The air was freezing as it whipped around the hem of his cloak, exposing his bare, pale legs. His breathing was heavy and wheezy, and when he exhaled a cloud of mist hung in the air before him, highlighting the glacial temperature. He stumbled as he ran over the mountaintop, tripping on the uneven ground; there wasn’t a single person who knew where he was.
He paused, leaning his hands on his knees and gasping for breath. Straightening up, he let out a desperate cry, followed by a hoarse yell: “Master, where are you?”
There was no reply, and he had not expected one; despite the throbbing pain that was tearing through his ribcage, he continued his dashed wanderings across the mountaintop. The glowing stars were exceptionally large and bright from this vantage point, but they only hindered him in his bed for secrecy.
Suddenly, he heard a scrabbling behind him, and he dodged behind a drooping tree, peering between the branches. However, after several moments of cowering in the shadows, he was positive it was merely a lone bird in the treetops, and he continued his quest, leaping over rocks and mounds of earth as he raced towards his destination.
The pain ripping through him was almost unbearable now; he felt as though his ribs were going to crumble, his heart going to burst out of his chest and stain his black robes scarlet. But he had to keep going; he had to.
As he clambered over a particularly large rock, he caught a glimpse of a steep, downwards slope, and without hesitating to see where it led, or to consider the dangers, he leapt towards it. As his feet ground into the very edge of the cliff face, the rock crumbled beneath him and he plummeted, sliding down it at an alarming speed, but he didn’t cry out in shock; in fact, it barely seemed to register in his prematurely lined face. His long, dark hair whipped around him, obscuring his vision. Cold, slimy mud was gathering uncomfortably up his back. Sensing that he was near the bottom, he threw out a hand to slow himself down but sliced it on a jagged rock which was poking out of the ground as he sped past. Blood began pouring from the wound and he swore in anger, but the speed of his descent wiped out the sound of his voice.
He rolled to a stop with a groan, and peering upwards, found himself before some sort of woodland. His stomach lurched in excitement and he set off again, joy racing through every vein in his body; he was almost there.
The forest seemed never-ending. He ran and ran, dodging every branch and leaping over every root, the pain in his chest replaced with an ecstatic energy. Suddenly he stumbled into a clearing, moonlight wiping out every inch of possible darkness leaving an eerie feel about the place, and his heart skipped a beat. There was a thick, grey-white mist rolling along the ground, but as he stared it began to rise upwards, so slowly it was difficult to judge at first whether it was actually moving or not. The mist seemed to shift inwards to the centre of the clearing and cling together, resulting in a long, thin, solid bundle. The colour began deepening, slowly turning deep grey and then black. The man let out an excited cry and made to run forwards, but his feet were rooted to the spot by some unseen bond, and he was entirely unable to move. He watched as the mist vanished, leaving behind the bundle-like object. It sunk slowly back to ground level, coming to rest at the base of an extremely old, gnarled tree.
The bond holding the man’s feet suddenly broke and he ran forwards, his heart pounding in his throat. Before he had felt nothing but excitement; now, a feeling of fear and dread at what he would find began to mask it, mingled with a vague sense of accomplishment at having got here at last.
He sunk to his knees before the bundle, which was groaning and gasping for air. Now that he was closer, he could see that the actual body was shrouded in a cloak, which had been the reason for the bundle-like appearance. The cloak was so large for the body within that not a centimetre of flesh was visible. The man reached out his hand slowly, unsure as to whether to touch it; gingerly, he decided against it and retracted his hand, waiting for the featureless being to acknowledge him.
The body beneath the cloak writhed, and from the nose upwards was exposed – it looked something like a cross between a newborn baby, an elderly man on his deathbed and an unrecognisable animal, covered in thick, downy hair with eyes which were completely white besides a single, black pupil in the centre of each.
It took several loud, shuddering breaths from an unseen mouth, and the man threw himself backwards, falling on his hands; the rasping sound was horrifying, and had caused him to panic. Then, again from the invisible mouth, croaked a deep, lifeless voice, “Sangwith…”
The man – Sangwith- paused for a second, still leant away, terrified and repulsed at the spectacle before him. However, upon realising he had been addressed, he scrabbled forwards and dropped his abdomen to the soily ground in some sort of deranged bow.
“Master!” he cried, still bowing, “It has been a long time, a long –“
“Silence!” croaked the Master, “Yes it has been a long time! A long time I have waited here for someone to prove how much they value my power!”
Sangwith let out a strange, strangled yelp as he peered at the being before him. “I have tried, Master, so hard, and for so long…”
“You could always have found me if you had wanted it enough. Eternal glory, simply for serving me! But that is not of my concern right now. Tell me, where are the others?”
“The – the others, Sir?”
“My other Bandits.”
“I – I do not know, Master. I have not been in contact with anyone else. I have worked alone to find you.”
His Master suddenly let out a shriek – as hoarse as he was – and Sangwith flinched. “You mean to tell me, that they are not here also? They are not here to prove their worth?” the Master ordered.
“I – no – I am alone, Master – I do not know where the others are, I have come alone – I have news.” The fear in Sangwith’s eyes was paramount.
“Then do not hold back, Sangwith. Tell me of this news.”
Sangwith straightened up, his face suddenly solemn.
“Tell me, Sangwith. Prove your worth,” the Master pressured.
Sangwith paused for several moments, staring at his Master, before proceeding. “There is talk of a Warrior becoming of age, a Warrior above all others…the Warrior you have been afraid of for so long.”
His Master remained silent for some time, the revelation swimming through his mind. “A Warrior who has just become of age?” he finally gasped. “This does not trouble me, Sangwith. I have no concerns with children.”
“Master, it is said he has powers, far beyond those of even a highly-qualified Voja.”
“And have you witnessed these powers?”
“No, Master. It is just what I have heard from others.”
The Master paused again to take more rattling breaths; the conversation had clearly exhausted him. “Well, Sangwith, in that case I will require your assistance.”
Sangwith gave a grateful sob, overjoyed at this acceptance. “Anything, Master, anything you necessitate.”
“I require you to fetch me a…special diet.”
“A – a special diet?”
“Yes, Sangwith. I must do battle.”
And he started to laugh, a loud, manic laugh, which echoed throughout the trees and hadn’t seemed to come from the frail being on the forest floor.
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