A young boy stared down at his warm and sticky hands. Night veiled all, yet he knew what slicked his fingers; blood, but not his own.
His shadowed form stood amid a cluster of cottages. The village slept on, oblivious and undisturbed. Horses soundlessly slept in their stalls. A bat flailed past, its fanged mouth open in a silent scream. A breeze touched all with cold fingers. The lad’s mud-caked bare feet sloshed back and forth as he frantically grasped for reality. The night’s chilled air forced goosebumps along his arms and he shook; not with cold, but with terror.
At his feet lay another lad, sprawled and trembling. His labored breath filled the silent village as his hands clasped his stomach, blood pouring from a gaping slice onto the sludge-covered ground. The attacker stepped back, his chest heaving. He let the knife slip from his hands. The two looked at each other with equal horror.
A scream tore through the silence.
The attacker wheeled around. He eyed a young woman standing in the doorway of the cottage nearest to him. Her face paled, whiter than her nightgown, as the dress dragged across the door’s threshold. He swallowed hard. She looked at him with a hand over her mouth, her eyes glistening with tears. She backed away, her beautiful face contorted by panic.
“No, no, no,” she moaned, shaking her head. “Ralker, get up. Please, love! You can’t—we’ve got to marry and be together and . . . Get up!”
The youth watched her hug herself, rocking, a gesture he knew meant horror filled her. He wiped his hands on his clothes as though to hide the blood, never wanting to cause her pain. Red blood smeared with the mud already soaked through the fabric. The wind raced between them, her nightdress flapping like a trapped bird’s wings. She turned to the murderer, her watery gaze searching his hunched form, as she fumbled to understand. “What did you do?” He turned away, suddenly cold. “Warrick! What did you do!” Her words pierced the lad’s heart.
He fumbled for words as he listened to Ralker’s desperate gasps. The girl scoffed, tears streaming down her paled cheeks. “How could you do this?” Warrick had no reply, his heart quivering. “You’re a dog, Warrick. A Wraith’s dog!”
Buzzing whispers lifted from the cottages as a dog began to bark. Voices drifted through the village and people stepped from their homes. Some lit hissing torches and looked out with squinted eyes. The guilty lad stared at each in turn, his fire-red hair bright in the torches’ glow. A shiver snaked up Warrick’s spine as he saw their wide eyes, confused and searching for answers. They would see his bloody crime, see the young man battling for life at his feet in the mud.
He turned back to the lass as a tear slid down her ashen cheeks.
“How could you—”
He charged down the muddy streets and through the village he had once called home. His lungs burned as he ran. His eyes looked intensely into the darkness that lined the horizon. As he rounded a corner, he slammed into a man. They staggered and nearly fell. The murderer caught himself and hurtled onward before the man could react. A wail jutted through the night, and he knew the villagers had discovered his deed. Ralker lay dead in the mud, and Lahanna . . . she had looked at him with such hatred—
Warrick flew from the village. The wind slapped his face, stinging his nose and cheeks with ice. His heart beat against him as he ran over one hill, then another, the hills’ tall grasses tangling his legs like green fingers. The darkness on the horizon grew nearer until he could see the forest’s jutting silhouette. The young man stopped once he reached its edge, and collapsed.
Warrick’s loud gasps rattled in his throat, and his stomach turned. He doubled over with a cough and vomited. His chest heaved, fighting for air as the night’s cold, the villagers’ distant cries, and the vomit made his thoughts spin. He groaned and spit the vile taste from his mouth, eyes closed tight. Hearing distant shouts, he jolted upright and looked back. The village was dotted with dozens of torches. As he watched, some grew nearer. They were coming for him.
The lad turned back to the forest, but he did not rise. Warrick stared at the horror-infested trees as they swayed in the cold wind, remembering unsettling tales told and retold about the haunted wood. The forest’s shadows seemed darker than the night. An owl called. It was a low, mournful song. He froze and looked for it, his eyes leaping from tree to tree. He knew the owl’s orange gaze could see his hidden form. It could tell the villagers where he knelt! It could be hunting for his blood too! With a labored breath, he struggled to his feet, and stepped forward.
A stooped form blocked his path.
Warrick let out a cry that hurt his throat, and fell back, gaping at the stranger who appeared out of nowhere. Before him stood a tall man hunched with age, dressed in a cloak with the hood drawn low. The wind wafted over the cloak, distorting the dark fabric like a shadow’s sadistic dance. He held his hands before him and toyed with golden rings strung on his fingers. A sharp nose poked from the hood’s empty mouth, and two eyes, so gray they appeared black, stared down sharply as though trying to cut the boy in two. The gray eyes twinkled with dark amusement.
A smile twitched at the corner of the stranger’s mouth.
“I’m terribly sorry, Warrick.”
The stranger thumbed a ring and began to pace around the young murderer. The lad hunched lower into the grass as his hair stood on end. The stranger grinned, his cloak waves of black in the wind.
“They should not have denied you Lahanna.”
The fallen boy swallowed hard and wiped his mouth, smearing blood and grime across his face. Warrick said nothing as his mind whirled with thoughts he did not understand. The owl hooted again, long and low, like a mirthful laugh.
“But you must come now, and speedily.” The stranger held out his hand, his eyes sharp as knives. “They are coming. I will take you to your new home, to a hidden world. I will train you to be strong and invincible so no one will have the power to refuse you any wish again.”
The haunted boy stared up at the elder. He looked so tall, so powerful. Villagers’ voices drew closer still. He flinched at their distant cries and wiped his mouth again.
“Lad. Do you know how long you shall kick when they hang you?” Warrick ducked low, his breath shaking as it hissed through his clenched teeth. “Your face will turn blue and your tongue will swell, protruding from your purpled lips. You must come with me. You have no other choice. You know that.”
The villagers shouted orders, organizing themselves to begin the manhunt. Warrick swallowed hard and rubbed his throat, already feeling the noose coil his neck and wrench the life from him. With numbed fingers, he took the elder’s hand. The boy stood and faced the stranger as the wind blew between them. He looked into the man’s gray eyes; the shadow of power was in their depths. With a nod, he glanced back at all he had ever known, his village, his family, his love—
“Don’t look back!” the robed man hissed. The boy stiffened and dropped his gaze. “Don’t ever look back.” He motioned to the Wraith-infested forest, and the two walked forward. With a swallow, the boy stepped under the tree’s curved branches. His gaze hardened as the darkness enveloped him.
He did not look back.