It was that time of the year again.
Aryan knew, as soon as he woke up, that it was going to be a rough day. Not for him--though he could not pretend to enjoy it either--but for Ahad.
Fifteen years. It had been fifteen years--yet it never seemed to get any easier for Ahad. He always ended up in a dark place, always ended up grieving.
Today was his family’s death anniversary.
When Aryan woke up, Ahad’s bed was empty beside his, perfectly made as always. Aryan doubted Ahad had slept at all. He dressed and then went out to the kitchen, where his mother was making breakfast.
“Morning,” he said, giving her a kiss on the cheek. “What feast are you feeding me today?”
“Broth,” his mother answered with a smirk, but then added a little seriously, “I didn’t want to seem as if we were disregarding Ahad’s grief.”
Aryan nodded in agreement. “Do you have any idea where he might be?”
His mother shook her head. “He was gone before I woke.”
Aryan grimaced. He knew Ahad wasn’t stupid enough to do anything rash, but he didn’t want him to be alone. Not with--not with it out somewhere again.
He didn’t have to worry for long, however; Ahad came in from the back door then, giving him a singe nod in way of greeting.
“Good morning,” Aryan said cheerfully, sitting at the table. “Care for breakfast?”
“I’m not hungry,” Ahad said shortly.
A look from his mother told him not to push further, so Aryan fell silent and ate.
“Did you go for a walk, Ahad?” his mother asked kindly, smiling at him in her soft way.
“I went hunting,” Ahad said, but it was more to Aryan as he braced his hands on the back of a chair and said, “I’ve found it.”
Aryan sat up, abandoning his food. “Where?”
“Near the river. It’s camping out in the woods. Makes sense, too. The attacks have all been there.”
Aryan blew out a breath. “Did you--did you actually see it, or just find its nest?”
“It was nearby,” Ahad said. “I came back before it could notice me.”
“Good,” Aryan said. “Listen, don’t--”
“Boys,” his mother cut in, “anything I need to know?”
She had the stern look in her eye that said spill. Aryan had never been able to hold out against it.
“The Khauf,” he said quietly, and Ahad’s hands clenched convulsively. “It’s at large again.”
His mother gasped. “How is that possible?”
“It’s very possible,” Ahad said grimly, his knuckles white. “It’s that time of the year, isn’t it? Spring is coming, and this is when it’s at its prime.”
“And the attacks,” Aryan added. “The murders--the bodies all burnt, whole families dead in one strike. It all matches.”
Ahad released a harsh breath. “I’m going to hunt it and try to kill it.”
Aryan shot to his feet. “You will do no such thing,” he said loudly. “It’s suicide!”
Ahad didn’t look like he particularly cared. “I have to, Aryan. These attacks will go on. It won’t stop, and you know it.”
Aryan glared at him. “You can’t do this. Not alone.”
Ahad remained stony. “I’m the only one who can.”
Aryan flinched. It was true, however much he hated to admit it: the Khauf could only be seen by its victims--someone who it had tried to kill and failed.
Ahad was one of the only survivors.
The Khauf had attacked his family fifteen years ago on that very day. His parents and siblings had died, but Ahad, miraculously, had survived.
He himself could not explain how.
And so, Ahad was one of the few that could even see the Khauf. Hunting it was another thing altogether--it was fast, strong and deadly. It had almost every manner of attack--it could burn you with a single touch; rip you to shreds with its teeth; attack your mind and drive you insane with your own thoughts.
Anyone would be insane to try and kill it. It was so deadly, so feared--its very name meant terror.
“It’s not safe, Ahad,” Aryan insisted. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”
“If I don’t risk my own life, hundreds will lose theirs.”
“We’ll deal with it--with proper resources!”
“How?” Ahad demanded. “There is virtually no-one in the whole of Karam who is--” Uncharacteristically, he broke off, sounding like he had choked up. But Aryan heard the unsaid words. Like me.
He swallowed heavily. There was no-one, perhaps, who knew of Ahad’s deep-rooted insecurities as well as Aryan. He knew the momentarily closing of his eyes was him bracing himself against unwanted memories—against the memory of what had gotten him there in the first place.
“Ahad,” he said quietly, but Ahad spun on his heel and stalked away, arms tightly crossed. Aryan fell back into his chair, holding his head in his hands.
“He’s going to get himself killed,” he groaned. His mother sighed and placed a hand on his back, rubbing gently.
“We’ll try to talk him out of it. He’s not stupid, you know it. He always listens to logic.”
“He’s grieving, Mother,” Aryan said. “He wants his revenge--he’s been looking for it for so long. And his conscience won’t let him endanger so many lives just to save his own. I think it should be killed, too--but he can’t do it alone. It’s impossible.”
His mother was quiet for a minute, then said “Ahad does the impossible every day, son.”
Aryan looked at her, puzzled. “What do you mean?”
She smiled, sadly. “He endures.”
Ahad was gone.
“That bastard!” Aryan shouted, running his hands through his hair. “He’s run off!”
“Did you really expect him not to?” his mother asked; Aryan couldn’t argue with that.
“I have to go after him,” Aryan said raggedly, “I have to give him support.”
“Aryan,” his mother said. “If Ahad’s survival has a small chance, then yours has none. You cannot go out there, son.”
“Ahad will have to hold his own. He knows how to take care of himself and retreat if necessary. We can do no more than pray.”
As unfortunate as it was, his mother was right.
“We wait, then,” he said heavily. “King Kellan gave us the day off. I’m going to take advantage of that.”
And so he waited.
It was nightfall, late enough for Aryan to have fallen asleep before Ahad came back.
Aryan was trained enough to wake up at the barest whispers of sound, so he was instantly alert when the room’s door opened.
Ahad trudged in, and Aryan instantly knew that something was wrong. Ahad was hunched over, his steps slow and heavy, and Aryan could hear his breathing--it was uneven and shallow, signalling that something had to be off.
Ahad leaned against his bed, hunched over, and visibly choked back a sob.
Aryan’s eyes went wide. Ahad did not cry. He had to be totally wrecked to let himself cry--
What had the Khauf done to him?
He sat up. “Ahad?”
Ahad stilled, then slowly looked at him. He looked haggard and haunted, his face dirty and pale.
Aryan rolled out of bed, lighting the lamp beside his bed. He examined his best friend for injuries; he had his hand cradled close to himself, and stood as if he would fall any second.
Then he noticed the small pool of blood on the ground and realised Ahad’s hand was injured far more badly than it had seemed at first.
“You’re hurt,” he said, reaching out to Ahad.
“Don’t,” Ahad said--an empty, dull word. Aryan stopped immediately, stepping back to keep a safe distance between them.
It was worse than he’d thought.
Losing his family--and having to remain pressed up against their burnt corpses till he was found--had left Ahad with a horrible aversion to touch. It had gotten slightly better over the years, to the point where Ahad could touch skin for a short time without any negative effects. But there were bad days, on which any brush of skin against skin triggered him into an anxiety attack.
Today, as always before, was a very bad day.
Aryan swallowed. “Did you kill it?”
Ahad looked away and said quietly, “Yes.”
“Wow,” Aryan said, hushed and in awe. “H--How?”
Ahad took a shaky breath. “Burnt it.”
Aryan blinked. A fitting end, he thought, but daren’t voice it. He glanced again at Ahad’s hand. “Ahad, you’re injured.”
Ahad stared at his limb blankly, as if it took a monumental effort to remember that he even had a hand and that it was wounded.
“Sit down, Ahad,” Aryan said gently. “Let me help you.”
Ahad didn’t respond, dazed and eyes unfocused. He swallowed heavily, then said hoarsely, “It made me see them die over and over again.”
Aryan flinched, inhaling sharply. Ahad closed his eyes, his expression cracking.
“I can still hear them, Aryan,” he said, voice shaking. “I can still see them, feel them--screaming, dying.” He shuddered violently, and whispered, “I can’t get it out of my head.”
Aryan closed his eyes against his own tears, and lightly tugged Ahad to his bed. When he’d sat down, Aryan fumbled for the first-aid kit in his chest, then set it aside Ahad.
“I’m sorry,” he said, not knowing anything better to say. “Today was a bad day, I know. But you did something seldom anyone else could have--you saved thousands of lives and survived the Khauf. Tomorrow will be better, Ahad, I promise.”
Ahad released a breath but said nothing, so Aryan opened the kit and told him to let him work on his hand.
“Is it very bad?” he asked. “Are you injured anywhere else?”
“I’m fine,” Ahad said, pulling his hand closer into himself. “I’ll do it on my own.”
“Aryan,” Ahad cut in sharply, himself again. His eyes were hard as always, posture straight. “I said I’ll do it myself.”
Relenting, Aryan stepped away and nodded. “Okay. Sorry.”
Ahad turned away, ignoring him as he rifled through the kit for bandages. Aryan sighed but let him be; he knew from experience that Ahad would not welcome any attempt at helping him.
He stared of the window in his room, and caught a flash of shadow, then muted footsteps. Someone whispered furiously, and the other snorted.
Boys? he thought. Children often played jokes on the village--but who would be up and out at this time of night?
Even injured, Ahad was at the window before him. He threw the window open and peered outside.
Almost immediately, he cursed and turned to Aryan, pulling out his knife. Before Aryan could so much a frown, he said in a rush, “It’s the faes.”