The Mark of Thorn
Book of Scars
Slender legs paced as swiftly as they ever had, their feet pounding the ground with such urgency that even the bones within were fearful of danger. They avoided complaining though; the muscles insisted upon it. As much as the lungs wanted to collapse, they strained themselves to go on, circulating air. The heart pounded and there was pain throughout the body, but it did not stop. Arms pumping, the woman ran.
Puffs of white cloud exited her open mouth as she tore through the crowd of dying trees. They were tied together with chains of dark ivy, reaching out with skeletal fingers to grasp desperately at anyone who might pass by to see their torment. On this cool night, it was her, and the limbs seemed to stretch themselves further toward her as she propelled herself harder over the uneven ground. A misplaced footfall had twisted her ankle harshly, and though the pain was intense, she knew she must not stop.
Must reach the caves… This was the only conscious thought that passed through her mind. She didn't waste time looking behind her. There would be nothing there she wanted to see. Instead, she needed to be mindful of ditches and fallen logs.
Perhaps it had been a mistake to go into the woods – of course it was; such a thing was always a mistake – but it was the path to where she and her companions were going, and it was the only way they could manage it. On top of that, the trek was much like a test. If they could reach their destination alive, they would have earned the right of passage.
Just a little further…
The woman of faultless appearance was conscious of footsteps nearby to her right. One friend was close by, struggling against the night as she was. She could not hear the running feet of her other companion. He was further back behind her, it seemed. Simply knowing that they were with her let her feel hope that would have been absent otherwise. They were to get where they were going. She could not die before that.
In normal circumstances, it was best to battle the creature that crossed your path or die, for running would only mean alerting other beasts of an unwelcome presence in their territory, and hope of escape became even more futile. In this specific patch of northern forest, however, the odds were known to the travelers before they'd entered. The monsters that had made themselves a home here were few, but great in size and hunger. They were guardians of this forest, and if the travelers had hoped to be unnoticed, they were very foolish indeed.
They had gained distance on the beast it seemed, but how could they afford to slow? Feelings of confidence must be hastily shut away. If they could pass out of the beast's territory – out of the darkness of the trees it craved – only then would they be free.
It was her concentration on Blue's footsteps that allowed her to hear the sound of his collapse – the sound of a human body falling to hands and knees in the leaves. The woman stopped, turning her dirty but beautiful face back to the companion that was still with her. The youth with blue-black hair was on the ground gasping for breath, his head hanging forward as if he did not have the strength to hold it up. Without having to think the matter over, the woman moved to him swiftly.
"Blue," she said, calling for his attention. The young man looked to her face as if just recalling that she was there at all.
His voice had nearly left him. It was true that they'd been struggling to escape – fleeing from the thing that had found them – but halting in this strenuous endeavor was the worst choice they could make. The faired-haired woman knelt down and took hold of his arm to hoist him up.
"I won't let you quit on me," she said with firmness that commanded respect. "Get up!"
He was a simple farm boy, but he had been just as loyal to her as any knight could have been. She would not lose him to a moment of weak-mindedness. They could not help that the monster had seen them, but it was their responsibility to get away. Cornelia looked into the trees in the direction they'd come, as if expecting to find something there.
"Where is Glenn?"
On his feet, supported by the woman nearly as much as his own shaky legs, Blue seemed reluctant. Unfortunately for him, there was no way to avoid giving her an answer.
"He stopped to fight."
Cornelia's actions were predictable, turning back as she did to aid the one who'd parted from them. Blue knew her well enough that he was able to grip her arm before she'd even taken a step.
"Leave him. It's too late!" he managed to choke out.
"No, we have to go back to help him."
"No please! He did it for you. I would do the same. You have to stay alive."
There was pain in her green eyes as she looked at him, feeling strange that she was hearing him say those words, but what was worse was that she could not protest to the truth. Her life was more important than theirs in the greater scheme. But Cornelia would not dwell on that any longer.
"The point is to save all the lives we can," she said with a tone of finality. "That's why we came here."
Before the head-strong young woman could draw her weapon and start back, however, a figure was rushing forward through the trees toward them, holding a large broadsword pointed toward the ground. As he came closer, Cornelia spotted a blossoming flower of blood on his sleeve.
"Run! Let's go!"
It was hard to mistake the burly man's appearance or his voice, and Cornelia's heart felt lighter to know that he was still alive. Even so, she was not going to disobey his command. Digging her fingers into Blue's arm, she urged him forward. Glenn may have found them once again, but he had not come alone. The ground was quaking, the forest was trembling in fear, and a promise of death was nearby.
"You're hurt!" Cornelia called over to Glenn, as if he needed reminding.
"I couldn't handle it myself!" he answered back past his thick beard. "I caught its tooth in my arm and hit the blasted thing with the hilt. Disoriented it a bit, and I ran like hell!"
But the creature had caught up, and they could feel the vibrations of its pounding feet as if came up fast. If only Blue hadn't fallen; if only they hadn't stopped! But it was too late to think on that now. Backtracking was impossible. Thinking the situation through and viewing it from every side quickly, Cornelia came to a snap decision.
"We have to turn and fight!"
"That thing could rip us apart!" Blue shouted, but it was of little use. Cornelia had unsheathed her sword and withdrawn the shield from her back, ready for battle. Glenn regained his grip on the large sword he carried – which he'd also made, for he was a blacksmith.
Wanting to sigh but not able to gather enough air to do so, Blue reached past the calling horn at his hip and withdrew his own sword, unable to stop thinking that this was the worst thing that they could do. But once the woman was resolved to a task, there was nothing to be done about it.
"Ready?" Cornelia asked in a voice that was nearly at normal volume, and a half-second later she had slowed and whirled back with her weapon and defense. The two men with her followed her lead, digging their feet into the ground to face the oncoming beast.
The monster continued to run at them full force, rushing on madly for the kill, but a swing of Glenn's long blade reminded the creature of who he was, and it skidded to a halt. It backed away from the line of them standing there, still poised to attack. Beneath the moon's light, human eyes could view the atrocity in all its unsightly glory.
The beast was called a clleurth. It was a hideous creature on four legs that was twice as large as a human. Stretched tightly across enlarged muscles was brown, leathery skin down the entire length of its body. A long muzzle protruded from the otherwise flat face, but the elongated jaws could not hold their infected gums or the razor teeth attached – all as long as a man's fingers. It was nearly animal-like, but if it had even been somewhat human, it was no longer.
There was a world of difference between a monster and a demi-human. Some said there was no difference, but those were only prejudiced, begrudging fools. Anyone who had looked upon this creature would certainly see that it was nothing even close to a demi-human – but more to the point, any living thing that existed only to destroy others and cause chaos was a monster and did not deserve life.
"What do we do?" Blue whispered, trying his best not to look nervous.
"Jus' keep calm," Glenn instructed.
The clleurth kept its eye focused on Glenn, and the former blacksmith stared down the monster as if he was a warrior. Perhaps the beast remembered that this man had been the one to try and oppose it before, or it might have been because Glenn was bleeding, but the creature's eyes did not shift from him.
"Don't take chances," Cornelia commanded, keeping on her guard as they slowly spread out around the beast.
"I got this," he replied to her.
Glenn slowly began to raise his sword higher. The beast seemed to realize what was happening, and it bared its teeth further, releasing a screeching yowl that pierced the night. The sword rose higher, gleaming in the moonlight. There was a flash – and the clleurth caught the gleam in its eye. It was infuriated. The beast cried out again, and it rushed forward without more hesitation.
The blacksmith raised the sword so that the monster would rush upon it, but his luck failed him in that moment as it was destined to do one day. The muscle of his forearm that had been pierced by the beast's tooth erupted in pain, and his grip on the sword faltered. He could not hold the weight of it, and the creature was only seconds away from him, going at such a speed that it could not be stopped.
He only just managed to push the words from behind his lips before the clleurth had leapt forward, gripping the man's body with its claws before locking its jagged jaws around the man's head. And then, with very little effort – much like a child plucking a dandelion – the man's head was gone.
There were many things that Blue had not seen in his seventeen years, and while he had experience with gruesome death, he had never been as intimate with it as he was in this moment. Everyone he had ever known had died horribly, but he hadn't been near when it had happened, off catching a nap in the field with the sheep. His family, his village: they had all died. Everyone had died – their flesh pierced by enormous thorns the size of swords. He'd met Cornelia after that, and had dedicated his life to her, adopting her cause. She and Glenn had been the only family he'd known since all those terrible things had happened, and now…
Glenn's body is bleeding before me! Why did we come here? There must have been another way! Now that horrible thing is going to kill us all!
Blue lost control of his thoughts. He was young! He had every right to want to live, and every right to be afraid. He came to realize something in that moment. Contrary to what he had thought, he could not give his life for this woman, worthy as she was. He was afraid of his own death over all else. The woman needed to live, yes, for the good of all – but Blue could not be the one to save her.
"I'm sorry, Cornelia," he whispered.
Blue picked himself up and fled through the trees.
Cornelia had not realized that there was no way to save the loyal craftsman when she rushed forward with her sword, doing all she could hope to do by ramming her blade into the clleurth's shoulder. The blade pushed into the flesh with all her weight behind it, but the muscle was thick, and she was not even successful in piercing the full width of the arm.
The clleurth roared in pain at once when it was struck. Cornelia knew that one sweep of the monster's arm could bat her away as if she was nothing but a stinging insect, but bruises didn't matter much to her. It was fortunate that she didn't care for her own pain, for only a moment later the branch-like arm had knocked her backward onto the ground, her sword still lodged in the shoulder.
She hit the ground roughly on her back, unable to keep her head from hitting back against a tree root. Black spots danced across her vision, and she raised her spinning head to see that she had been unsuccessful before she had even begun. Glenn's body was crumbled and lifeless, the flesh of his neck torn in ragged strings after the monster had swallowed his head whole.
"No…" she gasped, but of course her protest did little good. One friend was dead while the other was out of sight, and the monster before her was struggling angrily, trying to pull the sword from its shoulder. It couldn't quite reach it with its large maw or its back leg, though it was trying with both.
Staring at it as it failed to remember her presence, Cornelia clenched her teeth tightly together. Who had summoned these creatures so long ago, bringing them into the world? They had no purpose but to murder and destroy everything that man had worked so hard for. Rather than foul beasts and misery, the world should have been filled with laughter and joy! There should be friendships and romance! Who had seen a need for these creatures? Who!
The woman slowly pulled herself from the ground, rising up to stand tall in the face of this danger. She'd stood up to beasts just as frightening, and in the end, she always managed to conquer. She had to do as she always did. Cornelia had to remain calm, and she had to deal with the creature for what it was. It was little more than an animal, having no reason or logic. It was a simple monster, and it had no right to live.
With mental processes which took much longer than they should have, the clleurth managed to understand that it was not going to be able to remove the sword from its shoulder, and with a shift of its furious eyes, it seemed to remember that the human in its midst was the one who'd caused it this pain. The monster trained its sight onto her, its back arching as if it would pounce like a wildcat. Its teeth dripped blood and gelatinous saliva, and they appeared to grin at her with confidence. But the clleurth did not have the brains to acknowledge the short sword that had been strapped tightly to Cornelia's leg, which she then began to remove.
The beast gave a cry of displeasure as she stood there looking at it so steadily – though inside, her heart seemed about to burst free from her chest. They stood there together, the beauty and the beast, and once the creature had shifted its weight, it lunged at her.
Suspecting even the slightest change, Cornelia thrust the sword outward, and it may have been by luck that the teeth did not reach her, for her blade had found a spot just below the monster's neck. While her weight had not been quite enough to pierce the tough skin, the creature's own weight coming down upon the blade did the job properly. The woman just managed to release the sword and throw herself from beneath the beast's weight as it fell flat onto the ground, struggling for its breath.
The clleurth clawed at its throat as the red-colored life began to gush out of it, saturating the ground, just as Glenn's blood had done. Cornelia could have run then without opposition from this beast, trusting it to die, but one thing in this world that was just as important and life and death was revenge, and one should take it when they could.
"You're a wicked abomination," she said, stepping over the ground to the large sword that had fallen from Glenn's hands.
Cornelia gripped the hilt with both hands. The blacksmith's sword was heavy to her, but she dragged the steel through the grass and vines without complaint. The creature was beneath her, struggling, wearing Glenn's blood as well as its own. She raised the sword over her head, feeling its weight bearing down on her shoulders and back. The woman ground her teeth together, old memories pouring in from the back of her mind.
"Why must this world continue to take everything from me?" she cried, and she did not notice how her voice carried away through the trees.
Using all the strength in her arms, she swung the sword over her shoulder and down onto the neck of the creature, letting the weight of the weapon give her effort more strength. The sharp edge of the blade cut into the monster's flesh a few inches, creating a wound that leaked blood like a fountain. The clleurth screamed in its horrible, shrieking way, trying to lift itself away from the torture, but could not manage the task.
Once again, laboriously, Cornelia raised the heavy blade, slinging the beast's blood onto herself in splatters. Bringing the blade down, she chopped further into the neck, hitting bone. This time, the clleurth did not protest. Its muscles were loosened, and its eyes were staring blankly, but somehow Cornelia could not acknowledge this as good enough. She swung the sword again and again, feeling the ache in her muscles that would soon grow worse. After a time that was like cutting through a tree – but seeming like no time at all to Cornelia – a final chop separated the head from the body, though leaving it hanging by a few sinewy threads. The sword fell heavily from her hands then, and the woman stumbled back onto the ground.
Cornelia closed her eyes in silent mourning for her friend, but no tears fell from her eyes. Perhaps later, once a bit more was past her they would, but she could not know. No one could ever say what lay in store for them when the day changed. Taking in a deep breath, the woman resolved that it was time to go forward.
The call came out of her throat as an exerted whisper into the still night. She twisted her head in search of the young man, but there was nothing around her save for death and blood.
She called him once again. There was no answer, no sound that might alert her that her friend was alive. But that was not the truth of things was it? The young man was still very much alive – for now. He had been overcome, and he had fled. Everyone, she supposed, had a breaking point.
Without another word or glance at the area around her, the woman fought her swords out of the thick flesh of the clleurth and secured them to her. She fitted the shield onto her back once again, and collected things from Glenn's body that might have been useful – all of this without an expression on her face.
Taking in a mouthful of air and releasing it slowly, Cornelia turned and started back on her path toward the caves. A bit of uncertainty was setting into her heart now that she was alone, but there were still things to be done. Important things – things that were much bigger than herself and her mild feelings of sadness and betrayal. In the distance, the strange howl of another clleurth rang out through the night.
Cornelia progressed slowly through the trees, alone – once again.