Chapter 8 -- Shadows of the Past
There was fire.
I sprinted towards the top of the ridge, cresting it to find the valley in flames.
Beside me, Evan arrived and gasped, unable to form words.
I caught myself almost hoping that it was just a forest fire. Those happened in the mountains, if only rarely, and not since I had lived here.
I snapped my fingers twice towards Edda, who jumped to attention raised her nose to the sky next to me.
While she did I scanned the flames. There was something… unnatural about the way that the fire had spread, something that I couldn’t just chalk up to the snow on the ground. All forest fires had a cause, and when they began to burn, they burned in every direction until there was nothing to fuel them.
My mind raced. What if… no… couldn’t there… maybe...
No, I was lying to myself, still hoping that what I knew to be true was not.
Forest fires didn’t start in four different places at once.
With the changing of the breeze, Rowan growled, and Edda turned to me with ears perked up and tail at the ready, pawing the ground three times with her front right paw.
That was the signal. The one I had given them for the… whatever had been in the woods.
“Where?” I asked, and Edda pointed her nose to the woods slightly uphill of town.
I looked, but I saw nothing. Had Edda gotten it wrong?
No, surely not.
It was then that saw an entire patch of the forest burst into flames. My blood ran cold.
Of course Edda and Rowan hadn’t known what they were smelling. It had been more than six years since I’d seen one, since the months after the war.
“Thwarp,” I whispered.
I staggered, head rushing with a million thoughts all at once.
“S-s-s-sir?” Evan stammered. “D-d-d-did you just say… th-th-th...”
I turned to Evan, mind still racing. Of course he would have heard about them, in bedtime stories told to keep rowdy children in order, or in hushed words over the campfire from men far older than him. But they would have always a million miles away from here, something confined to those stories.
And now, right in front of his eyes, thwarps were burning his village to the ground.
“S-s-sir?” Evan asked, even more desperate.
“Where is your family right now?” I asked, turning to him suddenly. I had to deal with one thing at a time.
“I-I-wha-” he stammered.
“Where is your family?” I repeated, grabbing him around both shoulders to steady him.
“My mom and my sister are probably at h-h-home,” he stuttered. “Auntie Aurie and Uncle Goff… they’re p-probably at the store.”
“Your mom and sister are closer, we’ll get them first,” I said. “Follow me closely, and obey everything exactly as I say it.”
He nodded, scared to death, and instead of heading back down the road towards my home I sprinted forward along the rim of the valley, down an old game trail. I was followed quickly by my little pack, with the exception of Norah, who I ordered back down the slope towards the Killiara. The horse nodded and galloped off, well aware that I could find her with Edda and Rowan’s help.
I just needed her gone. I couldn’t let her slow me down on the perilous ridge road. Even Evan, who was doing his best, slowed our progress far too much. He nearly fell twice, and his inability to navigate the unsteady ground as fast as I needed him to was beginning to piss me off, even though I tried to control my temper. With each passing moment I watched the fires grow closer to Aurie and Goff’s home, and by the time we reached the section of the ridge that descended straight towards Evan’s house the fires were basically arriving.
We needed to move faster, and we needed that right now.
“Hop on my back,” I ordered, as soon as Evan arrived
“Fuck, faster!” I murmured, and scooped him up into my arms and dropped down the ridge. The trip down was little more than a controlled slide through the snows of the mountain, narrowly dodging trees and boulders that were still poking up out of the powder. Thankfully Evan froze completely still in my arms, and we made quick progress, sliding to a stop on the ground at the end of the mountain road that ran up past the houses.
“Where’s your house from here?” I asked, scanning for something I recognized.
Evan pointed from my arms. I didn’t put him down, and took off through the woods, the smell of smoke drifting past us. I could see the sky brightening under the light of the inferno, and I knew the Exes were getting closer.
That was the military’s official term for them. Extranaturals. Exes. But I knew the truth. They were monsters with power beyond human comprehension. We called them earthwarpers. Thwarps. And honestly it didn’t really matter what we called them, because they would kill you before you gave them a name anyway.
I was snapped out of my thoughts as we arrived, Evan’s house appearing in the woods, where Mare and Kay had stepped out onto their porch flanked by a man I didn’t recognize. It seemed that they heard us crashing through the woods, and it was only with instincts honed from years of training that I dodged the arrow the man loosed just as we stepped out, diving into the clearing and rolling to a stop. I got up and immediately dove to the right, dropping Evan, drawing my own bow, and knocking an arrow before the man could fumble to reload.
“Stop, I have your son!” I barked, arrow pulled to a draw.
“Momma!” Evan cried out as he got up from the ground. His mother pushed away the man who had frozen in place, rushing out to grab him and holding him tight.
“Evan! My baby,” she said, holding the young man tight. “We were so worried!”
I dropped my point of aim, stepping forward.
“Report,” I commanded. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” the man said quickly. “We saw a fire in town, and a bunch of men went down to help fight it, but I haven’t heard anything else. Sorry about th’arrow, I thought you was a bear the way you was crashing through them woods. All them animals can get real spooked in a fire.”
“That’s no forest fire,” I said. “This whole valley is under attack and we need to get everyone out.”
“Under attack??” Kay said. “What are you talking about?”
“Two night ago my hounds detected something that they didn’t recognize, something that they’d never seen here before, and I realize now that it was a thwarp,” I said. “A pack of thwarps from the looks of it.”
The two adults froze.
“Here? In our peaceful little valley?!” Kay shrieked. “Oh my god, Aurie and Goff!”
Kay almost started to run down towards the town.
“Stop right where you are!” I barked. “There’s nothing you can do against them.”
“Are you sure?” the man said. “Thwarps here, coming for us?”
“I need the two of you to grab everyone -- the old, the women and children, even the men that are still left behind -- and go over the ridge and down into the Killiara. Evan will lead you, he knows the way. Once you’re there, don’t stop walking. Get as far lost as you can. My hounds and I will be able to track you, and the thwarps won’t follow you there.”
“You’re telling me that with thwarps in my valley I’ll just run like a little--”
“Shut the fuck up!” I commanded, and he stopped in his tracks. “Swallow whatever goddamn pride you have and save who you can. They don’t want you dead, they want your food and your supplies. If you run, you have a chance, but if you fight, you will die, along with all of the women and children you could have saved!”
“Y-yes sir!” the man said. I turned to Evan.
“Save whoever you can along the way and guide them, I need you for this,” I said. “Be there for them.”
He was quaking in his boots, and I could see that all he wanted was for his mother to hold him, but just like I’d seen the night that I had first met him, the fear in his eyes was quickly replaced by the courage that gave him the strength to stand. He nodded.
“I’ll do it, sir!” he said, and began to direct traffic, telling Kay to grab Mare and calling orders for the other man to check the houses.
I scanned the woods. The light of the fires was growing, but its advance had slowed.
Evan and the others had a chance. As long as we moved quickly, as long as Evan remembered where we had come from and lead them well, they could escape. They could survive the raid.
I turned back and found the young man’s eyes, giving him a nod. Staring death in the face could make young men grow up in an instant, or it could break them.
I believed that Evan would endure.
“Edda, Rowan, klasa!” I barked, a phrase I’d hoped I’d never have to say. It was an activation phrase, to their highest level of alert, and the only level in which they were given the discretion to kill any threat without a command.
Together we began to sprint down the road towards town.
There were five houses between Evan’s house and Aurie’s, and I hit each one of them as fast as I could, kicking down doors and screaming to get out of the city and up the mountains. I had no luck in the first three, the residents probably down to fight what they believed was a forest fire, but was met with a screaming young woman flanked by two crying children as I reached the fourth.
She must have been only a couple of years older than Evan and bore a small but noticeable bump on her belly that told me she was pregnant. As I arrived she screamed, but I grabbed her and shut her mouth, meeting wide eyes.
“I’m here to help you,” I said. “The valley is under attack, and you and these children need to get as far away from here as you can.”
Her eyes went wide.
“Be silent and move quickly,” I said, leading her out the back door and pointing towards the road. “Run up there as fast as you can, and when you reach the end of the road call out for Evan. He’ll guide you. If not, get lost in the woods on the far side of the mountain, my hounds and I will find you. Go!”
She was frozen in panic, and I was on the brink of giving her a shove to get her moving when I felt the air change. It was only a result of years of ingrained experience that I tackled her and the children to the ground just as the house behind us was hit with a torrent of flame.
They were here.
Edda and Rowan had leapt to cover the children as well, diving over the whole small family just as I did, and between the three of us we kept the small family safe as the flames rushed overhead, igniting the branches on the trees just beyond us but failing to catch on the snowy ground. When the fire finally died, Edda and Rowan rolled, dousing singed fur in the snow and flipping around as I did. We had to face the new threat.
“Stay right here,” I whispered to the woman beneath me, who voicelessly obeyed. Then I turned to the house. I could hear commands, some in Edaran and one set that I recognized as the language of the firelands, confirming what I already knew.
They had a Scorcher with them, and maybe more throughout the valley.
With a whisper I directed Edda and Rowan each out to a side, to the woods that surrounded the house, while I crept up through the snow to the back of the burning building, slowly drawing my bow and a steel arrow.
I didn’t hear him, but I felt the Scorcher making his way through the house, heat rising as the fire that encircled him grew closer and closer, and the flames leapt through the ceiling.
On both sides I could hear men circling the house, calling out to each other and the Scorcher about survivors.
Something was wrong. Why would they burn the house before raiding it?
I looked to Edda and Rowan, poised just inside the treeline, and then to the thwarp just about to reach the back door of the house. I stood, drawing my arrow.
One of the men coming around the right side saw me just before the Scorcher kicked the burning door open, early enough to notice me but not quick enough to warn his leader that there was someone here.
“Hey!” the raider cried out, reaching for a weapon as the Scorcher stepped out of the door, clad head to toe in the tribal clothing of his people.
“Vrukta!” I called, a command to Rowan and Edda still on the edge of the forest.
The Scorcher had enough time to look confused before my arrow punched through his eye and out the back of his head, the steel bolt designed for killing bucks at long range doing just fine at thirty yards. He died instantly, and the fire faded around him as he collapsed back through the door.
Suddenly there was silence, shock from the raiders, but then Rowan struck, decapitating the man closest to the forest mirrored closely by his sister on the opposite side. Totally unsure of what to do, the men went into chaos, half focused on me, half focused on the wolfhounds, and all about to die.
I drew a second arrow and knocked it as I scanned the crowd for archers, finding two just as the wolfhounds killed them with bows half-drawn. Under Vrukta the wolfhounds would eliminate the most immediate threat, and having come to respect the danger of my bow and arrows they had chosen correctly. I fired two steel bolts in quick succession at the next biggest threats, the men who had turned to face the wolfhounds. The bolts punched through their leather armor easily, dropping the raiders.
There were only four left on each side from the dozen that had come, but I wanted one alive.
I fired three more bolts in seconds, two into Rowan’s crowd and one into Edda’s before sprinting towards the smaller wolfhound, dropping the bow on the way and drawing two of my knives. The remaining three men had finally gotten their weapons up to ready as I arrived, one holding a spear to keep Edda at bay and the other two charging me screaming.
I feinted a pair of swipes before flipping over the two men, landing and driving one of the knives through the back of the third before he could turn around, and wrestled his spear from his hands as he fell. The others turned around and tried to attack, but I threw the spear straight into the throat of the one on the left before ducking the wild swipe of the third and driving my knife into his pectoral. I lifted him straight up into the air before slamming him down on the ground, pinning him. I grabbed his sword from his now-limp hand and pinned his left shoulder as well, drawing a scream of pain as I whipped around to check the wolfhounds. Rowan was standing across the clearing covered in human blood and breathing heavily, but otherwise he was unharmed. Edda was next to me in similar condition.
“Mirka, Klasa!” I called out, returning them to alert but confirming that their work was done for now. And with that, I returned to the screaming raider still pinned to the earth. He was bleeding out quickly, his struggle only bringing him closer and closer to death, so I had to move fast.
I crouched above him, slapping him across the face and then covering his mouth with my hand.
“How many in the valley?” I asked.
I removed my hand, only to receive a string of bellowed curses.
I stood and stepped down hard on the sword in his left shoulder, cutting the curses off with a shriek of pain.
“How many in the valley?!” I demanded.
“A hundred!” he shrieked. “A hundred men, a hundred, oh god, please!”
I nodded, removing the sword from his shoulder and driving it through his heart, at last silencing him and leaving behind a broken peace.
The house beneath me was still burning, and would be a smoking husk before long, and the snow was red with blood where the men had fallen. The bodies would need to be buried deep before they began to rot and the scavengers descended upon them, but I had no time for that now. The snow would preserve them, if only slightly.
At the sound of footsteps crunching through snow I whipped around, Edda surging to attention at my side only to find the quickly disappearing backs of the small family as they ran up the road towards the hills and the ridge. Good. Whether they were running because they were afraid of me or because the mother had listened to my instructions wasn’t not clear, but they were getting away as fast as they could, which was all that I could ask.
Rowan joined Edda at my side as I quickly turned back around, grabbing the two salvageable arrows that I could from the bodies next to me and and returning them to my quiver as I slung my bow over my shoulder. Then I began to run down the road towards town.
A hundred men. It was too many. Something was off. I had lived through raids in the past, but this felt different.
I upped my speed, and whispered another command to Edda and Rowan.
There were still at least eighty seven men on the mountain.
By the time I reached Aurie and Goff’s house, or what was left of it, there were eighty four men. I checked the rubble only briefly, Edda and Rowan confirming quickly that there were no bodies in the wreckage, and then continued on, skirting the flaming forest where I could and sticking to the thickest snow where the fires hadn’t caught.
By the time I reached the outskirts of town, there were eighty men, and I was running low on arrows, but I didn’t slow down to retrieve them. Edda had picked up on Aurie’s scent, signaling quickly that she had sensed a friend, before darting off the road and into the woods, leaving Rowan and I to give chase. Edda slowed down as we arrived, recognizing even in her increasing distress that we needed to be quiet as we reached town. In another few moments, we arrived through the woods outside the back of Aurie and Goff’s general store.
It was burning, not gone yet but a few minutes away from total inferno, and Edda dashed through the back door, left open, swinging on its hinges. Rowan and I were next through, into the back room which showed signs of struggle.
“Damn it,” I whispered, as I drew my knives again and crept through the store. Shelves had been ransacked and tossed to the side, with windows shattered, wares smashed across the floor, food scattered everywhere, and fires burning all around us.
Edda’s whimper snapped me back to attention, and I vaulted a set of shelves to find myself face to face with Aurie, one eye half-opened as she leaned against the rubble.
“Aurie!” I said, sliding down next to her and patting Edda on the side. The wolfhound was licking at Aurie’s face -- covered in blood and one eye sealed shut from what looked like blunt trauma.
In her lap laid Goff, unmoving.
“You too Val?” Aurie breathed, somehow managing a smile. “Well... if I ain’t the luckiest girl in the world.”
“We need to get you and Goff out of here,” I whispered. “We don’t have much time and I don’t know where they are.”
“Oh... Val,” Val said, gently lifting a hand up and cupping my face. “I don’t think me and Goff are gonna be moving any time soon.”
“You have to, this whole place is going to go up in flames any minute, can’t you see!” I hissed.
Aurie’s eye fell to her lap, and she slowly shook her head.
“Val…” she murmured. It was then that I looked down at her side, where blood was flowing freely out onto the floor.
She had been nearly cut in half at the hip, and it was only the way that she had fallen against the broken shelf that had kept her organs inside and slowed the bleeding for this long. My breath caught as I took a second look at Goff, head nearly removed from his body, and long dead.
“He was such a gentleman,” Aurie murmured, coughing once and then smiling as she petted her husband’s head. “Dove in front to save me at the last second, like the knight in shining armor I knew he always was.”
She reached out with her one good hand and took mine.
“So no, Val, I don’t think me and Goff are gonna be movin’,” she said, laughing ever so slightly and then wincing in pain. She forced a smile back onto her face. “Brought this whole store into the world... might as well go out with it right?”
I squeezed her hand with both of mine, putting my forehead to hers.
“Evan, Mare, and Kay… they’re all safe,” I said. “I hid them in the mountains with as many people as I could. I’m going to fight to save the rest… as many as I can. They’ll be safe.”
Aurie gasped, and squeezed my hand back with all of her strength, eyes flowing with tears as emotion wracked her body. She mouthed words of thanks that she no longer had the strength to say, and brought my hands to her lips to kiss them, just as her eye drifted shut. I felt the strength leaving her body as she settled in against the shelf, hand falling to Goff’s head as her breathing slowed to stop.
Edda stepped closer and licked Aurie one more time on the cheek as I saw the life leave the old woman, leaving her with a smile on her face as she let out a final breath and lay still.
I sat back on my knees, eyes on the fallen couple.
“Evan’s grown so much,” I said, at last. “He’ll be a fine man some day. You two should be proud.”
The growing heat of the fire in the store was my only answer, as the flames began to take behind them.
I closed my eyes and did my best to ingrain them in my heart, to write Aurie and Goff into my memory so that I would never forget their kindness. My life hadn’t always been so generous as to allow that.
“Edda, Rowan,” I commanded, finally opening my eyes and standing to leave. I had been too late for Aurie and Goff, but if I was faster, I could find others.
I gritted my teeth. I had to keep pushing on.
With a screeching crack one of the main supports of the roof buckled, nearly bringing the roof of the entire place down on us. Rowan was quick to respond, dashing towards the door in the back, but Edda took one last moment to look at Aurie, bumping her head against the old woman, before her ears drooped as she realized that the woman was finally gone.
“Come on Edda,” I said. We passed through the rows of overturned shelves that had once lined the store and to the back, where the happy couple had always counted up and paid for my hunt.
I stopped at the counter.
“Got nothing to sell you today Aurie,” I murmured, running a hand over the well-worn wood. “I’m sorry...”
“Fuck!” I shouted, and hammered my fist through the wood of the countertop. “God fucking damn it!”
Suddenly, there was a tremendous cracking of wood, and I was forced to dive out of the way as the entire archway leading to the meat cellar collapsed forward, splintering the counter into pieces and sending Edda and Rowan skittering back. I swore as I got to my feet, coughing as a wave of smoke filled my lungs.
On any other day I would have gotten up and left, but for some reason, the smell in the air made me stop.
Something was wrong. Something had been wrong the entire time. I had seen thwarp raids before, and even though this looked like one, something was different.
I crept over the flaming remains of the shattered counter, finding my way to the front of the cellar and then standing silently against the roaring flames.
Scattered across the floor laid the remains of oil-soaked torches, there to set fire to the rows and rows of shelves still piled high with fresh, carefully wrapped meat.
In the store there had been food everywhere, scattered across the ground like it didn’t matter.
Because that was it.
To them, the food didn’t matter.
The men, the men on the mountain road, they had been searching for survivors.
Not supplies. Not food.
In the seven years since the war, Edarans had learned to fear their enemies, the half-human monsters that they believed lived in the wild places beyond the safety of Edaran walls and cities. They feared those who lived deep in the woods, or far out to sea, or hidden in the ice, or concealed under the sands -- those demons that they believed… no, that they knew were waiting, planning, watching, with a sole purpose: to bring Edara burning to the ground.
Thwarp. A name with the power to turn neighbor against neighbor. The power to turn order to chaos. The power to bring death down upon the innocent. The name of terror.
But there was something that those of the free nations had learned to fear as well. A man that made even the boldest, the most violent, the most powerful worldbender look out and fear the dark. And even though that man had disappeared at the fall of Heaven’s Gate, his name had only grown over the seven years until each man, woman, and child of the lands beyond Edara knew to fear it, lest that dark avenger return and finish what it had started -- the extermination of the free peoples.
The many nations had many names for him.
Nymrasa. The Night Hunter.
Maelok. The Blood King.
Drana. Demon of War.
Ukira. The Mist Walker.
Vaegar. The Winter’s End.
But they were united in their stories.
Of a man clad in steel with the strength of a bearcat and the speed of a charging greatwolf.
Of a silent death from which no man across plain or forest or ocean or desert was safe.
Of an unstoppable force before whom armies burned and monsters bowed.
And of the merciless guardian of the nation of Edara, who had risen to ensure that their flag would forever fly.
And as night fell, after seven years of peace, in the small valley just to the west of the Killiara, the Iron Wolf of Edara began to hunt again.