'I didn't abandon you; is that what you truly believe? That you were a burden I longed to be rid of at the earliest opportunity? Do you not recall the four other villages we passed on the way to Dalvell? Did it escape your notice that you were fed, and washed, with warm furs and a lamp by your side every night because I knew how terrified you were of the darkness? I kept you safe, Hallow, not because I had to, but because I wanted to. You were; no you are important to me, and not because I'm asking you to join us, but because I've thought about you every day since I said goodbye on the healer's doorstep that day. Hoping and praying that you were alive and thriving somewhere far away from the touch of the Noctyds'
The Fracture occurred when Hallow was just sixteen summers old; multiple doorways to the realms of Noctyds suddenly opened; unleashing unspeakable horrors and slaughtering thousands. Hallow's village was at the epicentre of the most devastating swarm ever unleashed, and as a result was the last remaining survivor. She is the only person living to walk unscathed from a rabid arachnae attack. She was eventually found by the King's Armed Guard and promptly abandoned at the first available tribe by the one person she had grown to trust. She has vowed never to allow another into her trust and instead focus on hunting the Noctyds that stalk the earth.
Dryden and his band of companions believe they may have finally found a way to rid their people of the Noctyd forever. The only problem is they need another to join their quest. Can Dryden convince Hallow to trust him after he left her all those years ago? And can Hallow help them close the portals to the realm of Noctys?
Hallow’s nails dug into the brittle bark as she perched upon the Oak branch trying desperately to steady both herself and her breath. The mantis was near, she was sure of it; she studied the ground beneath, waiting for a glimpse of its bulging eyes or probing forelegs as it stalked the understory below for its prey. A smirk curled Hallow’s lips ’But tonight, I am no one’s prey’, she mused to herself, as the wind whipped her hood from her head. Winter was swift approaching, the chilly night air now biting at her cheeks and nipping the tips of her ears. She did not care. Her only focus was the mantis.
The bark beneath her fingers, the growing scent of decaying moss; the icy chill and the gibbous moon shining above propelled her thoughts to memories of that night, memories she’d buried long ago. Memories that only dared to surfaced in sleep. And yet the eerie similarity between that night and this forced her mind to ruminate; and she wondered if any of the other villagers had escaped, or if she was only one who still lived.
Hopeless folly she chided herself. It had been six summers since her village was ravaged by the swarm, if any of her people had survived they would have found her by now and if not they would be long gone, travelling to safer climates; ones that had not been tainted by Mantis, Scorps, or Arachnae, or whatever manner of Noctyds that had hacked away at the landscape ever since The Fracture.
Bile rose in her throat as she pushed the memories aside and focused on her breathing to calm herself in…and out…In…and out she silently chanted, allowing herself to briefly close her eyes. She could feel her heart rate regulating, her breaths slowing and shoulders relaxing, the techniques she had been shown by the healer had been a godsend. She could hear nothing but the sound of her own steady breaths.
No fowl, no rodents, no creatures of any sort. The forest was still. Too still, even the trees seemed to cease swaying, the blades of grass beneath remained still, the indigenous flora no longer daring to omit a sound. For a moment Haven felt like the only living creature in existence.
Click, click, click.
Hallow paused mid-breath, eyelids instantly flicking open to scan the forest floor. Perhaps she had imagined the sound, she could see nothing. Her anxiety playing tricks, perhaps.
Click, click, click.
She had not imagined it. Swiftly and silently; she withdrew the crossbow from beneath her cloak and poised herself, watching and waiting for a glimpse of the creature. She did not have to wait long. The soft clicking grew louder as the triangular head of the mantis peeled into Hallow’s vision, the deathly serrated edges of its forelegs tapping together, dispersing the ominous clicking and clacking that punctured the silent forest floor. For such a large beast, Haven was impressed at how silently it had stalked through the woodland. If not for the soft tapping of its raptoriales she may not have heard it approaching at all.
Its one remaining bulging eye scanned the surrounding detritus, shifting from its frontal field of vision where its focus was sharpest, and darting sideways to scan the peripheries for signs of movement. This is the one Hallow thought to herself. Cedrick had claimed that he had blinded the creature before it had taken his leg.
One of the only advantages humans possessed over Mantises was the creatures’ lack of smell. All of the indigenous creatures Hallow’s people had tracked and hunted had superior olfactory senses, ones that often told them of an approaching human long before they arrived. This Noctyd had no such capabilities; and as such was probably one of their only weaknesses. However, their hardened exterior and superior field of vision, not to mention the razor-sharp appendages and sheer enormity of them more than made up for it, Hallow internally groaned to herself. She tilted the crossbow, waiting for the mantis to shift a fraction before taking aim. She knew she would have only one shot at this. She dared not breath as she released the bolt.
She watched in silent horror as the mantis instantly rotated its head 180 degrees, dodging the arrow completely as it spun and bore its one remaining good eye into Hallow’s flesh.
The mantis’s movements were immediate as it leapt at the Oak tree upon which Hallow was crouched, a piercing shriek sullying the air as the spiked edges of its protracted forelegs tried to prise her from the branches, snapping a clacking wildly. Hallow crouched firm, her grip on the tree trunk steady, as the mantis tried furiously dislodge her. She tried twice more to hit it with the crossbow, but its movements were too unpredictable and ferocious as it flailed at her, its body coming closer, as it gained purchase on the branches below and attempted to scale the tree.
Shit, shit, double shit.
Panic surged through Hallow’s veins, as she watched the creature’s body begin ascending and a thought flashed in her mind. It was complete insanity, but she was unsure what other options she had, as her only advantage over the mantis ebbed away as it began its ascent. She felt the hilt of her dagger in her palm and lifted it to her mouth, biting down on the cool metal with her teeth as she leapt from the branch and landed in a flailing mess upon the mantis’ head, grasping any appendages she could to remain tightly against it, as they both toppled down and landed horribly inelegantly on the forest floor.
If she thought the creature was furious before; she had been wrong, so very, very wrong. Roars and shrieks tore through the night air as the mantis thrashed ferociously, its head and thorax pinned to the ground by the comparatively small human woman who had managed to weave all her limbs around its upper body and hold it firm on the floor against her. Its one remaining eye glared at her, as it darted to its peripheries. And as she clumsily twisted her head and spat the dagger from her mouth into her trembling hand she saw the unmistakable but equally fleeting look of fear as she thrust the dagger upwards between the intersection of the mantis’ mandible and body. Good she thought to herself, she could not bring herself to pity it after the devastation it had caused. The thrashing ceased, replaced by jerking and then languid rolling of limbs, before becoming still.
Hallow lay there for several heartbeats, too frightened and exhausted to extract herself from beneath the dead Noctyd and a thought hit her as she glanced up towards the gibbous moon and the scent of moss and dead mantis filled her nostrils.
How the fuck am I supposed to drag this back to the village?