Chapter One

First Night

 

“Winsome fierce, and folly wise.
Thrice comes he when winter lies
Untrammeled all ‘neath ebon skies.
Then in truth are only lies
Spoken now in children’s eyes.”

From the Sumisarian Rhyme: Malasephus Unbound

 

The boy glanced over his shoulder, down the long road where shadows fled the sun. He was an ordinary looking boy, though not unhandsome, his hair gave him an unkempt look.  Wild and disarrayed, he looked as if he’d just emerged, and not triumphant from a wrestling match.  His face still held an innocence that other boys his age had lost, but Jan was not yet sixteen.  His First Night, the rite of passage that would make him a man, was still a few weeks away, and so Jan still labored under the illusion that all was right with the world. 

He ran his fingers through his hair, and as usual they got tangled in the rat’s nest that sat on top of his head.  Try as he might, he could never get his hair to do anything but knot and twist. This was a cause of constant aggravation for his mother, who kept telling him that no respectable woman would ever marry a man who couldn’t figure out the use of a comb.  Jan managed to steal enough kisses from the girls of his village to know better.  Whatever his mother said, the girls of Sommerstone seemed to like him well enough. 

But girls, let alone marriage, were not on Jan’s mind at the moment. Important business,  to be specific, a man’s business had fallen to him that very morning, in spite of his youth, and brought him here a day’s walk from his home.  Miller’s Down was larger than his own village.  Almost it could be called a town, almost,  but there were no towns in the Westlands.  They were too large, too hard to track the comings and goings of everyone, so of necessity it was populated by villages and hamlets, but no towns.

Large walls, made of stones piled on top of one another towered above Jan.  They were massive, easily ten feet tall, and surrounded all but afew building that stood outside, isolated. Vulnerable.  They were sheds, of course.  No one lived outside the walls of their village.  Millers Down was a fort, as was Jan’s own village, as were all the villages and hamlets of the Westlands, of necessity.

People bustled past him, jarring him in their haste to enter the walls, offering mute apologies as they glanced nervously over their shoulders, gauging how long before the sun set.  Jan looked back a moment too, and saw the sun was already touching the horizon.  He drew in a deep breath, pulling in the scents of the unfamiliar place.     

Oddly, he felt more fear at the prospect of entering the unfamiliar village than he had at making the journey.  The dangers of the road during daylight were small, and he’d left early enough to reach Millers Down before sunset.  He remembered his mother’s words, their warning echoing in his ears.

"Stay to the road, and don’t go out after night, and you’ll be fine.  Ilita and Sol will put you up for the night and then you come straight home tomorrow.  Be sure you thank them for their hospitality, and be on your best behavior.  If I hear you’ve been rude you’ll have your reckoning."

She ran her fingers through his hair, trying to bring some order out of its chaos, but after a few moments of fussing gave up.  She pulled him close, hugged him tightly as she whispered in his ear.  "You come home safe to us, do you hear."  She released him and wiped her eyes with her apron. "You promise me, you come home safe."

Jan nodded, "I could make it there and back today if Da let me have a horse."  He didn’t like to see his mother cry. 

She shook her head.  "You know he needs them to get the crops in.  The nights have been cool, and we can’t risk a frost."

 

 

Jan shook off the memory and adjusted the pack on his shoulders.  He stepped through the gates and into Miller’s Down.  Though he’d been here two or three times before, he couldn’t remember where the smithy was and had to ask for directions.  A few minutes later, he was standing on the doorstep of Sol’s forge. 

Sol was a big man, and he stood covered in sweat that glistened red from the light of the fire.  Tallow, his son who was about Jan’s age, worked the bellows.  Both men had their shirts off, and Jan could appreciate why.  It felt like an oven in here.

The young man working the bellows spotted him, and called out a greeting that the constant ringing of Sol’s hammer drowned out.  Jan waited for the tall blacksmith to finish whatever he was working on before stepping forward.  After a minute or so, Sol turned and spotted him as well.  Using a pair of tongs, he lifted a long shank of glowing metal and doused it in a large barrel of water.  Setting the tongs down, he wiped his hands on the heavy leather apron he wore and nodded in Jan’s direction.

“How can I help you lad?”

“I’m here to settle my father’s debt, sir.  Farr Ulwin.  You shoed some horses for us last month.”

“Oh yes.  I remember.  And how’s your village blacksmith faring?  Not riding any horses, I hope.  I can’t be the blacksmith of two villages forever.”

Jan grinned.  “He’s doing well enough, sir.  His arm is on the mend, and he’s been up and about at his forge, though he can’t do much yet.  He told me to thank you for helping him out.  About father’s debt, da says he’s sorry it’s taken us so long to pay.”

Sol laughed, “Well Tomas may be a fool, and only half the smith I am, but he is my brother and he said some very nice things about your family, so I wasn’t worried about getting paid.  I knew your da would come through with it when he had it.  Besides,” he said slapping his belly, which was big and fat, “I’m in no danger of starving!”

Jan laughed and felt an immediate liking for the big man. 

Sol took him aside and away from the heat of the forge.  “Sent you alone, did he?”

Jan nodded.

“Well, you’re close enough to your First Night that I suppose that makes sense.  Are you ready for it?”

“I don’t know sir.  We’ve talked some about the nohetka and Feral, and the Darkness, but I haven’t learnt any runes yet, if that’s what you mean.”

Sol grunted in response, “The wards are important, but they’re no good if you don’t keep your wits about you.  They may hide you from the eyes of his servants, but you’ll be able to see them, and you’ll feel the pull of the Darkness.  That’s the real danger, the seduction of it all.”

Jan handed his coins over to the smith, who put them in a small metal box he pulled down from a high shelf.

“Well, that’s done it for business, and it’s about time for supper.  Join us Jan.  We don’t have an extra room, but the stable has fresh hay in it, you can sleep there tonight.”

 

The meal was a happy affair, and Ilita was an excellent cook, who filled her table with an assortment of savory meats, pastries, and fruits.  There were large mugs filled with beer or honey milk, and the kitchen smelled of pie and savory, roasted meats and vegetables. Elise, the pretty, young daughter sat across from Jan, next to her brother Tallow.  Jan looked up and saw her eyes on him on more than one occasion, and once Tallow leaned over and whispered something in her ear that got him an elbow in the ribs. 

The kitchen was a warm, inviting place and Jan felt instantly at home.  He hit it off with Tallow right away, whom he’d only met once before in Sommerstone.  The young man was instantly likable and had a quick wit and infectious laugh.  As much as Jan liked the fellow, he couldn’t keep his eyes off Elise.

When supper was done Jan offered to clean up, but Ilita wouldn’t hear it.  “You’re first time in Miller’s Down, I don’t think so.  I’ll take care of the mess here.  You go out with Tallow and Elise, meet some of the other boys and girls.  Go listen to Malach.”

“It’s not the first time I’ve been here,” he said around a mouthful of pie, the juices dripping down his chin.

But she ignored him as she chased him toward the door.  The sun was just going down, filling the sky with the warm glow of its fading light.  Tallow punched him in the arm.  “There’s usually something going on in the plaza.  I think old Malach is going to sing the Lament of Noss.  Ever hear that one?”

Jan said no, and Tallow grinned.  “Malach’s got the voice of a goat, but he still tells it well… for a goat.”  He punched Jan’s arm again and hooked his other arm through his sister’s as they headed toward the center of the village.  Jan set off after them.

The plaza was bigger than the one in Sommerstone, and there was a large fire pit dug into the ground and ringed about with bricks.  Benches sat around the pit, and a sizable number of villagers had gathered in close to the fire.  Jan, Elise, and Tallow arrived late and had to sit farther away, but they could still hear Malach’s gravelly voice as he sang the Lament.

They’d missed the beginning and Tallow leaned over and whispered in Jan’s ear, bringing him up to the current verse.

“The Lament starts with the making of the Virtues, the faces of God, and tells of Noss who was the loveliest of them all, but she was granted the Virtue of justice, so that she never smiled.  They made the world and built a great city in the heavens.  But Malasephus was given charge of making the world, for his Virtue was artistry.  He set the clouds in the heavens, arrayed the stars and the moon, and carved the rivers and valleys, and the great mountains to the north.  He made the form of every leaf and flower, and every living thing, but his greatest creation was the Elan, the Shepherds of men.” 

Tallow paused a moment, listening to Malach’s croaking voice, before nodding.  Jan turned his attention to the voice, and felt the story unfold.  Malach did sound like a goat, but while his voice was cracked and worn with age, it still carried power and Jan felt himself drawn into the tale.

 

Oh Elan, fair and beautiful, where hast thou gone?

Grace was thy form, and gentle the look in thine eyes.

Beauty serene, and evening’s splendor paled near thy face.

Sweet were bitter waters in thy mouth,

Thy voice beckoned the summer rains.

 

In thy presence, no sorrow found.

In thy sight joy and happiness only.

In thy grace, beauty grew shamed and hid her face.

In thy words, wisdom and truth resided.

 

Oh Elan, fair and graceful thou,

In the spring of life, thy flower wast plucked.

Thy beauty despoiled, anger furled thy brow.

 

The betrayer came and sang sweet lies to thee,

And sowed a seed of poison in thy fertile womb

That beckoned to all that was foul.

 

What treachery could so deceive, so pure so free as were the Elan?

Who but a Virtue bereft of virtue could so despoil thee?

 

They are fallen, who once were exalted.

They are gone who were eternal.

They are vanished, and the world weeps.

Malasephus, traitorous Virtue, who threw down the graces of heaven.

 

Oh Elan, fair and beautiful, where hast thou gone?

To treachery and betrayal and doom.

Oh Elan, fair and graceful no more, thy bloom is withered.

The frost of winter has fallen on thee.

 

Oh Elan, fair and beautiful, where hast thou gone?

To Noss’s Judgment, and forgotten but not unremembered.

Oh Elan, fair and beautiful, where hast thou gone?

Beneath cold, cruel ground, and the world is less without thee.

 

Malach’s voice fell silent.  No one stirred in the plaza.  Jan looked around and saw tears in the eyes of those who had gathered.  His own eyes stung from the tears he’d held back.  Malach’s voice was worn and withered, but the Lament of Noss carried a power that transcended the speaker, and touched the audience on a deeper level than could be reached by sound alone.

Malach sang other songs, but none held the same power as the Lament, and after a while Jan, Tallow, and Elise left.  Jan stayed close to Tallow’s sister.  Elise was younger than he was by about a year, and he thought she was rather pretty.  Tallow was about his age, but had already become a man, having undergone the rite of passage a month ago.  As Tallow led him around, showing him the sights, which were remarkably few, they came across a dozen other boys.  All were younger than Jan and Tallow, but they all knew the blacksmith’s son.

The young men were in a corner of the village, behind an abandoned house where they had lit a fire in the back yard.  One of the boys handed Jan a large jar that sloshed as he took it.  Jan lifted it and sniffed the contents.  The smell was strong, pungent, and reeked of alcohol.  Mead.  Jan looked around a moment before lifting it to his lips and taking a long hard swallow. 

They sat around the fire laughing and talking about woes of farm work, or the stench of working in the tanner’s shack, each boy lamenting his future or boasting, depending on which craft they were apprenticed to.  The jar of mead made its way around the circle several times, and Jan was feeling the effects of the heady drink.

  Night had fallen, and thin clouds obscured the stars overhead.  The fire burned away the chill of the night.  Elise sat next to Jan.  He could feel the warmth of her, and was delighted she’d chosen to sit by him.  Eventually the talk turned to First Night.  Tallow was the only one of them who had passed through the ritual, and they pestered him with questions, until finally he told them to shut up.  First Night wasn’t something he wanted to talk about, and once they went through it themselves, they’d know why.

After that, the stories turned to lighter matters and Tallow soon joined in, his black mood dissipating.  They told stories that Jan recognized from similar nights in his village.  Tales told to frighten and scare the younger boys.  A thin, gangly youth about Jan’s age was speaking.

“They say Malasephus was bound for a thousand years before he found the Darkness, some say it was less time than that.  No one knows, but found it he did, and he pulled it forth from someplace outside the world.”

Another boy interrupted, “He didn’t pull it from anywhere, it’s his evil spirit that rotted and festered until it burst.  That’s where the Darkness comes from.”

“No no, that’s wrong.”  A chorus of boys chimed in.  “It’s the blood of the fallen Virtues who followed him, who he betrayed and murdered.”

            Another voice, high and shrill, “It’s the blood of the Elan, not the Virtues, stupid.”

The tall gangly boy waved them all to silence.  “It doesn’t matter where it comes from, or how Malasephus found it, only that he did, and bound it to his will.  It pours out at night, after the sun sets, and wherever it finds the dead it fills their bodies, quickens their flesh, and they wake to walk the land.

“Of course, behind these walls we’re safe from his servants, the nohetka, but they prowl the night looking for the stray wanderer who is caught outside.  Drawn to their life, the nohetka hunt them and kill them.  Sometimes, the mind lives after they die… and then a Feral is born!”

Elise moved closer to Jan and gripped his arm, her hand shaking ever so slightly.  The gangly boy continued.

“We’re safe from them too, though they have cunning which the nohetka lack.  The runes keep them at bay. . .  unless they’ve failed.  If the wards are worn and weak, sometimes one gets through.  It creeps through the shadows, flitting here and there, until it comes upon a young maiden… and grabs her!”

Elise screamed as a pair of arms suddenly encircled her and pulled her away from the fire.  The other boys erupted in gales of laughter as she spun and hit her brother, the owner of the arms, as hard as she could.

“Very funny Tallow, I can’t wait to tell da.  I’m sure he’ll get a big laugh.”

The look on Tallow’s face showed that his father wasn’t likely to laugh if he heard about this.  Tallow drew Elise after him to calm her down, talking anxiously in subdued whispers.  Jan watched them for a moment before turning back to the fire.

One of the boys leaned over and grabbed his leg. 

“Jan, have you ever been over the wall?”  His voice was slurred, and Jan was sure the boy had drunk more than the others had.

Jan shook his head, which sent it spinning.  He’d taken a number of passes at the jar of mead as well.

“Wanna go?  You’re closer to First Night than any of us.  Don’t you wanna know what it’s gonna be like?”

Jan hesitated.  The night meant death.  The walls and the rune wards were the only thing that kept the Darkness at bay, and the only thing they had to fear inside them were ghost stories told around the fire.  Jan looked over his shoulder to where Tallow and Elise were quietly talking.  She didn’t look angry anymore, and Jan really wanted to be with her, but the other boys had started to chant, calling his name.

“Jan. . .  Jan. . .  Jan. . . Jan.”

“Don’t worry; we’ll tie a rope ‘round you, ‘case you fall.  B’sides, there’ve been some Tair here for ‘bout a month.  They been huntin’ every night.  Doubt there’s anything to see anyway.”

Full of youth and mead, heady with the excitement of being on his own, Jan let them talk him into it and fifteen minutes later was perched in the branches of a tree that grew close to the wall.  A rope, tied loosely about his waist, dangled below, and was clutched by the sweaty hands of his compatriots, most of whom were at least as drunk as he was.

Jan edged out closer to the wall as the branch he stood on bent under his weight.  When he was close enough he reached up with one hand and grabbed the edge.  Letting go of the tree he put his other hand on the wall and pulled himself up.  His arms shook while he struggled to get his head over the top.  He twisted and swung his leg up, hooking it on the edge.  And then he was on top, lying with his face pressed against the cold stone. 

He turned his head and looked out into the night, felt its cold breath on his cheek as the weight of the night pressed down on him.  And then he felt it. 

He twisted his torso around, rolled and sat up as he swung his legs over the edge.  With his back to the village, he stared out into the black abyss.  The moon hadn’t risen, and the overcast sky hid the world in shadow so that he couldn’t see anything, but he heard sounds, and he felt the taught pull of … something that reached inside him and ignited his blood with desire. 

It sucked at the air in his lungs, like a deep, throaty, impassioned kiss, and his heart skipped a beat before it began to pound furiously at his ribs.  If he wasn’t drunk before, he was now, intoxicated by something far sweeter and potent than mead.  He felt it tugging at his flesh, beckoning him to plunge into the night.  If he fell from the wall at this height he’d probably break his neck, but Jan didn’t care.  The pull was too strong.  He leaned forward, eyes closed as he fell into the embrace of the night.

There was a sharp pull at his waist as the rope went taught.  He heard voices calling out to him, but they were faint, distant things, and then with a jerk, he was over the wall on the side of light and life and all that was human.  In an instant, the Darkness was shut out, torn from his flesh by the wards that guarded Miller’s Down, and Jan felt himself falling.  He hit the ground with a thud that knocked the wind out of him.

Some of the boys were laughing, but it was forced.  The others had gathered in a circle around him, concern, and real fear in their eyes as they asked him what happened.  Had he seen anything?

Jan shook his head, the echoes of Darkness still trembling in his flesh.  “No, nothing but the night.  I just slipped, that’s all.” 

The lie felt uncomfortable in his mouth, but he didn’t want to admit he’d succumbed so easily.  He hadn’t seen anything, that was true.  But he’d felt it, and was terrified at how easily it had taken hold of him.  One of the boys offered his hand as he helped Jan to his feet.  Some of the others slapped him on the back and handed him the jar of mead.  Jan took a long drink, and tried to keep his hands from shaking.  He wasn’t sure if it was because he feared or desired what lay on the other side of the wall, and that frightened him more than anything else did.

Tallow and Elise had gone off, and Jan spent the night with his new friends talking about Malasephus and the Virtues as the stars plodded in their millennial track, hidden behind a veil of clouds.  The eastern horizon was turning pale when Jan finally stumbled into the blacksmith’s stables and collapsed into the hay.  His dreams were filled with unremembered longings, and the sweet intoxicating allure of the night.

 

Jan woke to a voice and bright sunlight streaming in through a crack in the ceiling of the stable.  He felt like someone had snuck in while he slept and stolen his head, replacing it with a lump of pain.  The sunlight stabbed him in the eyes and he squinted, groaning aloud.  Straw had worked its way into his clothes in spite of the blanket he’d wrapped around himself, and the blades made his skin itch.  Elise knelt next to him, gently shaking his shoulder.

“Come on Jan, time to wake.  You spent a late night with the other boys, and judging from the smell of you, you drank more than your share.  Hurry up.  It’s late, but if you leave now you can make it home before sunset.”

Elise stood and nudged him one more time with the toe of her bare foot. 

“Hurry along now, mother has baked some sweet rolls for your trip home, but if you don’t come along quick I’ll feed them to the pigs.”  He growled at her once, but she just dug her toe into his ribs and then danced out of his way when he lunged for her.  That was a mistake, and Jan nearly fell on his face.  Grimly, he struggled to his feet. 

“You’ve missed breakfast, but I might have a stale crust and a cup of dirty water you can have before you leave.”  The smile and the mischief in her eyes convinced Jan that she was kidding, but the thought of food made his stomach growl in protest.  He doubted he’d be able to eat anything the way he felt. 

She darted out of the stable and Jan stood on unsteady legs as he pulled his shirt off and shook the straw out.  He heard laughter behind him, and turned to see Elise had returned and was standing at the entrance to the stable, his pack in her hands.  Jan blushed and quickly pulled his shirt back on.  His head was pounding and he felt woozy.  Elise stepped forward and set the pack down by his feet.  She barely came up to his chest, but she leaned against him and stood on tiptoe as she reached up to pull straw from his hair.

He could feel the straw in his pants as well.  The scratchy blades had worked their way down the back, but he couldn’t do anything about that until Elise left. 

“I’m glad you came, Jan.”  Elise whispered in his ear.

Jan nodded and mumbled something in return.  “Thanks,” maybe or “me too.”  But two seconds after he spoke, he couldn’t remember what he said. 

Elise’s hand pressed against his chest, and the scent of her hair filled his nostrils.  She finished plucking the last straw from his hair and stepped back.

She smiled and said, “You’re a mess, and rumpled too, but you’ll do.  Are you coming back to Miller’s Down soon?”

Jan shook his head, but stopped as waves of pain bounced back and forth.  It felt like someone had opened his skull and dumped a load of rocks inside.  They rattled and bounced about if he moved too quickly.  He settled for shrugging his shoulders. 

“Maybe, but probably not until after my First Night.  Da only sent me because no one else could come.  We’ve got to get the crops in before the nights get too cold.”

Elise nodded and then cocked her head to one side while she tugged on her tresses in a way that intrigued Jan.  “You be careful Jan, we had a boy die last month during his First Night.  It was awful.  It took the Tair two days to hunt his body down.”

“I’ll be careful, I promise.”  Jan shuddered.  It had been more than five years since anyone in Sommerstone had died in the rite of passage, but he knew it happened from time to time.  The village elders took every precaution, but sometimes a boy died.  He reached down to pick up his pack and Elise gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. 

“I’m serious Jan, besides…” she hesitated a moment before blurting out, “…I like you!”  She pulled up her dress and ran out the door and into the courtyard, leaving behind a flustered and confused Jan. 

Ten minutes later, he was cursing Elise.  Her kiss made him forget about the straw in his pants, and now as he sat at the blacksmith’s table eating the leftovers from breakfast, the straw was driving him crazy.  He wanted to scratch, but the straw had managed to work its way to places where it simply wouldn’t be polite.

Ilita, Elise’s mother spoke to him as she tidied up the kitchen. 

“How’s Tomas?”  She asked.

Jan looked up, wiping milk from his lips.  “Oh, he’s fine.  Complains a lot, but he’s on the mend.  Still can’t work his forge though.” 

She nodded.  “Well, Tomas is a good man, even if he can’t ride a horse more than a stone’s throw without falling off.” 

“Yes ma’am, but to hear Tomas tell it his horse was spooked by a Feral.”

“A Feral!  Solace’s mercy what was he doing out at night?”

“Well, that’s the truth of it.  He wasn’t, out at night I mean.”

Ilita gave Jan one of her motherly smiles.  “Oh, I see.”  Was all she said.

“My da wanted me to thank your husband for the loan, or whatever…  I mean.”

“Oh shush, Jan.  Tomas was hurt and Sol was only too happy to help.  They’re brothers, after all, and he spoke very highly of your da.  We never worried that we’d get paid.”

“Well, I was hoping to thank him again.”

“I’m sorry dear, but I’ll tell him for you.  He’s with the village council and probably will be for most of the day.  We’ve had a band of Tair staying in the village these past few weeks.  Their rune master has been tending to the wards, but they’re nearly done now, and I expect they’ll be moving on soon.  I imagine you’ll see them in Sommerstone before the week is out.

“Now, finish your breakfast.  You need to get going or you’ll end up spending another night here, and that won’t do.  Your mother will worry herself to death.”

Jan nodded and forced himself to eat.

 

Half an hour later he found himself on the road to Sommerstone, his pack heavy with the sweet rolls, apples, cheese and other foods Ilita had stuffed into it.  The sun beat down overhead and made his headache worse.  The nights might be cool, but the days were still hot enough that after a mile of walking Jan was covered in sweat.

Three hours later, Jan paused and glanced at the sun.  It was perhaps an hour after noon.  He was paying for last night.  Sleep weighed heavily on his lids, and the after effects of the mead left him with a dull headache.  The late autumn sun beat drowsily down on his shoulders.  He was only a couple hours from home, he thought to himself, and there was still plenty of daylight left.  There was no harm in a brief nap, and once he was refreshed he’d make better time.

So he slipped his pack off and put it behind his head for a pillow.  Lying down next to some wild thistles that grew a short distance off the side of the road, Jan yawned and closed his eyes.  He drifted off while the sun tracked its course across the heavens, heedless of both sleeping boys and passing hours.

Jan slept on until the late afternoon sun cast long shadows across his body.  The sun slipped closer to the horizon, painting his face with red’s and oranges while long fingers of shadow crawled over his skin, twisted about his limbs and neck, brushed at his cheek, and slipped beneath his closed lids to steal into his dreams.

And dreams that had been pleasant turned ugly.  Fear whispered in the background, shadowed the landscape of his dream, and filled it with a sense of horror that lurked all around him, unseen but palpable.  He woke with a start, and the dream skittered away like a frightened animal, leaving only the acrid taste of fear in his mouth.  The sky was burnt umber, fading to black in the east, and the clouds were the color of blood.  Jan watched in despair as the sun buried itself in the western horizon.

As its top crescent vanished beneath the earth’s rim, he felt something tear inside his chest, as though a hole had opened within him.  He felt his reason being twisted and bent as his fear pulled it down into that hole, until all that remained was the terrible, petrifying terror he remembered from his dream.

Something moved in the bushes near where he lay, coming toward him.  He tried to turn his head, to see what made the noise, but his fear paralyzed him.  Night was a time of death.  Nohetka hunted men, drawn to them by a terrible hunger.  Vividly, he remembered the pull of the Darkness from the night before, how he had leaned out to embrace it, knowing he would fall to his death, and how it had excited him.  He thought he could feel that same seductive allure, fainter, but real.  It called to his flesh, stroked it, and stole his will away.

Desperate to see what approached, he darted his eyes left and right, willed his head to turn.  His neck throbbed with pain, but it would not obey him.  Tears streamed from his eyes as a whimper escaped his throat.  Blood tore through his veins, no longer a pulsing rhythm, it became a torrent as his heart pounded furiously.

The noise grew louder and then suddenly, from the leaves a small fox emerged.  It moved toward him, oblivious of his presence as it sniffed the ground in search of prey.  It saw him and froze, alert and tense. 

At the sight of the small hunter, Jan felt the fear release its terrible grip on him, though it did not retreat entirely.  It hovered nearby, waiting to seize him again if he let it.  He sat up, and the fox turned and sped away from Jan, toward safety. 

Surging to his feet, Jan spun around, looking for signs of danger.  The night was empty, but he knew it would not stay that way for long.  Already stars were shining dimly overhead, and the afterglow of the sunset was fading rapidly.  The nohetka would be out soon, crawling from under rocks and cracks to prowl the night, the hunters of men.  His heart still raced, but he was in control of himself for the moment. 

He tried to think, though fear still clouded his thoughts.  He was at least five miles from Sommerstone, and there were no sanctuaries between his village and Miller’s Down.  With growing despair, Jan realized he would have to spend the night out here, alone and undefended, and that he was probably going to die.  The irony of the situation was that in a month he would know what to do.  He would have runes or wards.  He would be a man, and might have stood a chance.

To be caught out now, unprepared… the unfairness of it brought tears to his eyes.  Then the thought struck him.  His First Night was not a month away.  It was tonight, and prepared or not, he would become a man or he would die.

Jan struggled to remember what his father had taught him of First Night, what to expect, how to prepare, but could only remember the vaguest details.  Not that it mattered.  He carried no tokens or wards, and even if he had, he wouldn’t know how to activate them.

The things that would hunt him tonight could not be killed, not easily, certainly not by him.  And with no way to hide from them, Jan was dead.  It was as simple as that.  The nohetka hunted by a sight that was the gift of Malasephus, and they were drawn to the beacon of a man’s life.

The eastern sky grew black as the west faded to a deep, dark blue.  Dozens of stars now shone faintly.  More glimmered dimly behind the shroud of dusk.  They would find him, he knew.  There was nothing he could do, and nowhere to hide.  Any caves nearby would already be filled with the nohetka, sheltering from the light of day.  There were no homes, no houses.  Men worked their fields by day, but kept to the rune-warded walls of towns and villages at night.

Panic seized his mind, freezing it as it had frozen his limbs only moments before.  It blurred his thoughts, made it hard to recall his father’s words, and then in a flash he had it.

Though their bodies were perfectly preserved by the Darkness the nohetka had no mind, they were puppets, deadly but witless.  They could hunt a man down and without a rune circle or warded walls, there was no way to hide from them.  They could chase you for hours without growing weary so that you could not out run them, but they were mindless husks.  The simplest barriers were insurmountable obstacles. 

It wasn’t much, but the memory gave Jan some hope.  If he could find something to hide behind, a barricade… anything, he might survive the night.  He glanced at the sky.  Only the faintest colors remained.  It had faded almost to black, and the world was disappearing into the dim grey of twilight.

Except for a few scattered trees and outcroppings of rock too low to offer any real protection, the land was barren.  Despair was threatening to overwhelm him again when his eyes fell on one tree larger than the rest.  It was tall, and the lowest branch looked to be at least fifteen feet off the ground, maybe more.  It was forty or fifty yards from where he stood, but it was his only hope.  Jan grabbed his pack and threw it over his shoulder as he ran for the tree.

Pleading for Solace’s grace, not that the Virtue was likely to hear him, or to answer if she did, he ran through the twilight.  It was almost completely dark now.  Sounds came from all around him, things moving in the night.  His reason told him it was only nocturnal animals stirring, but his fear turned them into nohetka.

Fear also put speed into his feet.  Unable to see the ground he ran over, Jan fell twice, scraping his hands and forearms as his ankle twisted on a stone or his foot caught on a root.  He ignored the pain that throbbed in his ankle.  The blood oozing from the gravel embedded in his palms.  He ran even faster.  He reached the tree and using the speed of his mad run leapt for the lowest branch… and fell short.

He tried again, his fingers grasping at empty air, the branch just out of reach.  There were sounds now.  Sounds he’d heard outside the walls of his village.  Sounds he knew.  The nohetka were stirring.  They did not moan, or cry, or weep at their fate.  Only pushed bramble and branch aside, stepped ponderously on leaves and twigs, moving their bodies through the night as they converged upon him, mindless in their quest to hunt him, find him and kill him.  His only hope lay in a tree branch just out of reach no matter how high his fear made him leap.

The hole in his chest opened again.  It sucked at hope and life and he felt himself pulled back down into it.  But though it had caught him once, Jan was still a child of the world.  The nohetka were as common as the stars that now blazed brilliantly overhead.  He was angry at himself for stopping, angry at his foolishness, and he fed that anger, let it grow and burn in his heart.  It kept the fear at bay, protected him from the pull of the Darkness, and helped him think.  He closed his eyes, blocking out the terror of the night as he fought for control of his reason.  He pushed the panic back, though it grappled with him, wrestled for mastery of body and mind.

When he opened his eyes he could see shapes moving toward him.  He shook his head, clearing it.  He was running out of time.  If he couldn’t get into the tree, they’d be upon him, pulling him down into their embrace, suckling on his corpse as they brought him into their ranks.

Dropping the pack, he pulled his shirt off.  He jerked it over his head as the sleeves tangled in his hands.  It wouldn’t reach by itself, not in any way that he could use it to pull himself up, so he quickly pulled his boots off and threw them aside.  He yanked first one leg and then the other out of his breeches, almost falling over as he lost his balance.  Wearing only a breechclout, he stood naked and shivering, more from fear than cold, and fumbled to tie the sleeve of his shirt to one of the legs of his breeches.  He forced himself to concentrate on what he was doing, not looking up to see how close the nohetka were.  His skin crawled at their imagined touch.  Finally, he had the knot tied and threw his improvised rope over the branch.  The other half fell down in front of his face. 

They were nearly upon him.  No time to grab up his boots or his pack, he took hold of both sides of his improvised rope and began pulling himself up.  He felt icy, cold, and lifeless fingers grasp his feet and legs.  He kicked violently at them as he climbed.  He could hear the fabric of his shirt tearing; hear the threads pop as seams gave way.  Frantic, he climbed as fast as he could.  Just when he thought it would tear completely, plunging him into the crowd of nohetka that had gathered below, his knuckles struck the unyielding wood of the low branch.  He seized it with both hands and pulled himself up, scraping his chest painfully against the rough bark.

Sitting on the branch, Jan gathered up his improvised rope, lest one of the nohetka try to climb it.  He doubted it would survive another ascent, or that they would be smart enough to try, but he wasn’t going to take any chances.  Barefoot and all but naked, he wrapped his “rope” around him and moved up the tree, hoping that there were no Feral in the horde below.  One of those would have cunning and intelligence, and the tree would present no obstacle to it.

When he could go no higher, he seated himself in a crotch of the tree, his legs straddling the limb while resting his back against the rough wood behind him.  It was a precarious seat at best, but even this high up the tree was wide and the wood at his back was solid.

Dozens of cuts and scratches covered his skin.  They burned and itched as tree sap and his sweat got into them, but Jan ignored the pain.  He was safe for now, though he couldn’t convince his body.  He was trembling violently.  His arms and legs, already weak and shaking from running, and then the strain of the climb, began to convulse.  Terrified that he would shake himself out of the tree, he threw his tattered clothes around the trunk and lashed himself to it.  He was prepared to sit the night out, naked and cold, rather than fall to what waited below.

 

Chapter 2 >>>