The sun rose red and set the sky ablaze to frame an ashen land. Trees curled their gnarled gray limbs into each other and the path became a knot of shadows beneath Rusk's tiny feet. He tripped, skinning his elbows in the gravelly soil when he landed, and twisted on the ground to see his assailant.
The man may as well have been a demon with those red eyes and that sadistic grin. He skulked closer, taking his time, the only white about him the hungry glare of his pointed teeth. The rest of him was a shroud of flittering shadow.
"Aren't you a morsel?" said the man.
Rusk whimpered. Five years old, caught by a stranger the very first time he'd run off from the safety of his parents. He scooted backward, afraid to turn his back on the man who leaned over him in a manner that couldn't have been human.
Up close the man's face was sunken and ghoulish, angular in all the wrong ways, with twisting shade in place of hair that slithered as if it had a will of its own separate from the man's mind.
Rusk thought he heard a hiss.
"So tasty," said the man. He reached a skeletal hand toward Rusk, slowly, slowly. "Tasty morsel."
Rusk curled his fingers into the dirt. He felt the grain, the dryness, the edges of loose rocks scraping the quicks of his nails. It hurt, but it didn't hurt as much as he knew this man could hurt him.
"Go away," said Rusk in a quivery voice.
The man tittered. The sound exited his mouth in delighted screeches, sharp as his teeth.
"I mean it!"
"Or what?" The man leaned closer. He'd dropped to Rusk's level, stooping or kneeling it was impossible to decipher with those robes of shadow. And Rusk couldn't remember when he'd done so.
"Or." The man slid down across Rusk, slid so far Rusk feared he might be swallowed by the shade the man cast over him. "Else." The man's breath was cold, and his presence tightened Rusk's chest with dread. "What?"
Rusk didn't have an answer.
The man snickered.
"You there!" An unfamiliar voice, female but annunciated to cross the distance.
The world lightened.
The man hissed, and a reptilian tongue flashed between his teeth. Some of his weight lifted off of Rusk. Just enough for Rusk to take that handful of dirt and whip it directly into the man's eyes. But instead of reeling back, making some shriek of pain, the man clamped down harder. His fingers grew into claws, pale with a twinge of orange reflected from the rising sun, and he caged Rusk's skinny arms inside them. The red of the man's eyes seeped closer, wider, closer still, until Rusk could feel their heat and see the vessels expanding and contracting in breaths of chill as the pupil refocused on him.
This was terror. This was dread.
The first cut from the man's claws was a pinprick. Then the rest of them plunged into Rusk's little biceps and the world became pain. Pain at the skeletal level, past the skin and the muscle and even the fear. Primal agony. And through it, the man's laughter. Rusk knew the teeth would come next.
What would the man eat first? His neck? His belly?
Rusk began floating outside himself, watching the scene from an angle he knew was impossible.
There was the man, hunched over. Rusk couldn't even see himself beneath the robes of shade. There was the pain he knew was there, for it hadn't stopped, but now even that was distant, as if it were someone else beneath the man. But Rusk knew it was him under there. How could he be in two places at once? He preferred it up here, hovering, where he felt himself an unfeeling part of the trees, a magus projection detached from the grounded world, an observer instead of a participant.
Then the woman who'd called after them approached from the edges of his perception. Blonde hair, glowing white cape that flapped with each step towards the man, and in a gasp Rusk found himself trapped beneath the claws once again, struggling to breathe through the sharpness pervading his every sensation. He heard himself scream but didn't feel it. He writhed and he whimpered.
The the tip of a blade, silver and slick with rancid blood, passed across Rusk's vision. Then the man was wrenched off of him in one fluid but violent motion. The face that stared down at Rusk now was angelic. Wisps of soft blonde hair swayed out of the woman's crown of braids to tickle her smooth-skinned cheekbones. Her eyes were vibrant blue, so blue they might have been purple, or maybe that was the way the sun—now fully risen—was hitting them. She carried herself with an intensity unmatched by anyone Rusk had met in his five years of life, and he instantly wanted to be her. In that moment, with her cradling him, telling him in cooing phrases that he was going to be okay, Rusk forgot his pain.
But then he moved the wrong way, twitched at just the right angle, and in a flash of red he remembered. He cried and screamed in the woman's arms, and she held him tight until he fell unconscious. When he awoke later in the safety of his wood- and quilt-furnished room, the woman was there with him, holding his hand as he slept, and so were his parents. His mother and father sat on tall, patchwork cushions near the rounded entranceway in Rusk's periphery and spoke in judgmental whispers.
He snatched his hand from the woman, feeling embarrassed for reasons he couldn't place.
"You're awake," said the woman. "How are you feeling?"
Rusk wondered why his parents weren't the ones asking these questions. He made a noncommittal shrug, and it sent fresh pain tearing through his arms. Immediately his eyes watered, but he contained most of the pathetic noises he started to make by clamping his teeth together. He didn't want to appear weak. He wanted to impress this woman, even though he didn't know her. Maybe he wanted to impress everyone. He'd survived a monster. Even if it were just to his parents and this woman, he wanted to prove he could take what it did to him before he was saved.
"There, there." The woman ran her hand through his hair in a motherly fashion. "Don't overdo it, hon."
"Who are you?" asked Rusk. His voice came out squeaky, which ruined any chance of him impressing anyone.
"A Hero from Sanctuary," said the woman. "My name is Iya. Iya Tarfell. And what's your name, young man?"
"Rusk Veega." Iya smiled softly. She had pretty teeth. Straight, pearly, and flat. Nothing like the monster's. "It's nice to meet you, Rusk Veega."
"Nice to meet you too," said Rusk, because that's what you were supposed to say. "What's Sanctuary?"
His parents stood up and ushered Iya out the door before she could answer.
Two months later, when Rusk had fully recovered but still had scars snaking around his arms from the ordeal, he made an announcement at the dinner table between bites of mashed potato.
"When I grow up I'm gonna be a Hero."
His mother put down her fork. His father shoveled another morsel of food into his mouth and chewed for what seemed like forever. The disappointment was palpable on the air in the long stretch of silence that followed Rusk's declaration.
"That's wonderful dear," said his mother, finally. "We're happy for you."
His father grunted.
Afterward, when they stooped at the edge of the stream behind the cottage washing dishes, Rusk heard his parents conversing in their language over the rush of the turbulent water. They thought he couldn't understand them, but he could. He'd always known both languages, because he'd grown up hearing all the words.
"You shouldn't encourage him," said his father in the older language.
"So I should discourage him?" answered his mother, scrubbing her plate with fervor even though it already sparkled whenever a stream of sunlight hit its surface. "It's the world's job to discourage. I'm his mother. All I have for him is love."
"So you'll love the bad luck he brings?"
His mother huffed.
"I can understand what you're saying," said Rusk in the older language. "And I still want to be a Hero."