CHAPTER ONE: Nowhere But West
The cold is piercing. I’m standing out in the Dark, feeling nothing else save for the volatile and unpredictable wind whipping the tender skin on my cheeks rambunctiously. I’ve almost forgotten what I’m waiting for, that’s how bad it is. But every time I feel like turning around and heading back to the comfort of my warm, hide blankets, I remember why I’m here. And I wait. Out in the cold, where my fingers and toes are beginning to go numb even tucked beneath my double-layered gloves and wool socks.
It feels like it’s been at least a few hours of waiting when Rayden finally shows up. Perhaps my sense of time has been drastically slowed, suspended in the malevolence of the freezing point. I hear the sound of his footsteps clunking in the distance. He’s wearing heavy boots. Probably dressed in full gear. It would be foolish of me to make my move now, in the icy Dark when my hands and feet are near frozen solid.
Especially on this guy, who thrives in the Dark. With eyes of legend that I’ve only seen for myself once before. A few days prior.
I feel his shadow appear before me and his eyes glow in the dark like tiny moons. The whites shine and the incandescent greyish blue color is hypnotizing. But that doesn’t work on me. Rayden knows.
“Did you bring it?” I say.
He holds out his right arm and it’s clear something is dangling from his fingers. It’s impossible for my eyes, weak and unfocused as they usually are even in Light, to make out the identity of this unlucky man. This person whose head has been disconnected from his body and now dangles from the fingertips of a cold blooded killer, scrunched under white knuckles that grasp his cranium by a filthy clump of matted blood and tangled hair. But I can smell the blood, his blood, and I can hear the wet oozing drops trickling onto the stony ground. It’s enough evidence to convince me, but I’m not happy about it.
“Did he suffer?”
Rayden sounds raspy, as if he hasn’t exercised his voice box in who knows how long. “No one on my list suffers. Every name I’m given gets a quick and painless death. I’m not a psycho, just doing my job.”
My insides explode as the reality hits me. Dagger is dead. I’ve been hunting him for years, driven by nothing but my sweet, pure hatred, and now this bounty hunter comes along and just chops off his head like it’s nothing. I hate this guy. This glowy-eyed hit man who smells like the thick musk of the Barren.
“Who hired you to take out Dagger?”
“Sorry, Zeva, no can do. Our clients are kept 100% anonymous. It’s a general rule of business.”
I role my eyes and wonder if Rayden can see me. I’ve heard tales of his endeavors from wanderers and villagers alike. A murk for hire out in the Barren land that was once the Western hemisphere of the United States, now nothing more than an endless abyss of flat, vacant Hell. Normal people don’t live in the Barren, and if they do, it won’t be for long. It’s filled with the worst mutants and monsters, all products of the Bio War of Old.
I’m not sure what Rayden is, but the accounts I’ve heard about his radiant, hypnotizing eyes are no myth. Anyone with eyes like that is enough to make me uneasy. Anyone who willingly lives in the Barren is enough make me uneasy. I’ll get the name out of him, but not tonight. My senses know enough to warn me when I need to tread lightly.
Rayden tosses Dagger’s severed head to my feet then turns and trudges away without another word.
I sigh and take my bag off my shoulder, unbuttoning it as I bend down to pick up the head. Once Dagger is safely tucked away in my satchel, I fasten it and start heading back to the village, with nothing but the thought of a good sleep wrapped in my bearskin furs driving me forward.
It’s been nearly a week since I met Rayden in the Dark to retrieve my proof of Dagger’s death. The severed head that I acquired from our meeting sits on my nightstand, once dripping blood now crusted and brown, streaking down the side of the old oak table. It’s stinking up my bedroom with the stench of death, but that scent has never really bothered me for some reason. Whereas most people will wince away and gag in horror and disgust, I feel a certain tranquility when I’m surrounded by the musty smell of decay. As if Dagger’s head is serving as a pile of soothing, sweet scented air enhance herbs.
I look at him for a few moments, as has become my ritual when I wake, and I try to picture what it was like when he died. His face is slowly becoming unrecognizable. The dark mustache is cracking off as it decomposes and his bright colored eyes are beginning to transform into nothing but vacant sockets. His hairline, once thick and long, is receding as his scalp flesh becomes weaker. I reach my hand out to touch his face gently, startling a Wartroach that must have been making a home for itself in Dagger’s ear. It scuttles out of his lobe and across his face, crawling up into his nostril in hopes of finding a more peaceful sanctuary.
A scowl of loathing is fixed on my face, giving me an ugly look. But I’ve never cared about whether or not I was pretty, plus it’s a fitting look for me. My hate is ugly. My inner self is ugly. This world is ugly. “I swore to you someday I’d mount your head in my quarters. And I’m a woman of my word,” I say to the head with an unnecessary viciousness.
I grit my teeth as a feeling of helpless incompetence overcomes me. I turn away from the head and kick my bedpost as hard as I can. There’s a shattering pain in my foot but I don’t much care.
“But I wanted to be the one to do it. I wanted to be the one to make you suffer, to look into your eyes as the light left them.” I pick up an old drinking glass and spin around, chucking it as hard as I can at the wall.
The anticipated shatter fails to sound. Instead, I’m startled by a man standing in the corner of my room, leaning against the wall, slightly slouched with one leg resting up in a casual position. His eyes are narrowed and his head is tilted downward, with the usual conceded grin spread across his face, hand outstretched and clasping the glass only millimeters before it made contact with the wall.
“Quite rambunctious this morning, aren’t we?” he says in his deep, sand-papery voice. He turns the glass over in his hand speculatively. “Glass like this can only be found in the Atlantic District. I never took you for someone to waste a rare treasure.”
I roll my eyes, walking over to him and crudely yanking the glass out of his hand and setting it back down. “What do you want? It’s the 12th of Dark. I don’t have another training session until the 1st of Light, which means I shouldn’t have to be seeing you for another 4 days.”
“Come with me. I’m leaving on a journey, and it’s important that I leave during Dark. I need my pupil by my side, my most skilled pupil.”
I hesitate. I’m always anxious to go on a mission, anything at all to travel away from the boring village. But my usual fiery vigor seems absent, why is that? I glance at the head on my nightstand.
“How can you stand to sleep in here with that rancid smell? Which, by the way, I noticed you finally got him, that Dagger guy you had it out for. Congratulations.” He shoots me a mocking I told you so look. His goal is to remind me of something he’s preached to me over and over: vengeance brings no solace.
But I still think he’s wrong. It’s not an empty, post-avenger misery that I’m experiencing. It’s more like a feeling of failure and resurfacing grief mixed in with it. All of these years I’ve been directing my grief toward the very person who caused it, and by doing so I have buried those feelings, leaving them dormant and unable to subside until I killed their creator. But I didn’t get to kill him, so now I feel a nagging sting of incompleteness, and I have no idea where to channel any of it.
“I’m just…recovering from some recent things, Master. But I’m still ready to come with you, without a doubt. So go ahead, what’s the mission?”
“We’re heading West, to recover something of great importance.”
Normally I would spit something sarcastic back to him, reproaching him about the utter vagueness of his explanation, but something else is gripping me and it’s all that I’m thinking about. I’m trembling on the inside and trying with everything I have to keep my terror from showing. I take a gulp to regroup and it feels like I just swallowed bricks that are now resting heavily in my fluttering gut. “West? What could possibly be West?”
“What’s wrong? Didn’t take you for someone scared of the things that go bump in the night. I mean there’s a rotting, severed head sitting on your night stand for God’s sake.”
“Nevermind. Get your things together as soon as you can. Meet me at the outer gate, I’ll be waiting.”
I feel embarrassed. How am I going to break it to Master that I’m not going? He’ll never let me hear the end of it.
“I’m not scared of the Barren. I’ve been out there before, many times,” I say with a slight shutter.
“Doesn’t change the fact that you’re scared. Cut it out, I saw it in your eyes the moment the word West came out of my mouth. No need to hide it from me.”
Fuck him. Beady eyed prick. “Well, good then there’s no need for me to explain myself. I’m not going West. The only thing West of here is the Barren and I’m not going to the Barren ever again. That’s final.”
“Alright, alright. I won’t push you. But I’ll wait at the gate for a little bit, just in case you change your mind.”
Master is out the window hole before I have a chance to say anything else. I’m left alone in silent contemplation.
I begin mechanically changing my clothes, thinking about what my master is about to do, and wondering if I’m horrible for leaving him to do it alone.
I take off my large sleeping shirt and pull my heavy furs out of my dresser. During the Dark it’s bitter cold. A whopping 10° is about as high as the temperature gets during the 16 long sleep intervals of Darkness, and that’s only on a really good rotation.
Most people prefer to stay indoors during Dark, get most of their errands done ahead of time during Light, but there’s still a few shops and places that stay in business during Dark for the select few people who go out in it.
I’ve never been afraid of Dark. Hunting the plethora of nocturnal game that’s active in Murkfrost Forest is how I’ve made my living. But the mutated clones that live in Murkfrost are docile and tame compared to the things that exist in the Barren.
I finish my routine by fastening a pair of fur-lined gloves tightly around my wrists. I grab my hunting bow from the corner of the room and sling it around my shoulder, and my knife from a drawer, sliding it into a notch that I sewed in the back of my furs. I open the door of my hut, grabbing my latrine bucket on the way.
All seems calm in the once North Dakota mountain village that is now called Urslim. The people here are timid and frightened of the Dark, especially given the fact that this village has no other villages West of it. It borders the Barren directly. I see the silhouette of one, maybe two people lurking around. There’s a dim light in the distance that I know to be Garda’s, a hobbling old woman who sells fish and only has her stand opened during Dark for some reason.
I’m starving and consider purchasing a fish to keep my strength up until I kill something, but decide against it. Fish around these parts have become so horribly mutated that I’m not sure what they even are anymore. Nourishment, sure, but none that I’m willing to dine on until I’m literally starving to death. I prefer the simplicity of the Elkeer or Grey Bear meat that I find in the forest. Still mutated species, but not horrifying like the fish. Sometimes I’ll happen across a squirrel. A 100% natural animal, only a relic from the past. Most of them died out with the rest of the animals, but some squirrels managed to tough it out, survive and reproduce a very small population. I’m sure there are other species out there that were able to do the same, but squirrels are all I know about. Their meat is a lot worse in consistency than the Elkeer and Grey Bear, but the flavor is brilliant.
I dump my latrine bucket at the edge of town with the rest of the villagers’ excrement and then start heading up the mountain and into Murkfrost. About halfway, I stop dead in my tracks as I’m overcome by a chill. The weather outside has to be in the negative 20s, but the chill isn’t climate related, it’s something far worse. For some reason, I’ve always had unique senses. Able to hear or smell even the most faintest of things from long distances and able to tell when danger is looming. So far, I have never been wrong.
Instantly swarmed with panic, I break out into a sprint back toward the village. I’ve never felt like this in Urslim. The place may be dangerously close to the Barren, but it’s also a wasteland. Filthy. Rotting. Filled with only misery and barely any life at all. The people here are so helpless, they’ve never experienced any sort of attack. There’s nothing here worth attacking, and perhaps that’s what makes this place special.
But there’s no denying what I feel, and as I stop to catch my breath once I make it back, huffing and puffing, I find that I’m right by Garda’s. I trot over to the dilapidated fish stand.
“Evening, Zeva,” the old woman says to me. “Fish for your hunt?”
“Thanks, but no thanks, Garda. I have a strange feeling. Like doom is coming to Urslim and I can’t shake it. I think you should shut down for the remainder of the Dark, at least until I sort out what’s making me feel this way. Safer to stay indoors.”
She laughs a croaking, almost silent guffaw. “Danger. What an odd word. In the olden days it was used to describe unpleasant things, things that could harm you. But today, well today I can’t understand how it would have much meaning. Danger is everywhere. In our world, in our villages, in our beds, even in our very selves. Yes, child, danger is not something that would have me scuttling back into my hut.”
She did have a point. What use was worrying about danger at any one specific time? Maybe we’d be better off treating our lives as one big hazard, at least then we’d have no room for disappointment when faced with something truly terrifying. “Will you at least let me sit with you until I sort myself out? It would make me feel a lot better.”
The old woman nods and motions for me to join her behind the shelter of her small counter. She shambles over to where the fish are hanging, some with about as many eyes as a fly, and cuts one down. She begins cutting and cleaning it and dressing it with a hardened fish-lard that serves as a sort of butter. Then she sprinkles a few unknown things over it and serves it up to me on a stone dish. “Free of charge,” she says.
I look at the thing. Fatter than it is long, but at least this one only has, one, two, three, four, eyes. Not like some of the other ones. It smells worse than my latrine bucket though and I spot a patch of fur on it. Fur. Since when does it make any sense at all for a fish to have fur. I’m surprised the things are surviving at all up here. The microbe infested waters nearer the Barren must be the reason behind them turning out like this. It’s the only explanation. I decide to stop looking at the thing and just eat it, wouldn’t want to hurt Garda’s feelings.
I take a bite and I’m amazed at how good it is. The fish-lard really compliments it, gives it a certain juiciness and flavor. Maybe I’m just really hungry, but I down the rest of the thing without hesitation and take a small piece of rusted metal out of my pocket and place it on Garda’s counter. “Here, take this. Just because your fish is delicious, regardless of how mutated it is.” I smile at Garda but she doesn’t seem complimented, more like slightly offended that I would say something like that about the fish.
I open my mouth to say something to try and cover myself but stop as I feel my ear give a slight twitch. There’s a sound in the distance, but I can’t quite make it out. Slowly, it’s getting nearer the village and the most terrifying part is that it’s not coming from the East, or the forest in the North, but the sound is approaching from the West. Nothing that comes from the West could ever be good news.
I’m listening intently now and I feel sweat begin to produce and trickle down my face. Yes, yes that’s it. There’s no mistaking it. It’s buzzing. It’s getting close now. So close that I think even the normal ear can hear it, for I see Garda’s head tilt to the side and look up with a puzzled expression.
“And now here has come your danger, Zeva,” she says with an insouciance.
“Stay here,” I say. That is the last time I ever see Garda.
I whip the longbow off of my shoulder and slip an arrow into the quiver, taking up a hunched defensive stance as I prowl toward Urslim’s entrance. I made the bow myself, like most of my things. My sweat and blood forged into the strong, Snakewood body and hand crafted arrowheads. This thing pulls back at 200lbs, and I’ve never once missed my target. I feel sorry for whoever plans on attacking our village. But deep down, my fear is more apparent than ever.
As usual, I’m kidding myself into believing that I’m not frightened of anything. But that’s not the case. I’m frightened of plenty. Especially things that come from the West.
I swallow hard as I listen to the buzzing that is almost upon me. If it were Light, I’d be able to see what was coming by now over the vast, desert plain, but in the Dark all I can do is listen. If only I had that hit man, Rayden’s, eyes. Then I could get a little bit of an idea of what I was facing before it was upon me.
The buzzing is ringing so loudly that I know it’s finally right on top of me, and I can sense the other villagers beginning to come out of their huts now, to see what’s going on. And then, all of the sudden, the sound stops and all is utterly silent. If I hadn’t been able to feel the evil presence upon me, I would have thought that there was nothing there.
I wait for what feels like forever, bow at the ready, nothing to be heard accept the sound of my own deep breaths.
And then something rushes at me. It’s big, really big and I’m thrown to the ground releasing the arrow accidentally. It must make contact with something, at least, because I hear a high-pitched grunt of pain, followed by the sound of something dropping to the ground, from what sounds like a high distance.
And then I suddenly know exactly what it is. Trotter Bees. I hope whatever idiot came up with the bright idea to create a horse/bumble bee mutation is burning in Hell right now. A bee sized horse, now that would have been just adorable. But no, instead we are cursed with horse-sized bees, vicious as fucking hyenas.
It’s the Blue Children that ride atop the Trotter Bees. Don’t let their name fool you, these are no innocent children. More like tiny, mutated Goblins with a blue tint to their skin. Some say they are radioactive, people affected by direct exposure to the sun during Light. Other’s say they actually are children, children who were given The Cure long ago and unable to adapt to it fully, mutating into vicious little cannibals. I’m not sure what they really are, but I do know that they used to be human, and that’s perhaps the scariest part.
I feel the ground beneath my feet slightly pattering as Blue Children begin dismounting their loyal companions. I count the dismounts… four, five, nine, eleven, fifteen, nineteen… too many to count. This is very bad, the cannibals have come for my village. It must be slim pickings in the Barren these days, and plus, the Blue Children prefer the taste of raw, pure human flesh above any of the mutated trash that they can find in the Barren.
I grab another arrow and slide it in the quiver, closing my eyes and taking a long, deep breath. I’m preparing to fight them using only my ears and nose. I try to think of everything that Master has ever taught me and all I can come up with are bickering arguments between us. Damn, why don’t I listen to Master more often?
“Peace and serenity. Peace and serenity,” I keep chanting to myself, but it feels wrong. Master told me that I could not achieve total blind fighting, devoid the use of my eyes, unless I was able to find peace and serenity.
But it’s not there, I can’t find it. And suddenly, in one quick instant, an entire day flashes before my eyes…
“Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” I’m practicing my techniques, chanting the necessary “ha’s” that I always hear Master uttering when he practices. Some ancient oriental thing no doubt, but I enjoy it and understand it. Chanting while you train really helps focus your energy and spirit.
“Very good, Zeva. You are as quick as ever to catch on, looks like this technique is nothing to you. Come on, let’s have a spar.”
I’m grinning as I spin around to face him, taking up a protective stance of my own creation. “Okay, Master. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
He doesn’t look amused. “What is that stance? It’s all wrong. You are hunched over, like some wild animal. Sure it’s a great stance for an animal, but not a human being. Watch how easy it is for me to hit you.”
He spins around faster than my eye can follow and tries to open palm me square in my face, but I swing my claw like hands up in the nick of time, swiping his hand to the side, then firmly grasping it as I pull him in for a bite to the jugular. Naturally, I stop before biting him, leaving my teeth clamped around his throat for a second before I ease up and let go. “See, you can’t hit me with my new technique. It’s flawless.”
He scowls. “That technique is feral and downright inhuman. I’m teaching you the art of hand-to-hand combat, short cuts with your teeth and fingernails may work in some situations, but that’s the easy answer. The way that the weakling who cannot fight makes himself a match for someone who can.”
“But I like this style of fighting. I don’t mind training to learn all of the other boring styles. In fact, if it wasn’t for me learning all of those basics, I would have never been able to develop my own technique. Don’t you think I should be using something that I feel comfortable with? Everybody needs to forge their own path.”
He thinks for a moment and then retorts something back to me. We argue about this for the better part of three Darks until Master finally concedes, telling me that maybe I was right. This is something extremely unusual, so of course I’ll never forget it.
“I’ve been thinking, Zeva, maybe you are right. You’ve always been unique, like no one I’ve ever encountered. If this feral technique that you’ve come up with works for you, then great. Just as long as you aren’t taking shortcuts in your training. It’s okay to make your own path if you don’t forget to continue polishing all of your basics.”
I’m in the middle of my warm-up exercises when he’s telling me this and I stop short, standing up and turning to face him, a puzzled look painted across my face. “Soo, you’re telling me that I was right and you were wrong?”
“You’re missing the point. It’s not about who was right and wrong. It’s about keeping a style that fits you. Every person is different, and you are very, very different. So it was close-minded of me to view your style as wrong just because it was strange to me. There is no such thing as a wrong technique, only a wrong attitude. Which, when it comes to attitude I stand my ground when I say that yours is all-wrong.”
“Yeah, yeah I know. Peace and serenity. Forgiveness. Fill your heart with love. All that crap you’re usually preaching. But still, I was right and you were wrong!” I grin at him and start doing a joyous victory dance, joking around and then I go on with my training, content as ever that my Master has come as close as he ever has to actually accepting me.
It’s this thought that flashes through my mind and gives me an idea as I’m trying to muster up my peace and serenity. Just because Master said that I need peace and serenity doesn’t mean that’s the only right answer. There is no right or wrong when it comes to technique. I need to forge my own path. I need to do what feels comfortable for me. And peace and serenity was never my forte. But perhaps if I could find some place in between my rage and inner serenity, then that could be my fighting light.
I take a deep breath and let all the bad things in my life flash before my eyes. It’s too much. It’s making my blood boil and my skin crawl and all I want to do is lash out my hatred.
My thrashing about in the Dark without knowing what I’m thrashing isn’t going to do me any good though, so I then think of all the things that I’ve ever loved. The hateful rage is still there, darkening my already tar-covered soul, but now there is a light, a small light, but nevertheless something I can use to see.
“Wow,” I say as the world around me transforms into something placid and unthreatening. “I can see,” I say, eyes still resting shut, “I can see!”
Every sound, every smell, has become a hundred times more potent. “So this is what it means to tap into my power.”
There’s a click and a whoosh at my 2 o’clock and I spin round, letting my arrow fly into the rapidly beating heart of a Blue Child. Then another, and another, and another, all followed by dead Children falling from their mounts to the dirt.
I’m quick to recollect my arrows from their huffing, slow dying chests. I never forget to do this, no matter what type of situation I’m in. The things are absolute Hell to carve.
Then, as I’m overwhelmed with deafening buzzing, I’m struck with an idea. There’s a Trotter Bee after me, with a Child at the mount and I seemingly retreat, forcing it to follow me and break away from the chaos.
As I run, leading the thing deeper and deeper into the village, I can feel the outline of 27 beating hearts. I can tell they are villagers, because their hearts beat with a different rhythm than the Blue Children’s. Good, I think, now I know I won’t accidentally kill one of my people.
It’s not usual for this many villagers to be out. I’m surprised, because they stay indoors during Dark for fear of running into something sinister, yet when something evil finally does come, in the dead of Dark, here they are, standing in awe like foolish children. Stupid people, I think as I dodge around another villager. Stupid, stupid Urslim.
I take a sharp right turn and make it to the Windmill, the highest spot in the village and begin climbing to the top. When I finally reach the highest point, the Trotter Bee and it’s Child companion have caught up to me.
I load up an arrow while balancing on the narrow wooden beam and unleash it right through the Child’s eye, listening to the sound of the air as he gracefully falls, landing with a rumbling thud that I feel vibrate up through the Windmill’s foundation and into my body. I almost lose my balance and fall, but I transform my unstable teetering into a leap and aim myself toward the remaining Trotter Bee, narrowly landing on its back and having to grasp onto its surprisingly silky fur.
I give it a stroke and a nudge and off it goes. Steering is a little shaky at first, but it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it.
The Windmill is at the backside of the village, just before the mountain begins to ascend up into Murkfrost, so I begin riding my new mount back toward the edge of town, hoping it’ll be easier to take out Children when I’m at their height.
But what’s in the distance is madness. I can hear it, hundreds of them. No, got to be thousands of them, swarming Urslim. This town is lost. They will swallow it whole before I even get a chance to take out 1% of them. I glide my Bee down toward the ground, hoping to warn people and grab a few of the little ones on with me, but it’s already carnage.
There’s a barely audible heartbeat. It’s… it’s a child’s. I hear him gurgling and I instantly recognize him. It’s Hoggie, the little boy that lives next to me with only his father.
He’s always been such a sweet, timid little kid. Sickly as the Dark is long, but most new children are these days. I used to bring him and his father over excess meat that I had left after I sold as much as I could in the market. What a shame. I spur my Bee to halt as I quiver an arrow and quickly send it soaring into Hoggie’s head. Better to put him out of his misery than to let him die whilst two Blue Children are feasting on him.
There’s too much happening on the ground, Urslim is lost. I have to get away from here. I yank my Bee upward and as I’m raising to higher ground, a Blue Child hurls itself from its mount and onto mine, rabidly attacking me. I manage to get ahold of it in a way that makes it impossible for it to move, but still, it’s able to take a decent sized chunk out of my forearm. I yelp in pain and punch the thing as hard as I can. It doesn’t seem to mind though, it’s chewing on a piece of food that’s supposed to be attached to my arm.
But then it does something weird. It spits my flesh out and makes a face of disgust. Stunned, I loosen my grip on the thing and it takes this opportunity to leap away from me back onto its mount.
“What the hell,” I say. There’s nothing these things enjoy more than pure, raw human flesh. Then why doesn’t it like me?
I push the strange occurrence out of my mind and nudge my Bee into full gear. I’ve got to get away from this village. I’ve got to find my Master and join him, there’s nowhere else for me to go. Nowhere but West.