Cleave

Chapter 1:

The world had grown dark.

The sun still rose and set each day, just as it always had, and the days were no shorter. Those who could remember times before the last world war, however, would tell anyone who'd listen that things had changed. Shadows seemed deeper, as if these absences of light were really portals to Hell, and there were creatures that moved in and out of these shadows. People often referred to these creatures as demons, but that wasn't precisely accurate. These creatures, who wore the mask of humanity, were neither demon nor human. They called themselves Inbetweeners, but the name HeartEaters had been ascribed by the people and was a more accurate description of how they lived.

People were in constant fear of the HeartEaters, especially in a world that provided little protection. The war had occurred during the apex of advancements, and the survivors seemingly had been hurtled back in time. Tales of when the entire world had been connected and information was readily accessible seemed to be little more than stories. People didn't know what was happening outside of their own communities, nor did they have the energy to care. All of their efforts were channeled into simply surviving.

Despite all this, there were still those who took advantage of the bleak situation. There were no ruling parties, so some had swooped in to take all the available food and resources of an area, and set themselves up as ruler. The people, who were often simply seen as their subjects, would be dependent on these rulers and simultaneously feared, respected, and hated them. The people did not want to be ruled, especially if the ruler was corrupt.

Leon Martin was such a ruler, but often vehemently denied the charge. He spoke in glowing terms of the people in his kingdom: often saying that he was like the father and they were his children, but a distasteful gleam in his eye spoke the truth. He thought of himself as superior and struggled with feelings of disgust at the peoples' neediness. The fact that he was responsible for putting them in the position that they were now in where they had to rely on him for survival was lost on Leon.

His house was the nicest in the area, which was to be expected, but he was not the original occupant. During the war, many had simply abandoned their homes with much of their possessions still inside and the majority had never returned. People claimed the houses they wanted in the area, but Leon had only wanted the best. In its day, the house had truly been a marvel to behold. Four tall, white pillars framed the front, and two stone lions flanked each side of the wide porch. Setting upon a hill, it seemed to gaze out over the people, but time had not been kind to the massive structure. The white paint had begun to chip and peel, and vines wrapped around the columns as if trying to choke the structures. One of the lions was missing a sizeable chunk of his main and his right ear, so that his eternal roar looked more like a frozen grimace of pain. Even with these shortcomings, the house was still impressive, as were the armed men that roamed the property for current owner's protection.

Leon sat at a huge, oak dining table eating a pile of food that was more than most of his subjects saw in a month. It was cooked and seasoned well as his chef was talented, but he shoveled the food into mouth without pausing to pay attention the flavors. He ate almost as if was a chore – a job that had to be completed. Beads of sweat gathered along his high forehead as he chewed without closing his mouth. Pieces of food would fall from his mouth from time to time and rested upon his absurdly yellow shirt, which had already been stained and soiled. He was aware that his manners were atrocious, but he felt that he had no one to impress.

Just as he was poised to bring a heavily laden fork to his mouth once more, he became aware that he was no longer alone in the room. He always sent his men to do other tasks before he ate as he desired neither company nor an audience, so he looked up and saw a stranger standing by the closed double doors on the far side of the room.

As if he wasn't afraid, he put the bite of food in his mouth and chewed slowly as he examined the newcomer. The stranger looked to be a young man, although it was impossible to determine his actual age. He was tall and slightly lanky in build. His red checkered shirt and faded blue jeans hung on him as he was wearing ill-fitting hand-me-downs. Dark hair, bleached slightly along the crown by the sun, hung in his face obscuring most of his features, but one honey brown eye peered out from around the strands. There was a strange, almost ancient light glimmering in that eye that attracted a lot attention, but Leon's focus was the sword resting in an old scabbard that hung by the man's narrow hip.

Leon swallowed the food. "Who are you?" he asked, "Why did you come here?"

The man didn't answer or even move. He simply stood there staring.

Wiping the sweat from his forehead with his plump hand, Leon tried again. "I suppose you've come here to kill me," he said, chuckling slightly, "You would be the first to try, even though I'm sure those idiots in the valley have considered it before. I must say that I am impressed that you've gotten this far. Of course, I could make it worth your while to change your plans. What do you say?" He ran his hand through his thinning, gray hair almost as if he was bored, although he was really trying to hide furtive glances to the shelf on other side of the room.

Again the man made no move to indicate that he had understood or had even heard what had been said. For the first time, Leon frowned slightly, as he stood up pretending that he needed to stretch. "I bet Antoine was sleeping again," he stated, "He was the man I had just outside the door. I've caught him sleeping three times already."

"He was asleep," the stranger replied in a soft growl-like voice, "but he will never wake up again."

Leon's frown deepened as he began to walk slowly behind the table and towards the shelf. "He wasn't any good as a guard anyway," he began, "but I'd bet you would be an excellent one. What are my loyal subjects paying you anyway? I'm sure I could offer double or even triple whatever it is. You could live well here. You could live like a man rather than rooting around like a pig like everyone else in the valley. Sound good?"

The man pulled out his sword in lieu of an answer, and the blade glistened in the evening light pouring in through the windows.

Still walking, Leon continued with the mostly one side conversation. "I have other guards," he explained, "Plenty of men that will come if I make the slightest sound."

"You had plenty of men," returned the man, as he held the sword in front of him but not moving forward, "but not anymore."

Taking a few more steps, Leon's eyes never strayed from the weapon. "I would offer you a job since it looks like I'm in desperate need of employees," he said in a mock joking tone, "But I can tell you're not interested. That's too bad." He shook his head as if genuinely disappointed, and then suddenly sprinted towards the shelf. He had been inching closer all this time and had only been a few steps away when he made his move. The metal of the gun felt smooth and sturdy beneath his hand as he started to grip the firearm to remove it from its hiding spot.

Before his fingers could close around the handle, Leon felt a strong hand slam into his chest, knocking him to the marble floor. He blinked several times, apparently confused as to what had just happened, only to find he was now laying on his back with a sharp sword pressed against his throat.

"No man can move that fast," he gasped, "You're one of them aren't you? One of those demons."

The stranger frowned darkly and a furious light ignited in his visible eye. "I am not a demon," he growled, pushing his sword into Leon's neck and drawing a thin line of blood.

"Sorry. Sorry," Leon whimpered, "I meant Inbetweener. But why are you here?" Fear had made his eyes grow large. "Are you going to eat my heart?"

"Yes," was the simple answer.

"But why me?" cried Leon, "I don't have that much strength or knowledge. You can't gain much from eating my heart. Why, there are people in the village that are a lot stronger and smarter. I can't show you them. I'm just not worth it. Don't you lose a certain amount of life when you eat the heart of a person?"

A strange half-smile adorned the man's face. "Not in your case," he replied, "because I have permission."

"Permission?" Leon repeated, "Who gave you permission? Who are you?" He screamed and cried as words failed him.

The man's sword was sharp and true as he sliced Leon's clothes and chest with a single slice. Leon tried to scream a final time, but blood choked his throat so that he was only able to make a soft, gargling sound. The heart was exposed and was still beating. In mid-beat, the man sliced away half the heart and stabbed the free half with sword. Ignoring the dripping blood and gore, he took a bite of the organ and swallowed it without chewing. As always, he felt a moment of weakness and vertigo as all of Leon's strength, abilities, and knowledge was transferred to him, and he found that Leon had been right about one thing.

He was barely worth it.

Quickly finishing the rest of the heart on his sword, the man looked down one last time at Leon and spoke the corpse. "My name is Cleave."

Having done what he had been hired to do, Cleave knew that he should be moving on. The others like him weren't that far behind and the smell of a fresh kill would no doubt draw them quickly, but he was still reluctant to leave. The large, impressive house was so quiet and still, and Cleave was fascinated with how humans lived. He gave himself permission to look around for a while before leaving.

He quickly found a bathroom, and he tried the light switch hoping to see the warm yellow glow of a light bulb, but was disappointed. Electricity was scarce, even for those that had more than most. Sighing, he lit a candle and looked at his reflection in the mirror. His lips were red with Leon's blood, and spots of this blood were splattered on his chin and shirt. A bowl of clean water was in the sink, so Cleave took the time to wash his face and hands, and used a dry cloth to clean his sword. On the sink, there was a small pair of black scissors, and he used it to cut away the hair that hung in his eyes. He was no barber, and the result was uneven, but he was not vain about his appearance.

A little more searching led to him finding some shirts and coats that he could wear, although these items obviously belonged to the original owners of the house and not to Leon. He was hoping to find some pants that fit, but was not able to do so. Finally, he knew it was time to go even though he would have liked to stay and search much longer.

Wearing a long sleeve gray shirt he had found, he walked directly back into the village. Upon seeing him, children were herded inside where they peered at him curious eyes from narrow, dirty windows. The adults looked at him with a mixture of fear and distrust as they stood protectively in their meager doorways, just as they did in every town he had visited. A tall, bony woman, who acted as a leader among the people, stepped forward to meet him on the dirt path. She pushed aside a strand of her prematurely graying hair with a calloused hand before addressing Cleave.

"Is it done?" she asked.

Cleave nodded, and he immediately saw the relief on the woman's face.

"Good," she said, "Mr. Martin won't be able to push us around anymore. Now, as for payment…" Her voice trailed off as she looked at a group of young women that had been gathered off to one side. Most were teens, but there were some that looked much younger.

"I've already taken my payment," he announced, "Remember that you gave me permission."

"Of course," she replied, but seemed uncomfortable.

Cleave knew what was wrong. The woman wanted him to be gone, but was too afraid to demand him to leave. He couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to have some place that he was welcome, but doubted that any such place existed. "I'll be going," he said as he turned to walk away.

Behind him, he could hear the people gathering to watch him leave and he felt a surge of anger. He had helped these people, but they still treated him as if he were a monster. A part of him understood their fears, but that didn't mean he could reject his own feelings. There was no time to worry about it, however, for the other Inbetweeners were very close.

While Cleave was out hunting the evil people of the world, the others were hunting him.