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What Lies Before Us

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West.

It was getting hard to think, but he could remember that much.

He had to go west. He couldn’t use magic, at any cost. If he stopped, he would die here in the woods and no one would ever even know.

The man paused. Birdsong and the whisper of branches rustling in the breeze filtered past the sounds of his heavy breathing. The morning air was chill, but droplets of sweat formed on his brow and his chestnut hair was damp with perspiration. The fog over his brain thinned for a moment and he spent the time dwelling on that last thought.

It was ridiculous to die of an infection from such a small wound. He was not some heathen, to slather mud on the thing and hope for the favor of the gods. He’d cleaned it properly and even worked his way through his small stock of wound salve. There should have never been an infection. The tall man’s back straightened in proud frustration. The sharp twinge that responded from the small but swollen gash on his right side reminded him why he’d been slouched in the first place. With a begrudging chuckle that almost ended in another coughing fit, the man admitted to himself that his indignance did not, in fact, change the reality of the situation.

The, apparently unnatural, infection was killing him. There was nothing he could do to stop it. He couldn’t remember when or why he had focused so strongly on the westernly direction that he’d gone so far as to abandon the road. But the road had been a long and winding thing, he’d doubled back as much as he’d traveled forward. And by the time he’d actually become aware that he’d abandoned the road, the constant ache in his side decided that finding his way back to it was an ordeal he wasn’t prepared for. He couldn’t stop, he couldn’t go back, so he just kept walking.

His slate eyes tilted up to take in the golden beams of sunlight peeking through the thick canopy of leaves. The man turned, seeking to reestablish his position based on the sun. The careless motion sent a wave of nausea rolling through his body. His unnaturally pale hand reached out to steady itself on the thick trunk of a nearby tree. Fingers once thought nimble failed to find traction as they slipped past the moss covered bark. Without the tree’s anchoring weight, the lean muscles gave in to the fatigue and disorientation as the man tumbled to the ground like an ill-balanced toy. He had only the time to think that the ground was soft and cool and solid before the blackness took him again.

...In the clearing, stood the remnants of an old stone building; perhaps a tower long lost to the ages. Only a half buried floor and a corner of wall, half a man tall, well weathered and nearly grown over with moss and vine, stood testament to the fact that any structure once stood there at all. Blood. The smell filled Rhys’ nostrils, sickening in its intensity. Rhys inched closer through the undergrowth. In the center of the ruin a fire blazed, bathing the nearby stones in macabre light.

...Stocky, grizzled looking creatures danced in the ruins. They had the faces of men, if old and malformed. But, there was no mistaking the red glow in their eyes or their crude taloned hands. He counted five of them, each wearing armored boots on their feet and pointed red caps that seemed to drip some viscous fluid on their heads but little else in between. Two of the creatures appeared to be fighting over something. Rhys strained to catch the words, until he realised they were fighting over an arm, a child’s arm. With frightening clarity, his eyes fixed on the details around the creatures. Bodies. Parts of bodies. Surely more than the small camp he’d found in tatters could account for. And blood. The demonic cast on the stones was not a trick of the light. It was blood. Blood covered every inch of exposed stone.

...The fight for the child’s arm was a quick and vicious one, flashes of teeth and claws while the other huddled around growling in some guttural dialect. As he watched in horror, the victor raised its prize above its head and squeezed, wringing the arm like a wet rag. Even at his distance, Rhys could hear the bones pop under the intense strength as blood oozed out onto the creature’s already soaked cap. He’d known he was stalking evil when he’d followed the trail. But, he hadn’t been prepared for this...

...Running. Rhys had been so fixated on the grisly scene, he hadn’t realized there was a sixth monster, lurking in the shadow of the wall, it’s hands buried in the entrails of an unlucky traveler, until it had spotted him and sounded an alert. It was too many to face at once, especially without his magic. He’d run. His lungs hurt. He’d been running for several minutes. He should have left the short-legged, heavy-footed creatures far behind, but the clatter of iron boots was getting closer. No choice.

...The first two kills had been easy. They hadn’t expected him to stop and face them. With his two small, curved handaxes he’d gutted them both before they realized they should stop running. A third demon stabbed at him with the iron pike they each carried. Rhys dodged, then releasing one axe to hang from it’s wrist strap, used the long pole of the enemy’s weapon to yank the creature into the reach of his other axe. The last three joined the fray together. The sixth monster, Rhys now noticed, appeared to be wearing a vest of some sort, stained with blood and things he had no wish to guess about and torn in places beyond repair. It shouted at the other two, who then started to flank him. The leader then. Rhys exploded forward, attempting to blitz the vest wearing demon before it’s minions could surround him. As he charged, a pike stabbed at him from the left. Shifting his balance without losing his stride, Rhys avoided the incoming blow, but turned almost too slowly to escape the pole wielded by the leader. It flicked past his right side as Rhys finished propelling himself into the leader’s space. His pike forgotten, the monster attacked with tooth and claw. It’s mouth dripped with spittle as it grunted what could only be vile insults or even more vile promises of his death. Spinning behind the foul beast, Rhys’ wickedly sharp axes sliced at the bend of it’s legs, dropping it to it’s knees in time to use it’s body as a shield against the pikes of it’s witless allies. The one on the right was closer, Rhys went for it next. Whatever the demons were, they did not appear to be used to losing. It seemed startled by the death of it’s leader and he used the distraction to his advantage to close the gap between them. As the body of it’s last ally hit the earth, the remaining creature seemed to lose his taste for battle. It’s rusted pike hit the ground as it turned to run. But, blood dripped in it’s wake and Rhys remembered the tiny arm that blood had come from and buried his axe in the monster’s fleeing back.

...He’d buried the bodies, as carefully as he could. There were pieces he’d never found. He didn’t think about where they went. He’d burned the creatures, even their pikes (which he’d discovered were coated in some vile concoction of entrails and excrement), and especially their awful blood-wet hats. He’d even salted the ruined stones and said what prayers he could. He was certainly no priest, but it seemed better than nothing. It was long work and only when he’d finished did Rhys finally find the stream he’d originally been searching for. Only while cleaning the blood and death from his clothes did he finally notice that the leader hadn’t missed entirely. It was only a graze, thankfully. A serious wound could be deadly when travelling alone in the wilderness. Only a graze…

Rhys woke shivering, his body in an unnatural heap on the forest floor. Looking around, he frowned. The shadows around him had shifted, stretched as the sun made it’s path through the sky; late afternoon. So, he’d been unconscious for a few hours, at least. Hopefully, this wasn’t the next day. But, the sun was still up, regardless, so no reason for shivering. Well, no reason except the fever. The fever caused by the infection that was killing him. Right, time to get up. It took a few tries, his body was sluggish and slow to respond. Rhy refused to look at the ‘scratch’ on his side. His last view of the swollen, puffy thing with it’s dark angry lines reaching like tendrils towards his heart told him that looking again wouldn’t help his state of mind any.

West.

It took time to get his feet back under him. The terrain was getting more difficult to manage with his increasingly unsteady feet. Finally, as the sun began to fall, he conceded to cutting a branch from a nearby tree for a walking stick. What should have been a simple task was arduous work that ate away at what little energy he could spare. Rhys accepted that he was delirious when he resorted to begging the tree to understand his need and stop being so difficult. Just as it was a trick of his delirium that made him feel that the job was easier after he did so.

In the full darkness of the thick forest, Rhys picked, stumbled, and trudged his way through the night, stopping only to catch his breath. At this point, sleep would bring death, he was sure of it. He couldn’t even risk sitting for rest. The exhaustion lay too heavily on his body and he couldn’t trust his own constitution.

Movement is life. Father Argyle had said so once. He’d been quoting something, Rhys couldn’t remember what. Father Argyle was an insufferably boring man and it had always been difficult to pay attention to his lectures. But, Rhys remembered that line. It seemed pertinent now. Something he could work with, at least. He was going to die, that was obvious now. But, he at least wasn’t going to lie down and wait for it to happen.

The chirps of the morning’s first birds was interrupted by the latest round nausea forcing what little food Rhys had managed to get down a few hours before to come back back up. He swayed in the resulting lightheadedness, barely managing to fall on a patch of leaves undefiled by his own vomit.

He had been the one to insist that he be allowed to take this trip. This ignoble death was perhaps the punishment for his willfulness. They hadn’t wanted to let him go. Perhaps they had been right to try to stop him. Rhys grimaced and fought to think past the exhaustion. No, this was right. He’d known it when he argued to be allowed to leave on his own. And even if he did die, his death would be the last at those creatures hands. No more travellers had to suffer at the hands of those cruel monsters, no more families, no more children. Rhys remembered the three tiny torn up bodies he’d buried what felt like a lifetime ago as he forced his walking stick into the ground to leverage himself back up.

It was a losing battle. With hands bloody and abraded from falling and legs battered by both undergrowth and impact, Rhys fought his body as he tried to cover more ground. As the first strips of dawn peeked over the horizon, he fell for the last time. The cold wetness of the dew coated leaves felt sinful against the exposed bits of his overheated skin. It was good to appreciate the little things. Staring up at the canopy, he took stock of the damage. His side was wet in a way that had nothing do with morning condensation. He’d split the wound, he wasn’t sure if it was pus or blood. It was too much effort to look. The smell said pus. Then again, if he trusted the smell, he might think he was already dead. He considered the thought for a moment, before rolling to his stomach to drag himself a few more inches forward, away from the rising of the sun. The edges of his vision were dark and blurred. His breath came in short, heavy pants as he struggled with the effort of his own weight. Soon, he couldn’t even remember why he was trying to move in the first place. When unconsciousness came for the last time he hardly noticed.