Project: Bestiary

Chapter: 1

After the fall, man was confronted with the rise of a new breed of creatures: monsters. Although he knew instinctively what monsters were, he never tried to define them.

A monster is any creature that seeks to harm or destroy humans, physically or mentally. A monster may be natural in origin—and therefore a beast—or it may be magical, making it a demon. It is the will to hurt that makes a monster out of a creature, and many animals that primitive man called monsters turned out to be nothing of the sort. There are tales in the northern villages of a Behemoth that was tamed and taught to carry supplies, just as there are tales among the easterners of fanged men who destroy crops and carry off women. It is intent, not species, that makes a monster.

Darius stumbled through the swamp, one hand clutching his side. A falchion hung in a battered sheathe at his waist, and his clothes were stained with mud and sweat. Night had fallen an hour ago, spiriting away the last of the light. Only the glow of drifting wisps lit the mire.

In the darkness behind his back, two points of light burned a dull red. They were pinpricks in the black, piercing the fog that rolled over the water. Darius could feel them through the tears in his shirt, warming his skin. If he turned around they would withdraw, hovering just out of sight. They were waiting for him to tire, to drop his guard. They didn't have much longer to wait.

His long legs churning the water, Darius stumbled onward. Roots and leaves and slimy, clinging things passed underfoot. He paid them no mind. When something scaly brushed his leg he came to an involuntary halt, shivering. One hand dropped from his side to the hilt of the falchion, and a faint red splotch began to bloom from the area it had left.

Wearily, one hand clutching the hilt, Darius edged forward. A ripple passed through the still surface of the marsh, and then a shape erupted from the surface. Brackish spray flew over his face as fins and scales and gnashing teeth tore at the air. There was a metal snick as the falchion left its sheathe. A livid gash sprouted from the thing's stomach and it dropped back into the water with a whine. Red bubbles drifted to the surface as it swam away.

He didn't bother to wipe the blade clean. Drawing a ragged breath, Darius jammed the blade back home and lurched off into the night. His hand was back at his side, staunching the flow of blood. Were he to stop, panting in the middle of the swamp, a little more of his life would drip between his fingers. The fluid would call to the other denizens of the swamp, and if they arrived he would be in no condition to deal with the creature behind him. The bearer of the glowing eyes.

Without warning, the water level began to drop. Mud squelched under his feet, instead of the debris that carpeted most of the swamp. There were writhing things in the mud, and they snuck into the gaps between sandals and feet. Darius bit his lip and staggered onward, feeling the ground grow more solid beneath him. In a few moments, the sluggish water of the swamp had been replaced by the withered grass of a moor.

The moon hung high overhead, partially screened by wisps of cloud. The fraction of her light that did shine through coated the earth with a silvery sheen. Darius heaved a deep breath and forced himself onward. His exhaustion made everything seem more real, more solid despite the half-light. A poet might have used words like unearthly and pall to describe it, but Darius knew that he was near death. Death only makes poets out of those far from it.

Soaked wooden sandals slapped the ground, tearing chunks with each desperate step. Sopping pants legs flopped against one another, scraping on skin. The belt on which the falchion hung was now unbearably heavy, a burning weight pulling at his side. To stop and unbuckle it now, though, meant that he might never start running again. A low, cool howl drifted over the moor, and Darius slipped a sigh in between ragged breaths.

Motion registered in the corner of one eye. He caught a glimpse of dusky, gray fur before whatever it was vanished back into the blackness. Almost immediately, there was another flicker of movement on his other side. Pearly fangs showed in the moonlight. He stumbled to a stop. Maybe it was better to make a last stand here, ripped apart by predators, than await the slow approach of the eyes. It would be quicker, at least, and he wouldn't care about it a few moments later. In front of him, now, something bristled and stepped out of the shadows. It was spread out of all fours, like a wolf, and its pelt was ragged and torn. Tufts of fur were missing in patches, and uneven teeth jutted out from behind drawn lips.

If there's one in front, there are probably three behind. Darius jerked the falchion from its scabbard and charged. The wolf responded by sidling out of the way, letting the half-dead man blunder past it. Drops of red detached from his shirt and sprinkled themselves on the moor as he spun around, holding the weapon with both hands and gasping. Two flickers of red hung in the air in front of him for a second, before suddenly disappearing.

Chest heaving, Darius turned back around. Still holding the falchion, he started forward. His legs felt like taffy: thin, ropy strands that had been pulled too far. They were still holding together, somehow, but the slightest bit of pressure could cause them to snap. He ignored them.

In the near distance, a light exploded into being. Too strong for a wisp, it could only be a fire. Or an illusion, wrought by his tired mind. He didn't care. Empty sheathe bouncing off his leg, he ran. The iron blade in his hands was dead weight, but he clasped it against his chest like a doll. It had seen him through so much already, and if he collapsed before reaching the light he could at least make sure that it was pointed up.

Another howl split the night, and the heat from the eyes on his back grew stronger. A ragged shape exploded from the darkness at his left and he swung at it. Metal crunched against bone, and it retreated into the night with a whimper. The force of the blow spun him, and it took a second to regain his balance. As soon as he had it, he pelted off again into the night.

The light on the horizon was rising, burning into focus. Beneath it climbed massive granite walls, run through with little veins of black. There was a giant metal gate, too, and stone towers on either side of it. A signal fire was burning in one.

A hollow, clapping sound echoed up from the earth, and Darius glanced down. He was running across stone tiles. Ahead, the gate was creaking open, fifty paces away. The darkness on either side of him gleamed white with teeth, and he took a frantic swing to discourage them. The momentum was stronger than he expected, and his feet faltered. The tip of one sandal caught in a gap between stones and he went down. The breath was smacked out of him with a wheeze.

He could feel warm, fetid breath at one ear, and something wet was tricking down one side of his head. Despite the warm, spring air, everything was growing cold. Cold and dark. It must be winter soon. There could be snow, then. Beautiful, beautiful snow.

On the edge of his vision, he could see white robes running towards him. Robes with men in them. One of them was waving his hands and shouting something purple. It smelled like panic. Why was everyone so upset?