards him, the man in the heavy armour felt a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. He had told the men to report back if they had made any discoveries at the place his squire had mentioned, but he had a feeling that any discovery would only add to the mystery surrounding this strange village.
“Message for you, Lord Gabriel,” said the horseman, as he reigned in his steed. “The men found two people off the main path.”
“Survivors?” asked the paladin.
The messenger shook his head. “Bodies. The priest is looking them over now. Said to send for you immediately.”
Gabriel nodded and told the man to wait. Cupping his mouth with his hands, he called out for his squire. With only a slight delay, his squire soon sprinted out of a house he had been searching and presented himself to the paladin with a stiff salute.
“Did you find anything, Isaac?” said Gabriel.
“No sir,” said the young man. “Some of the windows and doors to the houses were broken down, but no bodies.”
“Do you think it might have been bandits?”
Isaac shook his head. “The animals are still here and some of the houses had money and tools left laying out in the open.”
Isaac was doing his best to present an image of calm professionalism, but a vigorous shaking of his foot revealed to Gabriel how anxious he was. Gabriel hated that he had to add to the young boy’s stress, but they both had a job to do.
“Two bodies were found in the place you mentioned,” said Gabriel. “Saddle up and follow along. We might need you to identify them.”
A look of abject fear flashed across Isaac’s face, but to the boy’s credit, he steeled himself quickly and went off to fetch the horses.
As they gallowed down the path, Gabriel felt slightly apprehensive about the tall, thick woods on either side. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was lurking just out of sight, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. To take their minds off the present situation, Gabriel turned and addressed Isaac.
“How long has it been since you were last here, Isaac?”
“About two years, sir.”
“That’s quite a while to hang on to the memory of this place we’re going to.”
“It… was a very special place, sir. I used to go there all the time with my younger brother. The day I left for the Circle, we went there, and he made me promise that… that I would come back one day.”
Isaac looked down to hide the tears that were beginning to well up in his eyes.
“We’ll find him,” said Gabriel. “Keep a good head on your shoulders and we’ll find him.”
Reaching their destination, they dismounted, tied up their horses, and then followed the messenger as he led them off the path and into the woods. After a short but arduous trek, they came upon a robed, old man with a staff flanked on either side by two men wielding spears. At their feet was one of the bodies.
“Heard you turned up some unknowns, Oliver,” said Gabriel, to the old man. “I’ve brought Isaac to see if he can identify either of them.”
“That’s not needed for this one, Gabriel,” said Oliver, tapping the end of his staff on the tattered remains of the corpse’s tunic. “This one was a member of our order.”
Hearing this, Gabriel directed Isaac to go with the two men and examine the other cadaver.
As they trudged off, Oliver continued. “Despite the extensive injuries, it seems he died from having the arteries in his neck severed.”
“Someone slit his throat?” said Gabriel, kneeling down to examine the mutilated body. “Any chance that he did this himself?”
“Neither arm is uninjured enough to have carried out the task. Besides, if that was the case, the weapon he used would still be in his hands. As you can see, his sword is missing.”
“So you think it was a murder?”
“That’s the strangest part,” said Oliver, pointing the staff at the dead paladin’s arms and torn open stomach. “Whatever did this was clearly much stronger than the deceased, but it seems like they deliberately didn’t finish the job. Take that gutted stomach, for instance. It would be agony, yes, but a person could survive that for hours. I’ve never seen a murder like this. The closest thing I can relate this to is wild animals playing with their food.”
Gabriel internally moaned as his worries were validated. Every new thing learned seemed to be drawing him deeper and deeper into some twisted mystery. “I don’t suppose you found out anything else that might be useful?”
“From him? No. From the other one? Yes… and no.”
“What do you mean?”
“By ‘yes’, I mean I found this one’s sword with the other’s one body. That’s probably what was used to slit his throat.”
“And what did you mean by ‘no’?”
“That’s better seen for yourself,” said Oliver, turning to follow the path taken by Isaac. After a bit of walking, Gabriel was amazed when they emerged into a clearing with a large lake. Isaac hadn’t been exaggerating when he said that many areas around the village had not been mapped. Looking around, he noticed his squire by the shore, staring intently at the other body.
“As far as I know, It’s not anyone from the village, sir,” said Isaac, when they approached him. “But it’s terrible all the same. What kind of monster would do this?”
Gabriel wasn’t sure he wanted to find out. “Oliver?”
The old man cleared his throat. “I’m afraid that this is more guesswork than objective fact. But, based on the lack of defensive wounds or blood and skin under the fingernails, it seems this woman was approached by someone she trusted. When this person was very close to the victim, they lunged and tore out the deceased’s throat with their teeth. This caused the victim to fall backwards, after which the attacker used the paladin’s sword to pierce her heart. And to top that all off, he must have done all of this while carrying a large tool of some sort.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because that’s the only reasonable way for a single person to generate enough force to thrust a sword through the chest bone over the human heart.”
Gabriel’s eyes widened. “Are you serious?”
“Gabriel, the sword came out the back of the victim and embedded itself in the lake bed.”
The armoured paladin considered everything he had been told and tried to find a way to fit all the disparate pieces together. When that failed, he decided that more information needed to be gathered.
“Isaac, take the two spearmen with you and begin searching all around the shores of this lake. See if you can spot anything out of the ordinary.”
Gabriel then turned to the wizened priest. “Oliver, please go back to the messenger and tell him to bring all the men we have searching the barns and houses back here. Tell them to bring the hounds as well. They’ve been useless thus far, but maybe they can pick up a scent from these two bodies.”
The two nodded and proceeded to carry out their respective orders. “Fall in, you two. We’re going to sweep the beach in a single file. I’ll watch our front, second in line watches left, and the last watches the right. Keep an eye out for anything strange and whatever you do, don’t go wandering off. I grew up around these woods, I know these woods and let me tell you, there’s evil in them. Alright, let’s go.”
As Oliver walked back towards the messenger and Isaac led the two men out of sight, Gabriel only then realized that he was completely alone. Try as he might, he couldn’t calm himself down, and even with his heavy armour and longsword, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was dangerously exposed.
Gabriel suddenly turned on his heels and peered into the nearby forest. And for a brief moment, it looked like two piercing yellow eyes were looking back.