The Ghosts of the Past
The chill of the approaching night ingressed through all of his clothing. A light, drizzling rain fell upon the darkening landscape, creating a thick mist that surrounded everything with its blurry veil. An unpleasant stinging sensation that occurred every time a freezing cold water droplet found its way through made him grind his teeth angrily. The rotting trees and copses whispered their woeful song as the rising wind made their dead leaves rustle, but there was no answer to their lament, no sunlight to revive them. For over a century, the sun and the stars had been covered by clouds, dark as ashes, leaving all life to dwindle beneath their cold and ever deepening shadows.
Drevin Dagorian, a stranger in these lands, had arrived to Lokhan with Belith, his recently wedded wife, not more than a year ago. They came from the City of Tarakhan, the capital city of Telendras, where they had met each other a couple of years earlier. Drevin had been a hired assassin working for the organization known as the Purple Lotus, assigned to complete a task in Tarakhan, while Belith was nothing but a lowly daughter of a cobbler who happened to be present at the store when Drevin was placing an order to get his boots repaired. He had left everything behind for this girl, the high income provided by his dangerous profession, the thrill of the hunt, the excitement of constant insecurity, but most of all, he had left behind Grimnir, the Hooded One - the devious leader of the Purple Lotus.
It is said that no one leaves this guild. Once accepted with the mark of the Purple Lotus painted permanently on the skin of the member, the order became their only friend, family and life. There was no way out of it other than death, the order made sure of that by hunting down all the traitors and delivering their last reward - a liberation of all duties.
To avoid that unwanted reward, Drevin took Belith with him and traveled North, knowing that the Hooded One would come looking for him. Despite the awareness of danger, he hoped that perhaps the remote location and the fact that very few even knew where they lived would help them to avoid the deadly hand of the order. Drevin's only major concern was their bright contrast against the local folk, who were all tall, blond and pale-skinned Hurons, while he and Belith were dark, almost olive-colored with their dark eyes and black hair. Their foreign characteristics betrayed them faster than a crow picks up a gold coin.
With sure steps he walked over the mossy, tree-covered hills, knowing it would not be long before he could see the warm and welcoming lanterns hanging by the sturdy wooden gate of Lokhan, his new home in the northern realm of Windari.
A burlap bag was hanging heavy on his shoulder with at least twenty pounds of freshly salted deer meat in it, a burden he would gladly pass on after collecting his compensation. His tired feet were aching and his eyes were getting foggy from the lack of sleep, but he continued with an iron determination across the thick shrubbery of the dark forest.
Then, as he was about to lose his balance again because of the rough ground, the most welcome sight opened before him. A narrow road was winding through the woods, offering some relief from the harsh terrain. He sighed quietly as he stepped on the firm, mossy bed of the ages old trail that had been used by merchants traveling between Lokhan and Culveras. Once it had been a busy highway with caravans transporting goods of all sorts between the two cities, and also further up to Thalas, but when the Eclipse had begun, the road dried out like a desert river. Now it was only a faint shadow of what it used to be, but still, it offered the worn traveler a relatively safe passage through the trees.
Drevin was returning from a hunt that had taken him across Longwater, all the way to Grisdale, which was one of the few remaining places where deers, moose and conies still wandered in greater numbers without being hungry for flesh. That grove was dying, like all of Belmora, but for some odd reason Grisdale had sustained a healthy population of quarry. But even the animals of the northern woodlands were slowly changing, and it was becoming increasingly dangerous to go there alone. One of these days a sickly bear, or even a moose, could attack in hopes to get a meal out of him, but worries like that did not press on his mind too heavily. He was grateful to have made it back safely, and he could hardly wait to see the sparkling eyes of his precious darling once again.
Lokhan was the trade center of the area, spreading among the trees seamlessly like pieces of a well-formed puzzle, soft lights twinkling in the dark and smoke rising from the countless chimneys. The cozy and homely view in the night caused a silent sigh to escape from the wayfarer's lips as he approached the sturdy wooden gate.
Drevin paid a copper coin to the guards standing by the gate, which was a common practice in these parts, then he walked along the quiet road toward a familiar square. It was getting late and only the inns had their doors still open, but such detail did not bother him at all as it was in fact an inn he was heading for. The old innkeeper of the Burning Candle, Gerrick Woodglade, had sealed a deal with Drevin to supply him with meat, and ever since the tenacious Trevlin huntsman had wandered around the wilderness, looking for any quarry what old Gerrick could use and sell, the inn had thrived nicely. It was good profit for both men as the price of meat was constantly rising. The darkness of the Gargoyle was slowly making it more and more of a rarity to be found, but Gerrick kept his prices at an affordable level, which ensured that his place was full night after another. And what he might have lost for not becoming too greedy, he won many times over in the sales of mead and beer.
Gerrick was pleased to see Drevin, and even more so when he noticed the heavy bag on his shoulder. The inn was almost empty, so after asking his daughter, Merwyn, to look after the place, he pointed toward the back where the kitchen was, signaling Drevin to follow.
Merwyn smiled warmly at Drevin, who answered with a polite nod. She had reached her womanhood only a couple of months earlier, but she had been looking at Drevin in a certain way for much longer than that. Drevin loved his wife and could have never progressed any further with this girl, but he was far too subtle to crush her heart by abruptly telling the truth. If the young fool wanted to play with him, then fine, he would keep playing along for now. Belith had his heart, and he could never do anything to betray those gentle eyes that had so softly captured him in Tarakhan.
"It seems the luck was on your side this time," the innkeeper said, smiling widely while sorting the meat.
Drevin wiped the dripping water out of his eyes and nodded contently. "Yes, it was quite worth it," he then said.
"Here," Gerrick offered him something after all the meat was in good order on the kitchen table, "you have well deserved that, my friend."
A shining gold coin was sparkling on Drevin's hand, a fortune in these lands, more than he had ever earned from one trip all year.
"Thanks, Gerrick. It's certainly getting harder out there," he muttered while sliding the coin into his pocket. The old man raised an eyebrow, instantly aware of what Drevin was talking about.
"The animals are finally changing here, too?" he asked, offering a good-sized mug of mead, which Drevin gladly accepted. The way from the Burning Candle to his house, north by the foothills of the White Mountains, was around five miles, the mead would make his blood run faster, warming the traveler in the cold rain.
"They have become more timid, but at the same time more aggressive, like they're about to crossover from a prey to a predator, but they're not quite there yet."
The innkeeper shook his head with saddened eyes. "How I wish these days would have not shadowed my lifetime, Drevin," he then said. "I'm an old man, and yet I have never in my life witnessed a sunrise - only heard tales of it."
"My father used to tell me about the legend of the sun," Drevin whispered, "even though he had never seen it either."
Gerrick nodded. "Sometimes I wonder if there ever was a sun, like it's a vague myth created by desperate people to have something that keeps the dwindling flame of hope alive, but then I realize that the world would have been gone a long time ago if it had been dying at this rate for centuries longer." He sighed deeply and took a long sip from his drink. "I'm sorry, my friend, sometimes I fall into despair myself," he said remorsefully with a light, yet gloomy chuckle.
"Don't worry, we all do," Drevin consoled the innkeeper. "But I better be going now, it's getting very late," he pointed out tiredly.
The innkeeper coughed lightly and grabbed Drevin's hand for a brief moment. "Go, do not let Belith wait. She has been worried - she always is when you're gone."
Drevin nodded firmly and waved his hand as a sign of farewell, then he walked out the same way he had entered.
* * *
The edges of the narrow path melted into darkness, making it nearly impossible to see the way. A veil of clouds that kept the moons and stars hidden turned the nights pitch-black, the perpetual rain made the already poor visibility even worse, and Drevin had to force his weary eyes to work harder in order to prevent himself from loosing the trail and getting lost in the dangerous woods.
In the distance, like a lonely beacon on the stormy shore, Drevin saw a dim, flickering light and sighed quietly. There, in the middle of the woods, was their small log cabin, and while Drevin had drowned in luxury during his previous life, there was nothing more dear to him than this little home he shared with his beloved Belith.
The light did not mean that his wife was still awake, for she left the lantern hanging on their small porch every single night when Drevin was hunting. It was her way to tell that she was waiting, no matter what time of the day it was.
The old assassin smiled to himself as he approached the quiet house; a comfortably warm, soft bed in safety would be a well-deserved reward for the work he had done. To reach the inviting door a little faster, the pace of his steps quickened. The rain was hitting the bare trees harder, and the wind sounded angered as it whistled among the naked branches; a storm was approaching the autumnal land.
Drevin leaped the last steps to make it inside before he would receive another downpour, for he felt himself quite wet enough already. The wooden door made a silent creak as he sneaked inside. He cursed to himself and swore to oil the hinges first thing in the morning, or at least after spending a pleasant moment or two with his wife. He did not want to disturb her sleep, no matter how much he had missed her. Closing the door softly behind him, he stood quietly and listened, but the cabin was dead silent. Drevin frowned confusedly as he could not hear Belith's calm breathing in the dark, he could not hear anything.
Something was terribly wrong. His senses were screaming warnings of danger, a feature he had learned and obtained well during the years of serving the Purple Lotus. The cabin contained only one room, so the options were limited for where to go from there. Drevin took a step forward to reach the lantern on the table that was placed under the only window. He felt his boot hitting a stiff puddle on the floor, but no matter how hard his eyes struggled, he could not see anything in front of him. Becoming seriously concerned, Drevin decided to ignore the lantern on the table and opened the front door instead. After putting his bow down where it leaned against the table leg, he grabbed the lantern from the porch that was already lit.
The sight that occurred in front of him, as he finally had enough light to see, was so cruel, sickening and horrid that Drevin almost dropped the lantern as he staggered backwards against the door, shutting it with an unnaturally loud slam.
A sturdy chair, usually standing by the table, was now dragged across the room by the bed and the fireplace. A woman was tied to the chair with a strong rope, mutilated so badly she was barely recognizable, but a familiar wedding ring on her broken, terribly swollen finger revealed the grotesque truth. Belith had been beaten and tortured to death, the blood from her wounds had splattered all over the place. Deep cuts and lacerations covered her half naked body, and the fractured bones were sticking out from her twisted arms and legs.
As Drevin slowly approached the broken figure of his wife, he was utterly yet again shocked by another unspeakable detail: her eyes were nothing but two bleeding, gaping holes. A crimson stream ran down on her face, following the bruised skin all the way down her throat and across her bare breasts, looking like she had cried blood. Her head was hanging down, and her once beautiful, dark, silky hair had turned into bloody and greasy lumps that refused to fall down upon her face where they could have covered some of the atrocities that had been done to her. But no, the cruel slaughter was presented in all of its mindless brutality.
Drevin fell down to his knees, staring at the maimed and mangled figure of his tormented wife. His mouth was open, his face twisted into anguished grimace, but he could not produce a sound. Flooding tears made his burning eyes blurry, and during that frozen moment that seemed to last forever, Drevin wanted to die with her. He could not function at all, and still, somewhere in the back of his foggy mind, an old instinct kept sounding the alarm. Whoever had done this, whoever was able to do something so incredibly cruel, had to be connected with Drevin's dark past, and whoever was behind this insane atrocity had to be somewhere close waiting for him. He did not care, the utter feeling of loss had momentarily paralyzed his mind.
He approached the chair with wildly shuddering hands, wanting to touch his true love for one last time, and as he reached out his hand and gently caressed her bruised cheek, a shock that nearly stopped his heart shivered his spine. Belith moved slightly, leaning her head to the side, accompanied by a weak, rattling gurgle. She was still alive! Just barely, but she was still struggling, refusing to let go. An overwhelming feeling of relief washed over him, which quickly faded into shaken sorrow. How excruciating pain she must be in, and how long has she lingered here like this?
Drevin sobbed quietly. "Belith, who did this to you?" he asked with comfortless voice, unsure of what he could do to help her. All her injuries looked like each one of them alone would cause great pain. Every single part of her body was shattered. She was dying. Drevin knew that. Somewhere deep inside he knew that, even though it was something he refused to admit. There was no vicar in the world who could fix her anymore, the fact that she was still there was a miracle in itself.
"They- came for- you," she whispered, struggling furiously with each breath. "They- asked, but- I told nothing," she sighed tiredly.
"Don't speak, my love. I'll get help," Drevin promised, but then Belith felt around with her crushed fingers until she found his hand despite the pain caused by moving the shredded limb.
"Too late," she whispered with barely audible voice, "please- let me go, please." Then her grip tightened suddenly, and Drevin knew what she wanted him to do.
"I can't-" he murmured in tears, unable to decide what he was supposed to do, bemoaning her terrible fate. But it was not helping. Nothing could bring her back, and he realized that, although refusing to admit it at first. But eventually, after watching Belith's terrifying battle and listening to her stertorous breathing, he had to swallow his self-pity as he realized that it would be the only available act of mercy and the greatest favor he could do at this point - to finally end her suffering.
Crying quietly, he stood up and walked around the chair, then he wrapped his strong arms around Belith's neck and closed his eyes tightly.
"I love you," she whispered silently.
"I love you too, my dear sweetheart," Drevin sobbed back as he twisted his arm forcefully, breaking her spine with one sharp, disgusting snap.
Her body turned limp instantly, and her last breath sounded like a weak sigh of relief. A pressing silence fell upon the cabin as Drevin was still holding his wife tightly in his arms, bidding the last bitter farewells before he would have to let her go.
"Now isn't that just cute?" A raspy voice said from the door, where a man had appeared silently like a ghost, and even the creaking hinge had failed to alarm Drevin, who had been so deep in his thoughts that even a thunder would not have gained his attention, his numb mind had completely ignored all the warnings. Behind the tall, ratlike man, stood a band of five more men, all staring at Drevin with their cold and careless eyes. All of them were holding a loaded crossbow, ready to shoot him full of bolts. The man at the door only needed to step aside to provide clear aim for them.