Eons pass like the wind. For those there to experience it, history seems as alive and important as their very lives, but for those who come after, history is a shadow, words in a book, at most-and nothing, not even a memory, at the least.
In the infinite expanse of crowded, claustrophobic forest, twisted limbs of trees growing up to block out what meager light the moon offered, twinkled a tiny fire next to a well-worn dirt trail. All about the fire milled men in dull metal armor, gathering dry wood from the forest.
The fire illuminated a large wagon next to the trail, constructed of knotted wood, green paint peeling and worn away by the years, goods within strapped down securely beneath rough woolen blankets. Two horses, one chestnut brown and one a deep black, were tied to a tree, gnawing away at their feedbags. A lanky, silver-haired, weather-worn man patted the flank of the black horse, lit his pipe, and strode over to the fire, where one of the armored men, grimmer and more scarred than the others, watched the activity around him with barely contained contempt.
"Eh, Sergeant," drawled the silver-haired man, "What's your bother?"
The scarred man flicked his eyes toward the merchant. Sergeant Yates was an old man, and bald, but he was an intimidating giant of a man, and well-versed in battle, far more experienced than the younger soldiers in his charge.
"My bother," he snarled, "Is that you've ignored my advice to travel through the night, tradesman, when you know these woods are dangerous. I've guarded your wagon before, Goodman. Why did you ignore my advice this time?"
Goodman puffed at his pipe thoughtfully for a moment, then shrugged and motioned toward the five men in the sergeant's charge, who had begun setting up tents beside the road. "You bought more than you usually did with you. And I hear the bandits that plagued this road had been driven out by you folk in Hastor."
The sergeant grimaced. "Hastor doesn't have the coin to send out men for no reason. And it wasn't us that drove out he bandits. We've just been finding their bodies. We don't even know what's been killing them."
"Reckon they just turned on each other," Goodman replied. He shifted, leaning back on his elbows, plopping his ancient leather boots close to the fire. "Which is good. Maybe I can start bringing more wagons in to the town, you know? Set up some proper trade with Hastor, since I won't have to keep on spending money on horses who get injured by forced marches into town."
Yates rolled his eyes, his already harsh face made all the more gruesome by the look of disgust that passed over it. Truth be told, the unscheduled stop was not the only reason why he was worried, or even the main reason.
No, his greatest worry stood in front of him now.
The young soldier wore armor brighter and much more well-made than the others, and the sword at his hip rested in a scabbard decorated with red ribbon and the mark of the crow, symbol of the House of Vas, lords of Hastor. The lad himself was Natael Vas, heir to the Patriarch, serving his time in the military, as was usual for the young lords before they concentrated on their politics. It wasn't that the boy wasn't a good soldier, quite the opposite-he was smart, quick, and good with a blade. As he should be, as the lords trained with them from the moment they could hold them. And it wasn't that the other soldiers envied him his equipment and station, as the young lord was quite charismatic and had already made friends of them. It was that Yates had been chosen to take the lad out on his first mission. The young lord would face promotion after a few of these, leading his own team of guards as long as nothing went terribly wrong, and then if he was killed, it would be his own hide. But if the lad got injured, or killed, while under Yates's command, it would be the sergeant's head on a platter.
The young lord held up a clenched, gauntleted fist in salute to the sergeant. He was a sight, with his fair skin and long black hair, some might have even said that he was feminine. His expression was anything but, however. Yates held himself as a good judge of men, and there was something in the young lord's face-it usually held an expression of solemn dignity, but there was something there, something in the way he smirked, that betrayed a streak of cruelty. And his eyes, by the White, those cold blue eyes looked out at the world with an intensity ferocious enough to give the sergeant pause.
"Sergeant? The tents are set up," Natael repeated, drawing Yates out of his contemplation. "We've gathered enough wood to keep the fire burning through the night. Three of us will stay on watch, while two sleep-or at least I assume."
"Two on watch should be enough." Yates drew a finger down the side of his face, tracing a scar, a habit he had whenever he was thinking of tactics. "Yes…yes, two should be enough. Switch out after midnight, and keep your eyes on the road. The forest is too thick here for us to be approached without hearing them a mile away."
Natael saluted again and turned, then paused, and turned back. "Sergeant. I know my presence brings worry, but relax. I can take care of myself, and those who lead lordlings on their first missions…well, they have a history of being richly rewarded."
"Or beheaded," Yates drawled sarcastically, before he could stop himself.
Natael merely chuckled in response. "I like you, Sergeant," the boy said, before striding away to relay the message to the other soldiers.
"Oh, that one's a devil," said Goodman. He had watched the entire exchange with a smirk on his face. "Oh, yes, that one is a devil."
Natael squatted down at the edge of the road, just beyond the light of the campfire, and stared down the road leading north. Even at this distance, he could hear the snoring of some of those in the tents. Five feet away, close enough to alert him with a silent kick should he see anything, was his companion in the watch, a large, quiet lad named Baerold, watching the south. Natael appreciated Baerold-though he was quiet, and slow, he was also the soldier the least apprehensive of Natael's nobility. Also, he was reliable-the young lord never even felt the need to check whether or not the soldier was awake.
They stayed there in silence, diligently straining their ears and eyes, watching for the slightest movement, until about an hour before midnight, when Baerold delivered a kick to Natael.
Natael drew his sword in anticipation. "What is it?" he whispered.
"Nothing. I have to take a shit."
He sighed, and sheathed his sword. "Well. I'm not stopping you. Just…do it far from the tents."
The large youth nodded, and pointed to a small outcropping of rocks, barely visible in the shadows. "I'll be behind that."
Natael nodded, moving himself back so he could temporarily keep a watch on both ends of the road. He listened as Baerold moved through the forest, pushing back brush, twigs snapping beneath his feet-
"Hey. HEY," came Baerold's rumbling voice, thick with panic and alarm. He came running back toward Natael, sword drawn. "HEY! Everyone up!"
"Baerold? What is it?" There were voices now coming from the tents, as those within stirred.
"There was someone behind those rocks-nearly tripped over them. Fuck, but they moved fast-"
"How could there be? We were listening the entire time and we didn't hear anything approach. We would have heard them if they got that close-"
"WHAT IS IT?!" roared Sergeant Yates, awakening.
And then things happened very quickly.
There was an urgent shout from within the woods ten feet to Natael's right, though unintelligible, and four short, long-limbed figures loped out of the trees with such suddenness that it was almost as if they appeared out of thin air. All were waving thin swords and wearing armor shirts made of large loops of metal as they rushed the young lord and Baerold.
Natael's sword was in his hand-he was not even aware that he had drawn it. And yet he paused momentarily as the figures from the woods rushed down upon him. Their movements were so alien, so strange-and their eyes, they gleamed yellow and green in the flickering light from the fire, they had cat's eyes.
And then the strange things were upon him.
It was not for nothing that he had trained all his life at the sword, however. With something that could almost be called grace, Natael parried the first sword thrust at him, and carried his blade through, up into the shadows of the thing's face. His reward was a high-pitched, burbling scream that was cut off abruptly as he wrenched his sword back, the figure going limp and collapsing to the ground.
He turned then to the second cat-eyed figure that had come rushing down at him, which now seemed to be hesitating, seeing how easily his companion had been dispatched. Natael noticed coolly that Baerold had drawn his own unadorned, cleaver-like sword and seemed to be going into somewhat of a rage, hacking at the two cateyes attacking him in blind fury. Even as he noted this, he ran his sword through the ribcage of his second attacker.
He moved forward to help Baerold in his fight, but even as he did, Sergeant Yates sprinted over, dressed in nothing but his underclothes, not having bothered to put his armor on. He held his spiked mace, with which he crushed the head of one of the cateyes, as Baerold howled madness and shoved his sword into the gut of his attacker.
There was more whooping, harried shouts from the woods. Natael wiped the blood from his blade as Baerold breathed heavily, his hulking form hunched over the corpse of his attacker.
"Gods," snarled Sergeant Yates, "What in the fuck-"
"Fucking DISGUSTING," spat Baerold, kicking the corpse before him. "Gods-what are these things? They're awful."
The other soldiers were catching up now.
"Are you both alright? Wounded?"
"What are these things? Gods…"
"Are there more of them? What was that in the woods?"
Sergeant Yates cut them off, then. "No. We're not pursuing these things into the woods. Get the tents up! I don't care what Goodman says, we are moving now! Baerold, Natael, watch for more of these things, and be ready to haul ass on my word."
Natael knelt next to one of the corpses, pulling the helmet from its head. It looked almost human-almost. It was smaller, just over five feet in length, and thinner, with gaunt cheeks and narrow torso. Its arms and legs were long and thin as well. There was something exotic about the arrangement of its face, the way its nose and mouth protruded just a bit seemed almost animal. And of course, the cat's eyes. Natael brushed back the thing's dirty blonde hair and noticed that its ears actually came to small points.
"Nice swordplay," came Baerold's voice from over his shoulder.
Natael ignored the compliment. "What are these things…?"
Baerold shivered. "I don't know. I just…I don't know, but they…they just make all my hair stand on end."
Natael glanced back at the wagon. Goodman was awake, and finally hitching his horses to the thing, Sergeant Yates screaming at the sleepy merchant the entire time. The other soldiers were hurriedly rolling up their tents, hands constantly hovering near weapons. "Watch the road, Baerold," he said, drawing his dagger.
Baerold glanced up and down the road, and worriedly into the woods, as Natael sawed away at the thing's neck and came away with its head.
"Oh, spirits shield us. Spirts shield us-"
"Silence yourself, Siel."
"Did you see the way the big one lost himself? I could smell the murder in him from here!"
Cerallien bit her lip, choking back hot tears. With her brother, Dajan, dead, she was the leader of this band now, although she was just as frightened and inexperienced as Siel was. She could not take her eyes off of the scene of carnage not forty feet from her, where these…these things, that looked almost varal, almost aware, now stirred like a nest of hornets. But they could not be. She had seen these things twice before now, and each time they had gone mad with rage, and had to be killed. They used weapons, and tactics, and they were obviously clever. But they were larger than even the largest varal by at least half, they were stronger, much stronger, and faster. And something about them-something about them just made your stomach freeze, as if their every movement betrayed their intention for murderous brutality.
Dajan and the others had panicked when Siel came sprinting back to them, shouting that he had been spotted. The brutes had begun shouting in that strange language of theirs, and Dajan had ordered the attack, hoping to take them by surprise before the things tore the woods apart to murder them all. But…there were so many more than they were expecting, and even two were a dangerous foe for four inexperienced younglings just beginning to learn the intricacies of band patrol….
Cerallien closed her eyes, squeezing tears from them. Dajan, her brother, was dead. Oh, Dajan. She did her best to hold her sobs in, although the murderous brutes down on the road didn't seem to be concerning themselves with searching for them.
"Oh, Ancestors, please no," breathed Siel at her side.
Cerallien forced her eyes open, but Siel's hands gently tried to pull her away. "Cer, do not look. Please do not look," he said, his voice thick, choked.
She did anyway, looking on in horror at the scene unfolding before her.
The brute with the long black hair, the one who had moved with a particular speed and carved her brother through his ribs as if it were barely a challenge, knelt by her brother's corpse, knife in hand, while the larger, maniac butcher milled about the road.
She almost screamed in rage as he took his knife to her poor brother's neck, sawing back and forth. And she did vomit when he hit the bone and broke it with a swift jerk, the cracking clearly audible, even from where she was.
"No, no, no," she whispered as the beast removed her brother's head from the corpse, standing and holding it by the hair in one blood-soaked hand, peering closely at it, with, was that a smile on its face? Was that thing smiling-
She was only vaguely aware that she had drawn her sword and begun scrambling through the leaves towards the brutes. Siel grabbed her, pulled her back down to the ground. "No, Cer," he sobbed, tears running from his emerald-green eyes, "They'll kill you too, you can't leave me alone out here-"
She threw herself into Siel's chest, arm clutching tightly, no longer wondering or caring whether the things on the road heard her, sobbing. She could feel Siel's tears and his own sobbing gasps in her hair. They had taken her brother's head, his spirit could never return to the earth. It wasn't enough for these monsters to kill, they had to violate the bodies. How could these things smile? How could these things, which were clearly animals, smile?
She stayed like that for a while, face buried in the comforting darkness and warmth of Siel's embrace, sobbing until she felt empty and numb.
"I think they are gone," Siel whispered, some time after her sobbing had ceased.
Cerallien sighed, then released Siel, rising to her feet. Her knees shook, and she felt weak. She looked out on the road, and on the four bodies there outlined in the moonlight. The forest was silent, and even the lingering scent of the brutes had disappeared.
The approached the bodies, Siel pacing quietly behind her, and dropped to her knees when she reached her brother's headless corpse.
"Oh, Dajan," she whispered, voice shaking, rage breaking through the serene numbness she had felt. She cradled his headless body, rocking back and forth. Her brother. Her brother, who had taught her to run as fast as a boy. Her brother, who had taught her swords, who loved to swim, who rescued her when she was small and climbed too high in the trees.
Her brother, dead now at the hands of these mysterious monsters. These things that looked almost varal.
"They are animals," she growled.
"Cer?" Siel knelt beside her.
"They are animals, Siel. It can't be denied. They may look like us, and act with intelligence…but they are animals, and as dangerous and cruel as them all the same."