ABOVE, THE HEAVENS ROILED.
Below, the forest was a sprawl of deep green. A cool breeze rustled past the trees, carrying with it the dark scent of rain-spattered leaves and damp earth, and the sweet burst of wild blossoms.
Intermittent flashes of light revealed the silhouette of a weaponless man. He had tracked a herd of deer to this clearing and now he waited, concealed high up in a tree on the fringe, for his next kill, his next meal.
A twig snapped, and a deer stepped out from the thicket. The hunter’s fingers curled. An incandescent bow and an arrow tipped with blue fire appeared in his hand. He drew the bowstring back but held on to the arrow, because the deer buckled to its knees and collapsed on the grassy floor.
Sympathy outstripped hunger when he saw the thick branch embedded in the deer’s belly. His arrow would have pierced its head, ending its life instantly and painlessly, but now he was filled with a need to ease the dying beast’s suffering. He was about to climb down when he saw its ears twitch and a second later, heard a low growl.
They were not alone. A panther, which he hadn’t seen skulking in the undergrowth, crept into the light.
The man released his arrow.
Halfway through its arc the arrow split into multiple shafts which hit the ground in a semicircle around the deer, forming a blazing barricade between predator and prey. His bow dematerialized and he slid down the trunk, ran to the deer and knelt beside it.
Over the sizzling of his arrows, he heard a snarl and turned. The panther had crept around the fiery cordon, and its flame-bright gaze settled on the man. Feral acknowledgment passed between them as each waited for the other to strike.
The beast hunkered lower; one side of its mouth lifted, revealing a long, thick fang. The hunter made a fist, and a broadsword edged with fire appeared in his hand. He stood between the deer and the beast, primed for the attack.
With only a flick of its tail as warning, the panther leaped at him. He swiped his sword, but the beast struck at him with a paw, claws extended. The hunter shouted in pain and swung again. This time his fiery blade singed the creature’s side, causing it to recoil with a roar to lurk beyond the clearing.
The archer’s chest stung where the beast had struck him. He pressed a palm to the torn skin, and his hand came away wet and red.
He heard a low purr and looked over his shoulder into the panther’s wary amber eyes, which were fixed on him through the shrubbery. There was an unspoken truce between man and beast, and the archer knew, instinctively, that he wouldn’t be attacked again.
He knelt beside the deer and, with a gentleness that belied his ferocity with the panther, eased the branch out. The splintering bark scraped his palm in the process and drew droplets of blood. When he pressed his hands over the wound to staunch the bleeding, the deer’s dark gaze met his. Flickering tongues of blue flame from his arrows were reflected in its glistening eyes.
At the mingling of their blood, his palm prickled and his vision turned hazy. Suddenly, a door flew open in his mind and he was overrun with the dying creature’s memories of its abbreviated life.
Stunned by the rapid influx of images, he swayed backward but kept his hands on the wound. In his mind’s eye, he experienced the deer’s surprise when the flaming fence had formed around it and he had approached, a blue figure with a sword like tethered lightning.
Something akin to resignation bloomed in the deer’s sad gaze. Then it sighed and closed its eyes to the world, ending its connection with the hunter.
For a long time after, he remained at the deer’s side, strangely drained by the experience. Eventually, his hunger forgotten, he stood up and waved a hand; his burning arrows blew out.
Gradually, he became aware again of the sounds of the forest and noted a rustling in the underbrush behind him; the panther’s purr had swelled to a growl. Turning, he saw it put one paw out, then another, and guardedly emerge into the clearing. Their eyes locked for a moment; then the archer retreated into the thicket.
He waited just beyond the fringe of the clearing and watched the panther approach the carcass, sink its teeth into the soft neck and drag it away.
The circle of life continued undisturbed.
The hunter sprinted through the forest until he reached another glade, in the middle of which was a lone cabin. At the rear, water cascaded over a rocky bluff down into a narrow brook.
Once inside his home, he lit a torch and looked down at his chest and palm. The lacerations had healed, leaving immaculate skin. He removed his boots by the door and tossed his trousers on the bed by the window. Then he went back out and padded across the damp grass to the stream.
His blue-tinged skin was unmarked but for a silver leaf-like pattern with a long stem around his navel. The moonlight gave his gray irises a silver gleam, and his startlingly fine features were the only softening aspect in an otherwise ascetic mien.
He entered the stream and stood under the spray, groaning softly when the cool water saturated his long hair and sluiced down his limbs.
The deer’s death had faded from his spirit and a purified calm suffused his mind. Refreshed, he waded to the water’s edge and was about to step out when a searing anguish whiplashed up his spine and his body folded into itself, arms pressed against his stomach.
A fire burned inside him. He felt smothered and lifted frantic hands to his throat to tear free of the invisible stranglehold. There was no sound but for a long, anguished shout, the shaking cry of a dying man.
It was his voice, but older.
He closed his eyes to shut out the horrors, but they continued to plunder his mind. He saw his body being slashed, watched his dismembered limbs being flung piecemeal into the heavens. And he heard himself utter a last guttural cry before he went silent.
The pain had passed, but the stream of images continued.
He saw a ball of blue fire streak across the dark sky and disappear into the forest. He sensed the presence of a faceless man beside him. Then he saw something else.
The hilt of a sword.
It was a singular weapon; a large blue gemstone adorned the golden pommel, and the base of the blade bore an engraving of two serpents coiled around a winged staff.
He dropped to his knees and fell forward in the shallow water at the shoreline, holding himself up on his hands. His head slumped under the weight of the savagery flashing through his mind and he stared at the white light of the moon glinting off the gentling ripples.
His elbows buckled and he crumpled on the moist bank, unable to move while residual shudders racked his body. He didn’t know how long he lay there, moaning, waiting for the visions to fade.
It took all his strength to drag himself out of the water and back to his home where he collapsed on his bed, bare, wet and shivering. Within minutes, he sank into a fitful sleep.
The next morning, a furious thumping on his door yanked him to the edge of wakefulness. At once, echoes of the previous night’s delirium overran his mind, snapping him upright. His body shuddered; pressing his hands to his eyes couldn’t push the memories away, and it took a period of forcing his breaths to lengthen before his heart slowed.
The pounding on his door wouldn’t relent.
He swore and forced his body out of bed. Unconcerned about his nakedness, he opened the door only to be assaulted by the glare of sunlight. He had to squint to discern the figure of an envoy standing outside.
“What do you want?” he said, his voice rough with sleep. When his eyes had adjusted to the brightness, he caught the envoy’s gaze straying over his body. “Seen enough?”
The envoy smirked. “Put some clothes on,” he said. “You have been summoned by the Sky-Father. You are to come with me to the Great Hall right away!”
Published on October 06, 2017 06:53 • 99 views • Tags: sneak-peek
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