The Shattered Lands
"I am a hunter. Deer, boar, and...other things."
A hunter, swathed in a fur-lined riding cloak, cowled tightly against the elements, stands under six feet. He steps lightly, with a grace possessed alone by the Elves of the wood; not a single branch snaps, or leaf crunches underfoot. As the sunlight pours in through the branches, he flinches away, revealing skin much paler than that of his brethren. A wisp of hair frees itself from his hood, showing itself to be silvery white. Though a great bow is slung across his back, his hand tends to stay resting on the hilt of a large, wickedly curved blade whose scabbard hangs from his belt. As he approaches he makes eye contact, and pure black orbs stare into you, and through you. He bows slightly, “I am Malakar. I was sent here by Max to escort you.” As he speaks, in the moments his lips are parted, you notice his teeth are oddly sharp. He seems to notice your eyes lingering, and smiles at the corner of his mouth. He reaches his hand out to shake yours, and you feel a chill run down your spine as his touch saps the warmth from your palm. “We must be going. The night can be quite dangerous.” The smile lingers, as his gaze remains fixated on you.
The council sent us. Deep into the wastes we went, tracking the fell beasts that had abducted the councilman’s daughter. The raids were increasing in frequency as of late. Our patrols called back from the borders to guard the village, our hunters called in to help. I was one of the hunters called back to the village. I had never killed a man before, or even a man-shaped creature. Deer and boar, the latter being my specialty, were my targets of preference. I was the best tracker in my village, the rush and thrill of finally finding and confronting a great Wild Boar was the best feeling I’d known. Patrolling the wooden walls of my tree-village was not what the spirits had intended for me, but there I was, circling the village with the warriors.
The siege of Two-Moons ended with a dozen of our best dead, and Erethor’s daughter, Erenia, lost to the ravenous creatures. It had been days since we last heard her cries for help. We knew there would be no tearful reunion upon our return. The best we could hope for was giving Erethor a body to bury.
Two weeks into the wastes we tracked the creatures. Into a ravine we followed their prints, until we realized it was a trap. By then it was too late. They set upon us like hounds to scraps. Blood and bile and viscera splashed across the sandy ground, and all was dark.
I opened my eyes—slowly, for the light hurt them—and saw the twisted remains of four of my brothers, hunters who’d never known combat like that before. Their bodies had been partially eaten, whole sections of their soft parts were gone, teeth marks etched exposed bone, entrails splayed from their remains in all directions, as though the beasts had pulled and fought over their remains. Images of their final tormented moments flashed across my mind and I looked away, repulsed. My brothers deserved a better end than this.
I pushed myself up from the ground, a curious numbness in my limbs. I spent the rest of daylight burying my brothers’ remains in shallow graves, dug with the broken handles of axes and hatchets the hunters had carried with them into battle. Despite the harsh sun my forehead did not moisten with sweat, nor did I thirst or tire; I was single-minded in my purpose to give my brothers the rest they deserved.
I picked up my sword, sheathed it, my bow, slung it, and after retrieving as many arrows worth the time, I headed back towards the village. How I survived the ambush I could not know. Curiously bereft of wounds, I must have suffered a blow to the head that made the beasts believe I had died. Why they had not eaten me, I could only guess that they had filled their blasphemous gullets on the remains of my brothers, and had wandered off. I muttered a quick thanks to the spirits for allowing me to awaken before the beasts came back, hungry once more.
Backtracking the way I had come was not difficult, we had not taken the time to cover our tracks, as we had simply wished to catch up to the beasts and rescue Erenia. Even if we had made the efforts, I was the best tracker the village knew, I would have been able to find my way home.
For eight days I traveled the wastes. After four I believed I must be dead, that I must be wandering some sort of purgatory. I didn’t tire, I didn’t thirst, I didn’t rest. Exhaustion never overtook me, nor did my muscles tire or sore. What sins I must have committed for the spirits to exile me to this horrid afterlife, I couldn’t know, nothing I had done in life seemed to me to deserve this punishment. At times I sobbed, though no tears fell from my face. I would have stopped, I would have resigned myself to this eternal torment, had it not been for the shadows in the hills and canyons that followed me, the fell beasts who had eaten my brothers, surely they were simply waiting for me to stop to spring upon me, so I kept going.
The forests that bordered the wastes were my home, and though I traveled for two weeks into the wastes, it only took me eight days to return. I did not sleep, I did not rest. Neither water nor food beckoned for my time. I ran the entire way. What an odd afterlife this is, that it blesses its inhabitants with preternatural speed and endurance. Surely my punishment would find me soon enough, I thought, and I was right.
A smile found my face as I stepped into the wood, the familiar scents of my people and the lands in which I hunted came to me and I began to question whether or not the spirits truly were punishing me. I was almost home, and though I did not have Erethor’s daughter, and I brought with me nothing but news of failure and further loss, I would be home, and that was enough. Surely they would embrace me with open arms and a place by their fires. They were my family, after all.
The canopy was unsettlingly vacant of guards and patrols. I looked to the posts which always held a sentry, only to find them empty. As I traveled through the paths and passes known to my people, I encountered no one from my home. My pace quickened as I began to imagine the horrors that must have been visited upon them in my absence. Had I brought the creatures back with me, the ones that had been following me all through the wastes, did they pass me and murder my family, only so I would have nothing but more loss to return to?
As I approached the village I realized that at least some had survived whatever hellish rebuke the fates had given them, as I heard the angry sounds of upraised voices, hollering and yelling for justice. As I made my way through the trees I saw that a gallows had been hastily erected in the center of town, and upon it stood five hooded figures, their hands bound behind their backs, nooses round their necks. A large gathering circled the gallows, and as I made my way closer, no one seemed to notice, too focused on the man on the gallows, calling out the sins and transgressions committed against the village.
The man pacing the gallows, stirring the people into a fervor of bloodlust and vengeance, was none other than Erethor, the councilman whose daughter I had been sent to rescue. His grief was evident in the redness and swell around his eyes, the exhaustion and lack of sleep had taken its toll on the councilman. His cheeks were, even now, moistened with the tears he could hold off no longer, and his voice cracked from too much yelling and sobbing.
From the gallows Erethor spoke of haunts stealing the faces of loved ones and friends, returning to the village to take more blood and souls. As he paced the gallows he pointed at each of the men in nooses, who jerked violently against their bonds, sporadically, and who occasionally let out a maddened snarl or bark, as if those under the hoods had lost their minds and succumbed to the wilderness around them. Erethor spoke of creatures in the guise of husbands, returning to their marital beds and murdering the wives who wailed in mourning at the loss of their mates. He spoke of beasts taking the form of brothers and when embraced upon their return, turning their fangs to the throats of the family.
As Erethor described these sins, he removed the hoods from each of the men on the gallows, until only one hooded figure remained. As he pulled the hoods free, I recoiled in horror. Each of the four faces revealed bore a similarity too striking to be coincidental to four of my fellow hunters who had joined me in my search for the councilman’s daughter. Though their identity could not be denied, it was the differences in their visages that compelled me to turn away, to cover my mouth lest I shriek in terror: their skin was sallow, as a body left laying in the summer sun; pieces of flesh were cut, and oozing a putrid green pus; their jaws hung open, blood covered teeth, too sharp to have grown naturally in their mouths, still flecked with bits of sinew and flesh. Worse than all that, their eyes, empty of all thought and passion and love; these were the eyes of the fell beasts we had battled in the wastes. What had happened to my brothers was horrifying and undeniable: they had become the creatures that haunted our forest, that poured from the wastes and hungered for our flesh.
My nails dug into my cheek as I held my hand tightly over my mouth to stifle the screaming. My brothers had become creatures, and if Erethor was to be believed, had murdered their own families upon their return. I felt my stomach sicken, but despite the churning, nothing rose in my throat. I had not eaten for days, and for the first time, I was thankful for my lack of hunger these past eight days.
Erethor stood by the final hooded figure, one last haunting tale of sin and tragedy to relate. He spoke of a father, hurrying home at the news that a lost daughter had returned, only to find, upon entering his home, that the creature who’d come back to his home was no more his daughter than a rapid animal could be. The empty eyes of his wife stared at him from the floor, where her body lay in repose, the creature in the form of his daughter feasting on the entrails of what remained of his wife, the mother which had, a few short years earlier, gifted him with a beautiful baby girl. This baby girl now grown, and changed, and eating the flesh of its mother in the entryway of the home he shared with them both.
The councilman wept as he told the tale of what he had found in his home just a short while ealier. As I had been making my way across the wastes, the villagers had been discovering their loved ones slain at the hands of those they welcomed back to the village with open arms. Erethor, as he finished his tale, ripped the hood from the final figure on the gallows. There stood Erenia, pale skin covered in blood, the front of her simply dress stained with the bile and fluids of the mother she had torn apart. Her eyes betrayed a hunger which became readily apparent as she began gnashing and biting at her own father.
The terror and despair of it all became too much for me. I bellowed out in sorrow and rage, and fell to my knees. For the first time, my people became aware that I was even there, as they turned in unison to look upon my sad and sickly form. Erethor stood on the gallows and stared at me, as if seeing me for the first time.
I looked into the eyes of my countrymen, hoping to see in them forgiveness for my failure, hoping to see in them love. I saw instead revulsion and anger. The villagers backed away from me, some of the women screaming and pulling their children closer.
For what seemed to be an eternity they looked down upon me with neither pity nor compassion, but with horror and fear instead. Erethor broke the silence and the stillness, calling out for the guards to slay me, before I tore into the villagers as the others had. Even then I knelt, still, unmoving. Until the first guard approached, and drove a spear deep into my stomach.
I cried out in pain. Though in that moment, it was the betrayal that wounded me, for though I felt the pressure of the spear-point press against my flesh, which eventually gave and with a snap the flesh separated and allowed the spear to enter my body, this did not bring with it the sensation of pain. I stood, the world around me moving in slow motion, the guard’s face turning white as his eyes widened in terror. Wrenching the spear from his grip, he had little time to react as I ripped the spear from my body, and snapped its shaft across his shoulders, sending him sprawling to the ground. Flinging the remaining piece to the ground, I bolted into the forest.
The shouts and yells of the guards followed me into the woods, and I could hear Erethor screaming for them to get me, to kill me before I could hurt anyone else. Why were they doing this? I was not my brothers on the gallows, I was not the creatures from the wastes. I just wanted to be home, I just wanted to break bread with my people around a fire. I sprinted through the forest, heading East away from the wastes and towards the great river that gave us the water we needed for drinking and cooking.
As I rushed through the wood, I realized I was not bleeding. The large opening in my stomach the guard had made with his spear was not spurting blood as it should, nor was the injury slowing me in any way. Could I not die? Was this to be my punishment in this strange purgatory? Were my people to hunt me for all eternity, with me never knowing the peace of their love nor the peace of death?
As I neared the great river, a twang sounded from the trees behind me, and I felt a pressure in my calf. I stumbled and fell to the ground, just shy of falling into the rushing water. I looked down at my leg to see the shaft of one of the hunter’s arrows sticking out of it, the fletching caught in the breeches, the arrowhead had pierced straight through the leg, and was digging into the ground. Planting my hands firmly beneath me, I began to push myself up, ready to continue fleeing, despite the arrow sunk straight through my lower right leg. That’s when I saw it, the creature from the wastes.
I had fallen close enough to the river that my head hung over the bank, I could peer into the depths of the river, and in them, I saw one of the fell beasts. It’s skin pale and cheeks sunken, it’s dark eyes set deep, surrounded by darkened sockets, as if from a thousand sleepless nights. The teeth were abnormally long and sharp, and its hair hung greasy and black, disheveled and unkempt, from its scalp. Its eyes were empty and lifeless, bereft of any passion or love or longing or lust. The story held in those globes was a simple one, telling tales of nothing but hunger and the hunt. As I pulled away from it, it sank deeper into the depths. I stood up, another arrow whipping by my head, and as I did so, invertedly, the creature pulled itself deeper.
The realization came upon me wave after wave, and I felt myself pulled into the black ocean of despair as readily as sand from a beach. The horror of the villagers upon seeing me, the guardsman spearing me, the viciousness with which the hunters pursued me. My reflection told me everything, and with less than a second’s deliberation, I let myself fall into the waters of the river, pulling myself along the bottom until I felt the faster currents take me.
My body tumbled along the bottom of the river for what must have been hours. Never once did I feel the need to pull myself to the surface for a fresh breath of air. Nor did the rocks along the bottom, jagged and unforgiving as they were, ever convince me to stray from the depths of the river. Eventually, the current pushed me to the shore, and I clawed my way up the bank to lie upon the grass. Enough time had passed to see the sun set, and the full moon was high in the sky, bright enough to blot out the light of the stars.
Through the canopy I could but see only the large white eye, peering down at me. For the first time in nine days, I felt hunger. I pulled the arrow from my leg, and out of habit, bandaged the hole that had been left. I then bandaged the large opening the spear had left in my stomach, though no blood had leaked or stained my shirt.
I made my way through the forest until I came to a path I recognized, then began heading South, away from my village, and towards the settlements of Men I knew to be there. We often traded with them, and I was sure I could disguise my appearance enough to travel amongst them unmolested.
Sometime in the night, I saw a short ways away, through the trees, the lights of a campfire. As I neared, I heard the sounds of two men arguing in hushed tones. I crept closer, my skills as a hunter and stalker proving beneficial, even if the targets weren’t boar or deer. I realized as I crept closer that between the two of them lay a third person, a woman, with a large sack over her head and her hands and feet bound in hempen rope. She was conscious, shaking in fear, as she listened to the men discuss her fate, quiet sobs escaped the sack. One of the men kicked at her, warning her to be quiet or they would make it painful for her. I listened for a moment to what they were planning, and it was neither pleasant nor gentlemanly.
The two men stepped away from the fire, oddly, closer to me, and continued to discuss their plans. Though they had told her they would be selling her for ransom, it seemed that they now felt there was too much heat, and that it would be best to cut their losses here. But before disposing of her, they agreed that they should “have their fun” until morning.
The two men returned to their camp, where one of the roughly picked up the woman, and lay her, stomach down, over a log they had been using as a seat. He pulled her dress up over her back, exposing her legs and buttocks to the night air. The man then stood, and began undoing his trousers. The other man held the woman down on the log, her cries growing in volume and intensity, he cuffed her on the back of the head, and she fell quiet.
The man standing, his pants around his ankles, yelled at the other. Apparently her being unconscious would make this less fun for him. I decided to make it even less fun, and loosed an arrow into the back of his neck. For the few seconds of life left in him, he knew confusion at being unable to speak and breath, then fell to the side. His comrade, not understanding how his friend could spontaneously grow and arrow out of his throat, took a couple seconds to stand and draw his sword.
In this two seconds I was upon him. I rushed him, and was surprised at myself. Normally, in this situation, I would have drawn my sword or a knife, so that when I arrived, I would have a weapon with which to finish the prey quickly. All my instincts, however, told me to use my hands, and I found that as I pounced on him, I took to clawing at his face and throat with my bare hands. Blood spurted up at me and covered my clothes and my arms and face. Without a second thought, I knelt over the man and began tearing chunks of his flesh out with my teeth, chewing, and swallowing.
The hunger overtook me. I don’t remember eating him, I just remember my vision clearing, and seeing that most of his face and throat was gone, along with the meatier parts of his chest and arms. I recoiled from the charnel and pulled my clothes off, sickened by the blood and viscera covering me. I ripped my shirt and my cloak, and in the process pulled the bandages from my torso. I sat in shocked stillness for a moment, as I realized that the hole left in me by the guardsman’s spear had sealed shut. Curiosity led me to remove the bandages from my leg, and similar results were found.
Sensing the approaching dawn, I quickly tossed my blood-soaked clothing into the fire, threw the half-eaten bandit into some brush, then turned my attention to the bandits’ captive. I roused her gently, after pulling her dress back down and setting her upright. She started to cry out once she regained consciousness, and I hushed her gently, assuring her that I was a friend, and her savior. She quieted, though I could tell she was still nervous. I told her that I was going to cut her binds, and remove the sack from her head, but that she wasn’t to linger and try to converse with me, or ascertain my identity, that she was to just leave, as quickly as she could travel, and go back to her home.
With that, I pointed her in the direction of South, cut the bindings on her legs and hands, then, standing behind her, I pulled from her head the sack, and whispered in her ear, “go”. She fled, running through the woods, and didn’t look back once. I quickly gathered up what supplies the bandits had that I could use, then followed her.
For three days I trailed behind the woman, ensuring her safety, even hunting meals for her and leaving them on the path for her to find. She never saw me, though trusted her new savior enough to cook and eat the meals I’d left for her. The first town we came to seemed to be her village, as from afar I saw others rejoice in her return.
At least I’d been able to see one maiden home safe.