The Visitor from Town
Summary: The huntress Amali Fuy lives an uneventful life on the frontier, watching over her aging parents and selling hides at the town market. Things change when a stranger follows her home.
Upon the multitude of worlds once managed by the Federation, the network of gateways was its most enduring legacy. As the waning bureaucracy yielded to the machinations of the Mind-Lords, worlds slipped like sand from their grasp as civilization reverted to primitive and localized authorities. Upon one such world was a homestead built into a rolling hillock. It was here that the huntress Amali Fuy dwelt.
Amali saw a lone grazer ignoring her as she approached. Spurring her mount into action, she leveled her hunting lance at her fleeing prey. The bipedal reptile yelped and yipped helplessly as Amali pressed her muscular body against the stead to ready herself for the kill. Perceiving through the ochre dust kicked up by her quarry, she pointed the spearpoint towards the doomed creature.
The rugose hide yielded to the sharpened point of Amali's hunting lance with trivial ease, its penetration lubricated by the ichor of the doomed creature. As the point punched cleanly through the creature's body, she instinctively torqued it to give it a quick and merciful death. She let the spear go, before wheeling her steed around and halting before the carcass.
Amali pulled out her knife and splayed out the impaled carcass of the lizardlike sprinter. As she skinned the grazer, she knew that its tanned hide would fetch a handsome price in town. As payment for her stead's performance, she saw it unfurl its proboscis and slurp down bodily fluids from the body's discarded entrails. Her trusty mount, Challenger, cooed softly as he engorged himself on the grazer's bile.
After Challenger and Amali had finished, naught remained of the grazer save for a shriveled husk of inedible tissue left to rot in the sun. With a handsome leather trophy in tow, she steered her mount back towards the homestead. Fortunately, they arrived quickly, likely due to the recent feeding that put spring in Challenger's step.
The household that greeted Amali was built under a hill, as to provide sanctuary from the tornados, windstorms, and wildfires that often swept the plains. The antechamber of the dwelling doubled as its stable, now devoid of inhabitants save for Challenger's stall. The armor-like scales of her mount reflected in the feeble light of the lantern that illuminated the stable. Challenger curled up in the corner of the stall, content to digest his favorite meal.
Amali entered the wooden door that separated the antechamber and house proper to greet her parents. She removed the coarse fabric and leather cloak that protected her fair skin from the sunlight, bowing as she met her kin in the dust-covered dining room. Even in the dim light, the ravages of age were visible upon their bodies. Her father's hairline receded as his paunch advanced, while wrinkles marched parallel to her mother's hawkish nose. To the Amali, they had been reduced to withered caricatures of the restless guardians from her youngest waking memories.
Despite losing the inevitable march of age, the both faces brightened upon seeing the quality of Amali's latest trophy. She received the familiar accolades of both of her parents, as her father praised her hunting prowess and her mother doted on how much they could sell her trophy for in town. Reminded of their dwindling supplies, Amali performed a quick check into the threadbare provision cellar to see what to purchase in town.
Amali made a list of the items she intended to purchase, and gathered the hides ready for sale. As her parents bid her goodbye, she did not bother to return their salutations for she believed it would be a brief excursion as it was countless times before. Her mother prepared a dried meal and flask of freshly squeezed nectarine juice, as the huntress hoped to return before the orange sun sunk below the endless savannah. She was careful to bring another for Challenger, as he preferred the sweet nectarine juice after a fresh kill.
Amali lead Challenger towards town. While her parents had mentioned other homesteads existed across the sea of grass, town was the only chance she had to see other people. While broadly aware of the limited scope of her own existence, she had little immediate interest in exploring the world and beyond. The daily regimen of chores, hunting, and living were a ceaseless war of mental attrition upon her curiosity. She did not know how urgently that would change.
After an hour's ride due north, Amali came to a freestanding arch with a height nearly thrice that of Challenger. While the likeness of the structure was that of crudely carved stone, it resounded with a metallic reverberation whenever Amali struck it with the flat of her spear. Beneath it was a patch of exposed soil, one of the few she had ever seen on the world. Through the arch, the squat sandstone structures of the town were visible, as were the motley garments of the merchants.
Amali passed under the arch without a thought, as she had done countless times before. Many of the merchants hawked baubles of questionable purpose, but she ignored them in favor of the leather tanner that typically purchased her wares. The people at the market had swarthy skin tones and robes of brilliant colors. The bejeweled garments blew in a cool wind, providing scintillating movement like the reflective crest of a fully-grown grazer.
Amali was always impressed by the haughty displays of wealth and gaudy trinkets, but she found merely being in town was preferable to the stuffy warren she dwelled within. The sun's rays were brighter, a brilliant yellow instead of a soft orange. Even though her rough garments and lighter skin marked her as an outsider, she meandered through town with a faster cadence than the locals. Even Challenger's trot was lighter and his legs higher, as if the weight of home had been lifted from them.
Hitching Challenger to a post outside of the tannery, Amali took her most recent hides within. From the walls hung hides of unknown creatures and myriad tools used to work them into useful leather, and the pungent air reeked of the oils used to cure them. The middle aged tanner was a tall and lanky man with a vulture's stare and spendthrift's tight purse strings. Amali began the tiresome game of haggling for a fair worth for her hides. The tanner adamantly stuck with his original price, and rejected her first offer. The game continued until Amali tired, but had settled on a price that was just below what she had hoped to find for them.
Amali exited the shop with a full purse of coins, each comprised of a verdigris-shaded alloy and bore stylized visage of a long-forgotten face. She took the tokens and immediately set out to purchase the necessary provisions and foodstuffs on her mental list. She decided that she had enough for extra purchases, so she resolved to purchase extra medicines in case she, Challenger, or her parents had need of them. She additionally purchased a new sharpening stone for her lance and knife, as they had grown dull from use.
As soon as Amali stepped outside, she briefly locked eyes with a skeletal albino man dressed in a austere robes that nevertheless projected an aura of status about him. Unlike her lightened skin, his skin bore the color of alabaster marble reminiscent of lost antiquity. The upper portion of his face, from his nose to his forehead, was covered by a skull-white mask too flat and tight to fit over the natural cast of a face. Beneath the mask rested an expressionless mouth. A local couple stepped in front of him momentarily, and he was gone upon their departure an instant later. She could see Challenger's head turned in the same direction, as if aware of some esoteric threat only a beast could sense.
While tempted to dismiss it, Amali kept aware of her surroundings as she continued her shopping. Her peripheral vision was plagued by haunted glimpses of the Ragged Man. She ran towards him once, only to confront a merchant with his back turned. Another sighting put him in a dead-end alley that allowed for no easy escape. As she finished her shopping, she saw his withered fingers carcass Challenger's side as though coveting her sole companion.
Amali saw Challenger's temperament immediately shift to panic, drawing dozens of onlookers from the nearby bazaar. Calming her stead with a jug of nectarine juice, she once more saw the Ragged Man staring at her from atop a building opposite the tannery. The crowd below paid him no heed, but she did not expect them to. Whatever ensorcelled the bystanders, she wished to share in it. She momentarily wondered if she was not merely subject to some syndrome of madness.
By the time Amali had completed all of the tasks she desired, she made an expeditious withdraw through the gate. She felt as skittish as a spooked grazer as she stepped through, she felt the presence of the Ragged Man. The instant they crossed the threshold of the arch dragged on forever in her mind. On the other side, she immediately felt heavier, as if the world placed a heavier burden upon her and Challenger. The sun had sunk lower than she hoped it had, so she hurriedly galloped back home before night extinguished all illumination.
Amali made it home as night fell, but immediately sensed something amiss. At first, she thought the door was opened, but the truth came into view as she approached with her glowstone lantern raised. What remained of the door had completely rotted away, save for buckled, rusted stumps where the hinges and lock once were. With her knife drawn, she led Challenger inside. She thought she saw the Ragged Man behind her, but forced herself to banish phantasms from her imagination.
Amali coughed, as the stables were covered with a thick layer of dust and grit. She wondered how they could become so filthy so quickly, but her mind refused to believe her instincts. Somewhere within the musty chamber, water dripped from the ceiling into a fetid pool in the corner. She approached the door that led inside, only for the earth above her to settle. The rusted hinges creaked like some demonic siren as they yawned opened, but she was not ready for the sight that greeted her.
Amali immediately identified where her parents were, for what could only be their partially mummified skeletons laid motionlessly on the floor. She could see rags where their clothing once was, and enough flesh remained to identify the shapes of their faces. Their bodies had been laid side by side on the floor directly before her, as the hallway beyond had collapsed.
Amali swallowed the stale, miasmic air as she realized that no one had disturbed her parents' resting place in years or longer. The soft blue light of her glowstone revealed an undisturbed layer of dust around her parents' remains. From within a cloud of disturbed dust, she beheld a familiar visage that melted back into the darkness. Terror overcame Amali as she fled from the doorway, taking Challenger with her.
Amali tried sleeping outside that night, under the constellations of a wrong season. She wondered exactly what had happened, but her mind found no satisfactory solutions. She briefly wondered about burying her parents, but the moldering supports would soon yield to the inevitable march of entropy. She would have cried, if Challenger had not curled around her in the chill winds of night.
The following morning, Amali carved a makeshift grave marker to her parents on what remained of the door. She knew it would have happened in the near future anyway, she reasoned. Having mentally prepared herself for it, she fond small solace in the fact it was now over. She scavenged what little provisions she could from her home, and she mounted Challenger for a ride.
Having nowhere else to go, Amali resolved to once more head through the gate and into town. While she did not know if the Ragged Man would be there, she had nothing left in the hole she had grown up in. As she approached the arch, a herd of grazers scampered by. While tempted to chase them, she drove Challenger onwards to their destination. They had enough provisions to keep them fed for a while.
Under the archway, Amali saw the town was gone. Instead of the comforting brightness of the town she enjoyed, she saw only a black void of oblivion. As she stared, she saw the Ragged Man hovering just beyond the arch. Setting her hunting lance before her, Challenger knew what to do. The two charged forwards through the gate, never to return to the grasslands.
Much to her annoyance, Amali did not find the Ragged Man's gaunt corpse impaled on her blade. Instead, they hurtled forward through a similar archway that had long been inactive on a distant world with their momentum unaffected. Like a blind bull's horns, her lance point struck soft flesh. Instead of the Ragged Man, the broken body of a local tyrant fell to her charge. As the kneeling crowd looked up before them, they saw a sight that would be forever immortalized in their world's history. If Amali had looked back at the gate after the crowd lifted her and Challenger high in victorious celebration, she would have seen the shadow of a grin briefly play across the Ragged Man's face.