Before the fall, man was lord of the beasts. He tamed and befriended those that were useful to him, and he sent the rest into exile in the unused corners of the world. Man had a power over the animals then, and he caused them to grow in ways that suited him. Fierce hunters became gentle pets. Proud herds became meat for his table.
When the fall began and energy spilled out into the world, these animals were completely unprepared for the new environment. Their teeth and hooves had been blunted by years of service. Some of them vanished in a matter of weeks. Others did the only thing they could: they drew the new energy into themselves, and they changed.
The descendants of these creatures are still around today, beasts that broke free of man's shackles. Some of them harbor an abiding hatred for him, lurking in the wilderness and the dark places he dare not cross. Others have been tempted back into his arms, drawn by the promise of a meal. These are not monsters, for they have never shown any urge to hunt man. Still, there must be something dark glittering in their hearts, a trace of the years after the fall when they were wild.
The wind blew, carrying its autumn breath over Darius. His black hair lashed and twisted, little wisps waving over his brow. The robe that the abbot had given him eddied slightly around his feet, exposing sandals. They were the only article of clothing that remained from when he first staggered through the gates of Saint Beaudine.
He stood before the twisted remains of the abbey gate, falchion belted across his back and a simple pack hanging from one shoulder. The monks had been eager to see him gone, pressing loaves of bread and dry sheets of unnamed meat into his hands. A clay bottle, tightly corked, hung at his other side. The fluid inside sloshed as he turned to his left, glancing at his companion.
"You can turn back now. I won't say anything about it."
If Jai heard the words over the wind, he showed no sign of it. Instead, he checked the straps on his hide pack, adjusting the loops over his shoulders. When he was satisfied with them, he started through the gate. Darius kept pace with him.
"None of the monks would blame you if you did."
A line on Jai's face pulled taught, and he rounded on Darius. They stood amidst the blowing grasses of the moor, the empty archway at their back, for a long, uncomfortable second. Darius' hand started toward his shoulder, and the hilt of the falchion. Jai watched it move, and then started walking.
They traveled in silence, letting the rolling moor slip beneath their feet. Although the ground was mostly even, there were occasional depressions. Ditches and pits had filled with runoff, or been bored deep enough that the swamp could seep into them. Darius skirted these carefully, keeping one eye on the murky water. Jai seemed to ignore them, trudging recklessly forward. It was only after he nearly tumbled into a well-screened pit that he decided to follow Darius' example.
They trudged on, and the dark clump of Saint Beaudine's gradually withered on the horizon. The soil became dry and rocky, and intermittent scraggly bushes sprang from the grass. Tiny shapes chattered and screeched within them, growingly menacingly silent whenever a foot drew too near. Again, Jai demonstrated a willful disregard for his surroundings. When something dark and chitinous scuttled out from the scrub, Darius was forced to bodily haul him out of its way. The thing dashed past, clicking its pincers as it darted under the shade of another shrub. There came a piercing wail, and a fragment of black shell rolled out into the light. After that, Jai was cooperative again.
They were just nearing the verge of a forest when Darius called for a break. Jai stopped where he was, crossed his legs, and dropped to the ground. He hadn't bothered to glance at the ground first, and there was a pained squawk as a flash of mottled brown darted out from under him. It fled towards the wood, flapping and dislodging feathers. Darius fixed Jai with an incredulous look.
"You act like you've never been outside the monastery."
"I haven't," Jai kept his eyes fixed on the ground. "A few times during the autumn, Brother Viri takes me hunting. Otherwise, I only know about the world through travelers' stories."
"I'll take you back, then."
"I'm not going back."
"The abbot asked me to take you as far as Candor, but he never asked me to do anything after I arrived there," Hazel eyes swam in the fading sunlight "I'll honor that. He saved my life, and I owe him as much. Still, I can't take you with me. You'll be killed." He shook his head, casting black hair back and forth. "From what I've seen, you'll be no better off in Candor. You don't know this world."
"I don't know the abbey anymore, either." Jai started to rise to his feet, but a hand on his shoulder forced him back to the ground.
"You want to stay still right now. Really still."
Behind Jai, something chattered. He froze. "What is it?" Tiny, metallic hooks gripped the back of his robe.
Darius avoided meeting his eyes. "Hold still." Jai went as rigid as a statue.
Wrenching the falchion free of its sheathe, Darius brought it down in an overhead arc. It passed inches from Jai's back, catching solid and bearing it to the ground with a wet crackle. A foul odor leaked up from the earth, and the tiny hooks went limp.
Jai sprang to his feet, whirling around. Darius swept the flat of his falchion through the grass, and then returned it to his sheathe.
"What is that?" The remains of the creature stood in a small pool of oily, viscous fluid. Bits of armor, shearing claws, and twitching barbs protruded from it.
"They don't have a name. I just kill them."
Darius sat cross-legged in front of the tiny fire, holding his calloused palms out to the flames. Jai sat across from his, sorting through his pack. Bread and paper-thin sheets of meat made a little pile on the ground beside him. Every once in a while his left eye would twitch, and he'd cast a glance behind himself. He only looked half-relieved that nothing was there.
The crumbs of Darius' dinner were still trapped in the stubble of his chin. He didn't bother to brush them free, or run a hand through his hair. He kept his hands in front of the fire, absorbing what heat they could.
Jai wrapped part of a loaf in meat, pinned it closed with a twig, and set it in the dirt by the fire. It began to sizzle. After a few seconds he picked it up again, tossing it between hands as it cooled. The twig came free with a tug, and Jai carefully devoured it. Neither crumb nor grease managed to land on him. Instead, they all fell in a tiny pile by the fire.
Polishing off the loaf, he reached into his pack and withdrew the leather-bound book. The antique pen slid from his sleeve. "Describe the creature you killed back there, when I was sitting down."
Darius glanced through the shifting orange shadows at him. "Ugly."
"No," Jai shook his head, the slight motion fanning the flames. "What does it eat? How does it hunt? Where does it live? What hurts it?"
"Don't care. It sneaks up behind you. Under a rock, probably. And swords."
Jai frowned. Paper crinkled as he eased the book open. "Is there anyone in Candor who might know about those things?"
"Not unless they've traveled this way before."
Licking the tip of a finger, Jai began to leaf through the pages. Darius pretended not to watch. Flicking the nib of the pen, Jai set it against the paper. Dark ink arranged itself into spidery letters.
Darius: A small, scuttling creature found north of the Mire. Its hooked legs are well suited to the rocky soil, enabling it to move undetected. An armored shell protects it from beaks and claws, but won't stand up to an honest weapon. The Darius is amply supplied with barbs and claws, and should be considered a threat to the weary traveler.
"What are you writing?"
Jai's eyes flicked up, staring across the fire. Defiance flashed green. "Read it for yourself."
"I can read pictures, not letters."
Jai grunted and turned back to the page. Metal scratched on wood pulp, and the tip of the pen danced. Jai held the book up, facing it across the flames. The creature reared against a white background, its claws held up to a sky of text. Patches of armor shone darkly, and a cluster of barbed tails fanned out behind it.
The Darius is exceptionally ugly, according to sightings.
Jai awoke in the middle of the night, darkness pounding inside his head. The fire had subsided into coals, and the moon was sleeping behind a cloud. Darius lay motionless on the other side of the shallow fire pit. Betrayer.
Jai struggled into a sitting position, lifting his back off the pebble-studded dirt. Dust stuck to his robe. He lifted a hand to brush it away. Nearby, something scurried. It skirted the narrow circle of firelight, blurring its eight legs as it headed back into the bushes. Jai ignored the shiver that stalked up his spine. He stood up and walked to where Darius lay. Traitor.
Both hands were cupped under the back of the man's head, lifting his black hair out of the dirt. Every few seconds his mouth would crack open in a silent snore, and his eyelids would flutter. At his side lay the falchion, sheathed and unbelted. Jai softly kicked it away. It scudded under one of the bushes. Malim, Shane, Alder, Mikal.
One hand reached into his robe. Metal creaked as it separated from leather. The dagger hung like a beacon in the night, a sliver of deeper black. Jai looked at his arm and found that it was shaking. His fingers were wrapped so tightly around the hilt that they seemed crushed and bloodless. Lowering his body, and the arm with it, Jai dropped into a crouch over Darius. The ancestors, whose bones must be buried twice.
Using his left hand, Jai aligned the dagger over the sleeping man's heart. Its point just brushed the fabric of the robe: a needle poised over skin. The night seemed to caramelize as he lifted it. The darkness grew thick and coagulated. Struggling through a sea of molasses, the dagger reached the top of its arc and
Malim, Shane, Alder, and-
A hand snapped up, seizing the hilt and shoving it aside. Off balance, Jai collapsed on top of it, bearing it into the soil. Another hand clapped on the ground where the falchion had been. Nothing. A spray of loose dirt flew into the air as the sleeping man rolled away.
Coals crunched in the fire. A column of sparks jutted into the sky, and a muffled cry bit into the night. On the other side of the fire pit Darius struggled to his feet, panting. A singed hole gaped in the side of his robe. Its edges were still smoldering. Jai lay hunched over, covering the hilt of the dagger.
Breath rushing in ragged bursts, Darius stared at him. The coals of the fire had been stirred by the rolling body, and a small flame leapt between them. It was just bright enough to illuminate the furious mask on his face. Jai looked up, and Darius started towards him.
With a whimper, Jai rolled off the hilt of the dagger. He scrambled to his feet, pulling the blade out of the ground. Then he turned and, without a backward glance, sprinted off into the night.
Darius watched him go. For a while he stood over the ground where the boy had slept, breath pouring in and out. His muscles were taut lines, a wire-frame rendering of his body. When a few minutes had passed, he dropped into a crouch. Hazel eyes roamed over the darkened bushes, glinting with reflected firelight. Reaching into the soil, he picked up a rock the size of his thumb. With a flick, it flew into the blackened leaves. Something inside squawked, burst out into the night air, and vanished in a cloud of feathers as something hairy sprang from the ground and caught it in midair. There was a scuttling of dry legs, and the predator faded back into the night.
Darius picked up a second rock and hurled it into the same bush. When there was no result, he crept across the pool of night outside the fire circle and stuck a hand under the branches. It closed on a leather strap. Darius pulled the falchion out from under the leaves, strapping it across his back. He crossed back to the fire, hefted his pack, and kicked dirt over the embers. The warm orange light vanished, although a trickle of smoke still sought the stars. Turning away, he started into the darkness in the direction of Candor.