Marlor crawled through the snow, hacking and coughing all the way. His breath came out in shallow bursts, faint hisses of steam curling through the air from his mouth. He pulled himself up against a tree and surveyed his surroundings, eyes scanning the white-dusted terrain.
There was snow everywhere, of course, for it hardly ever ceased to fall in this frigid wasteland, coating the peaks and slopes of distant mountains and filling the weighty boughs of the trees, both the bare-leaved and the evergreen, turning the mighty forest Marlor now lay in to a flat expanse of white.
From this perch, Marlor could see much of the forest and all of it was glazed in snow. Muted afternoon light filtered in from behind the clouds, still dripping cold flurries into the landscape. Eyes gazing across the horizon, he could not see any more hints of movement, nor any signs of life. Marlor sighed, for it meant that once again, he was alone.
He was almost always alone and had almost always been, but today, it was bothering him even more than usual. Maybe it was just the longing for home, for purpose, he thought to himself as he clutched his cloak tightly around him. Or maybe, he thought bitterly, it was the cold threatening to seep the life from his bones.
He held up his hand, glove torn and gnarled from treacherous climbs and scrapes. Feeling the chill close in tighter around him, Marlor gritted his teeth and yanked off the glove, letting his calloused fingers feel the bite of the wind. Turning to the tree beside him, Marlor held his hand against a jagged edge of bark and dragged it across it, spilling blood across his palm and onto the fresh snow, where it bounced and steamed.
Unflinching at the pain, Marlor curled his fingertips and the blood rose from the cut in wisps, steaming in the frigid air. His fingers twitched once more and the trail of blood shifted in the air before him, forming into the shape of a twisted sigil, a rune inscribed in the sap of his veins. Curling his fingertips again, Marlor clenched his fist and the blood sigil glowed for a moment and then pulsed with a dark light. The blood leaking from Marlor’s palm responded in kind.
As he completed the ritual, Marlor felt warmth from within, his blood heating up to protect him from the frigid winds. He stood, invigorated, hardly noticing the thin streaks of crimson leaking from the corners of his eyes. He began to stride towards the edge of the ridge, but paused as he heard the howls sound from behind him.
Marlor cursed under his breath. He wasn’t truly alone in this frozen wasteland, but the only excuses for company he’d found for a long while were beasts that he’d rather be alone than with, that hounded him without pause, never allowing him to rest, to find a place to call home…
Shaking the dizziness from his head, he dashed down the ridge, not eager to tangle with the Frostwolves yet, not in his weakened state. The heat generated by his blood magic hadn’t had time to take full effect yet, making him still slow and lethargic. He continued to run, his legs warming up as they pumped quickly.
He began to rush now, cascading down the snowy slopes, stumbling in his dash, but quickly catching himself. The howls grew louder now and Marlor realized that the wolves had been closer than he’d realized, silently closing in while he waited. Or perhaps they had howled before and he’d either been too consumed by his pain or the turmoil of his inner thoughts to notice.
Cursing himself for the lapse in judgment, Marlor continued to run, knowing that he wouldn’t just be able to escape this time. His eyes flashed to a slight hollow in the rocks nearby, and he scrambled up the cliffside, hauling himself into the little hole, and waited. As he crouched there, he drew a notched blade from his side, steeling himself for battle.
The sounds of the wolves grew closer, and after a few minutes of hiding, a half-dozen of them bounded onto the trail, following the path Marlor had been taking. Several of them continued that way, snarling and running, but a few lingered, sniffing along the snow he’d tread and prowling, their keen senses alerting them that he was close. Marlor dared to peek out a bit, to see how many remained.
The Frostwolves had glossy, bluish-grey fur, stained more with ice than snow, and a few actual icicles spiking out from around their necks. Their nostrils flared as one of them turned its snout up in the direction Marlor was hiding, trailing the scent. He knew the game was up, and before the wolves could gain any more advantage, he leapt out from the hollow, curved blade flashing in the snowy light.
He landed with a crunch in the soft snow, rolling up to the nearest wolf and slashing outwards, digging deeply into it, a bright line of blood arcing out from it as he cut. Before the wolf could react against him, Marlor twisted his fingers, and the blood from the creature’s own body twisted out of it and coiled around it like a rope, binding it in place as its lifeblood leaked out.
Marlor whirled around to face the next wolf, leaping towards him, steam emanating from its jaw as it moved. As it landed in front of him, Marlor deftly slashed out at it, cutting it across the eye. As it recoiled from the blow, he stabbed forward, into the now-blinded socket. He twisted the blade and yanked it out as the corpse collapsed onto the snow.
Before Marlor could seize the initiative, a third wolf was already on him, its jaws snapping down on his left arm. He cried out as it bit deeply and, gritting his teeth, punched out with the hilt of his weapon, slamming it into the wolf’s sensitive snout. It jumped back from the pain, releasing its hold on Marlor’s bloodied arm, as he retracted his blade and held it up in a defensive stance, his fingers aching in pain from the punch.
Desperate and breathing hard, Marlor weakly held up his wounded arm, fingers starting to twitch familiarly, the blood seeping from his wounds curling out into the air, moving towards his outstretched palm. The wolf snarled at the use of the magic, the blood coalescing into a new rune above his fingers. No longer stunned or wary, the beast leapt forward as Marlor’s barely moving lips completed the incantation and the blood rune shot forward, striking the wolf and tearing right through it, eating into the body like acid. Further streaks of blood began to drip from the edges of his eyes.
As the wolf collapsed, its momentum carrying it next to him, Marlor turned to the source of another growl, a fourth wolf standing at least fifteen feet from him. Its chest heaved as it breathed heavily, drawing in tendrils of icy air with each gasp, its open, toothed maw aimed at Marlor.
His eyes widening, Marlor recognized what the wolf was doing, and briefly thought to run, but the blood leaking from his arm quickly ended that notion. Panicking and desperate, he held back his sword arm as much as he could and, with every bit of strength he had left in him, heaved it at the beast.
The blade, by some miracle, sunk into the space between the wolf’s eyes. Yet, as it fell over sideways, its lungs heaved one last time and expelled the power the Frostwolves were known for, sending a wave of frigid air blasting at Marlor. He tried to run, dashing out of the way, but his lower body was still caught fully in the frost, ice biting into his legs, sending him sliding onto the ground, unable to do anything but crawl weakly.
Trying desperately to pick himself up, his eyes starting to glaze over from pain and exhaustion, another howl from not too far off filled his ears. He tried to curse himself for forgetting there were more wolves close by, but only succeeded in spitting out a globule of blood onto the snow, where it steamed, joining the red streaks leaking out of his eyes.
As the wind picked up and Marlor’s eyelids began to droop closed, he heard the howl again, but closer and more pained. The wind picked up, carrying the snow with it, and through that curtain, he could make out a vague silhouette striding towards him in the cold. He held his hand up, weakly grasping out, fingers twitching in a hope for some last gasp of magic, but they dropped and fell to the snow as darkness overtook him.
Marlor’s eyelids began to flutter open weakly, his body still exhausted and beaten. He groaned softly, his eyes straining to adjust to a strangely…warm light, and after a few moments, the haze on his vision began to fade, though a slight, dark-red tint remained, but that neither surprised nor bothered him.
His eyes now open as slits, Marlor could see the sky above him-except it wasn’t a sky, it was a dark brown, textured stretch of wood-a roof. Frantically looking around, Marlor now realized that he was swaddled inside a thick fur blanket, resting on some sort of cot, with a small glass-encased flame sitting on a carved stump next to him. He inhaled sharply, the scent of sweat and smoke filling his nostrils, as opposed to cold and blood.
He was inside. Inside a building, an actual log cabin or hut, and not just an abandoned and decrepit one, either. It was clearly lived in, and maintained-and someone had taken the time and care to make him comfortable here. The flame in the iron-handled glass box on the stump-table was fresh and bright, too, meaning that whoever had put him here was not long gone.
Scrambling up, tugging himself out of the blankets, Marlor winced at the pain as his left arm twinged. It had been bandaged, somewhat heavily, and he could see that these were fresh and mostly clean, so he’d stopped bleeding not too long ago. Swinging himself out of the bed, Marlor cried aloud as a jolt of sharp pain shot through him as his legs, still not fully recovered from the Frostwolf’s icy blast, trembled where he stood. After a moment, they still held him up, so Marlor began to walk, scanning the room for his possessions. He saw his haversack laid against the wall, sword leaning on it, and started to walk, slowly, towards it.
He’d only made it about halfway before the door swung wide and three people-real people-walked in, accompanied by the whistling of snowy wind. They stopped and stood there, two men and a woman, and nodded in acknowledgement. The one closest to him, a burly man with a thick beard, spoke first.
“We’re very glad ta see you’re up on yer feet, stranger. You was very badly hurt by them wolves, and we weren’t sure if you was gonna make it.” he said, haltingly. The words, no, the act of them being spoken sent shivers down Marlor’s spine. It had been years since he’d heard the voice of another human, save his own, and even that had been almost naught, except in moments of anger and the soft incantations of his magic.
“I…I-I’m fine. Don’t worry.” he answered, weakly, clearly not convincing them of the truth of his words. In truth, the weakness came from a lack of use of the words, especially in an extended fashion.
“If ye say so,” the man responded, his gaze, as well as that of the others, still locked on Marlor as he finished crossing the room to his things, bending down to kneel beside them, “are yer eyes alright, then?”
“My…eyes?” Marlor asked slowly, not understanding.
“They were bleeding, and a lot, when we found you.” the auburn-haired woman standing beside him spoke, her voice containing more suspicion than concern, “Yet we couldn’t see any wounds on them. We thought they might not work so good anymore.”
“They-they’re fine.” Marlor said, his hand moving unconsciously to finger the corner of his eyes. He reached out and took his coat off of the haversack and put it on, starting to lace up the ties and buttons. “It’s just something that happens sometimes.”
“What, do ye just bleed out of yer eyes and not bat yer lashes at it at all?” the burly man asked, sarcasm dripping from his words. “That don’t sound very normal to me.”
“Well, I don’t know what normal is to you,” Marlor rebutted, the words coming out harsh and cutting, “but to me, it’s become a somewhat unfortunate, but manageable, part of my miserable life.” he spat, turning to face the trio fully for the first time, standing and pulling his haversack off the floor by its straps. The other man standing there gave a sharp intake of breath.
“Look, at his eyes, Fyal. You try and tell me there’s something natural about that? All red and bloody?!” the thin, sallow man hissed, raising a quivering finger to point at Marlor’s eyes. Marlor raised an eyebrow, until he realized that just as he was seeing the world through a lens of blood, a side effect of overtaxing his magic, others saw his eyes as such as well.
“Hush, Erwin,” Fyal chided, pushing the man’s hand down, “it’s not our place to judge the habits o’ others, strange they may be.” he turned back to Marlor, offering an apologetic smile. “Beg forgiveness fer my companions, yer appearance was unexpected. But, I forget me manners. I’m Fyal, this be Erwin and Hega. What do ye call yerself?” Fyal asked, extending a hand to shake.
“Uh-I’m Marlor,” he responded, still uneasy with the words, especially ones he hadn’t had occasion to use for most of his life. “What happened? With the wolves, I mean?” he didn’t move his hand towards Fyal’s.
“Well, that’s a tale that’s most for ye to tell, Marlor,” the bearded man chuckled, “We’d heard them wolves howling somethin’ fierce, and we was near and went to take a look. When we get there, we see a pair o’ them, and cut them down, then we see ye over on the snow, reachin’ out to us, four dead around ye, and blood all over yer arm and eyes. So we scooped ye up and took ye here.”
Marlor reached down and picked up his blade as Fyal spoke, turning it over in his hands. Much of the blood, at least that which was reasonably recent, had been scrubbed clean, and the sharp edge of it had been buffed and sharpened. As Fyal finished speaking, he noticed the appreciative looks Marlor was giving the weapon.
“And that’s a fine blade ye have there, sir. We fixed it up a bit, figured it’d be a right shame to leave it all scratched and bloody. Ye’ve clearly seen a good bit o’ action with it.”
“That I have, uh, Fyal.” Marlor, replied nervously, unused to such compliments, and such conversation at all. “You brought me to…here? Where is here, exactly?” he asked, turning to face them once more.
“Why, this be the good and safe settlement o’ Hammer’s Harbor,” Fyal responded, a twinge of pride in his voice, “We’re one o’ the strongest and most crowded towns left in this hell-forsaken world.”
Marlor tilted his head slightly, eyebrows raised as he slid the blade into its sheath.
“I…I wasn’t aware that there were really any such places left.” Marlor murmured, speaking more to himself than the others. Strapping the sheath to his side, he turned and started to walk, sliding the haversack onto his shoulders, but found his path blocked by the three who stood there.
“As I did say, Marlor, we do be wantin’ to hear yer side o’ the tale o’ the battle. The circumast-er, circiumsa-ah, the situation we find ye in were very strange, and though it ain’t quite our job to pry, we’d appreciate a few answers.” Fyal said, a slightly apologetic tone in his voice.
“Aye, perhaps more’n just a few,” spat Erwin, no such apology in his words. “Not all that blood out there came from you, and one o’ them wolves looked like it been chewed open from the inside! Yer a stranger fellow than any I ever met and we do be wantin’ to know why.” he hissed, glaring at Marlor a bit.
“Well, they were hunting me,” Marlor sighed, twitching nervously, eager to get away from them, “I, uh, don’t know what else there is. I hid, waited for them to pass. They found me and I fought them. Killed a few. Almost died.”
Pushing past the trio, Marlor moved towards the door from the hut, but stopped as Hega reached out and grasped his shoulder. Turning his gaze towards her, though still reaching for the door, Marlor narrowed his blood-red eyes into a glare. She flinched, but didn’t relinquish her grip.
“There’s more to it. That you don’t want to tell us, and I understand, but you need to be honest with us. We helped you. Give us that much.”
“Thank you for the help. But I’m good.” Marlor hissed and shoved her hand off his shoulder, turning and walking through the door.
He emerged into a soft drizzle of snow, the darker shade of dusk peeking through the heavy cloud cover. Looking around, Marlor could see a multitude of other houses and buildings, spaced out among a wide vale, boxed in by sharp mountain peaks on the edges of the settlement. Many tendrils of smoke rose from the chimneys of these buildings and, though it was chilled and snowing, the town looked at peace. He could see other people walking around near those buildings. Marlor inhaled sharply, his breath displayed clearly in the cold winter air. He hadn’t been around this many people for his whole life.
“Aye, Hammer’s Harbor be a place full o’ friends in this cold world,” Fyal said from behind Marlor, following him out the door, “y’know, ye seem to be quite handy with that there blade and ye handled them wolves real well. If ye wanted, ye could stay here. We always welcome extra help.” the burly man finished his sentence by clapping him on the shoulder.
Marlor abruptly slapped Fyal’s hand away, edging away from the man and his companions, who jogged out the door to join them. He began to stalk away, walking slowly, looking back at them in profile, a red haze still covering his eyes.
“I didn’t ask for your charity. I don’t know why you think I’d want that, but…I-I don’t. I can find my own way out of here, thank you. Goodbye.”
Marlor turned away from them and began to stride away through the snow, towards the edges of the bluffs that seemed to mark the boundaries of Hammer’s Harbor. Those few who were nearby eyed him curiously or warily, but entirely avoided him, though their stares did not. Standing where he’d just left, he could still hear Fyal and his companions arguing, and loudly.
“Why did you tell ‘im he could stay here, Fyal?!” shouted the thin man, the one he’d called Erwin. “He’s a right ill omen, I’ll tell you that, with all that’s been happening. And how the damn hell did he kill them wolves? Whatever he is, it sure ain’t natural, it is!”
“Oh, shut yer yapping, Erwin!” spat Fyal, “It don’t matter none, anyway. He said he don’t want our help. It’s a right pity, too. We could use someone o’ his…talents, whatever they were that took down them wolves.”
“Fyal speaks true, on that at least,” the woman, Hega, chimed in. “Especially with the Direclaw Bears about to reach us any day now, we could use any and all the fighters we can get.”
“Aye and, if only fer that, I wish he would stay,” agreed Fyal, “And he seems like he be a man that wants te make himself think that he were better off alone in all the world.”
Still walking away, Marlor’s breathing began to get heavier, his heart beating more rapidly as he heard Hega’s words. Though he caught Fyal’s response, he hardly realized it, his mind suddenly racing with memories at the words she had spoken. Though more eyes shifted to face him, Marlor broke into a run, scaling the handholds on the edges of the town’s natural barriers and dropping down and sliding down the steep slope that awaited him. Even though he scraped his palms as he skidded down the cliff face, he didn’t care.
The mere mention of the danger Hammer’s Harbor faced had sent Marlor into a frenzy, pushing all doubts from his mind as he hastened to get away from the area and the people within, real tears streaking out of his still blood-tinted eyes. The snow began to fall heavier from the sky, but Marlor ignored it as he reached the base of the slope and dashed across the snowy plain below.
Eventually, covered in snow, he stumbled into a small cave, crawling into its deepest recesses, bundling his cloak tightly around him as he shook, though not from the cold. The words he’d heard Fyal and his companions saying still swam in his mind, drawing out violent, horrifying memories he’d kept buried for years. Marlor closed his eyes and squirmed, alone, hoping desperately that he’d misheard them.
A low howl roared through the snowstorm and that fleeting possibility was shattered beyond repair. Marlor started to shake violently, gritting his teeth in pain as he held onto his head with his hands, swaying from side to side. He tried to drown out the familiar sounds, but it was futile. As the cold clutched him, he slipped into darkness, deep in the furthest reaches of his mind.
Marlor sat at a wooden table, his eyes affixed on the swirling grains and patterns of it. Normally, as a teenager so near to adulthood, he wouldn’t be preoccupied by such things, but his father had cut it just yesterday and he was still amazed by the beautiful workmanship. Most of the week, his father carved and cut woodwork like this, but at the end of every week, like today, his father went out to hunt with others of their village.
“Are you heading out for the hunt now, father?” Marlor asked as the man strode into the room, a longbow and quiver of arrows strapped across his back. At his side hung a fine-bladed sword, a family heirloom that he took with him on every hunt. He turned to regard his son with a smile.
“Oh, no, son, I’m not,” he said, giving a bit of an ominous pause as he stalked over to the table, bending down next to his child. “We are! I think it’s about time you joined us for your first hunt, eh?” he said with a hearty chuckle, patting Marlor on the back.
Marlor shot up with excitement, scanning his father’s face. He saw nothing on it but sincerity and wrapped him in a grateful hug as his mother stepped into the room, a concerned look on her face. She walked into the room, taking glasses from a cabinet and setting them on the table.
“Did I hear ye wrong, Alberg, or are ye wanting to take Marlor on the hunt with ye? It’s not safe for him there!” she said, worry evident in her voice.
“Janyce, my dear, he’s old enough by now,” Alberg rumbled, “and there’ll be half a dozen of us there, so no worry required. He’s a good lad, he deserves it.”
Janyce shrugged a bit, not necessarily agreeing, but not having enough reservations about the idea to oppose it. Marlor turned back to his father, visibly excited, his fingers twitching.
“Shall I get myself a bow, father? For the hunt?” he asked eagerly. He’d trained with them before, but he’d never had the opportunity to really put one to use.
“Nah, you can use this,” Alberg responded with a wide grin as he unstrapped the blade from his side and handed it to Marlor, who took hold of it and examined it reverently, “You’re going to be a man soon enough, so it’s only right you have the chance to wield this. That blade is your birthright, Marlor. I trust you to use it well.”
“I…thank you, father. I won’t let you down.” promised Marlor, overjoyed to be entrusted to wield such an important weapon and prove himself in the eyes of his father and the village.
“I know you won’t, son. Far as we know, we’re all that’s left in the world or village here, the last bit of civilization in this wasteland. We gotta protect it and keep our people safe. And you’re a part of that now, understand?”
Marlor nodded and followed his father to the door, donning his heavy winter gear. As Alberg reached for the door handle, a low, throaty howl sounded from outside, rattling the glasses placed on the table. Alberg took a step back and reached for his quiver.
“Marlor, get your mother-”
He never finished the sentence, as the door and the wall beside it abruptly shattered and a hulking dark form leapt through, barreling past them and through another wall into the kitchen. The sound of shattering glass and an abruptly ended scream came from the room, and Marlor and his father rushed to block the hole it had made. Marlor drew the sword from its sheath, holding it steady in front of him as his father notched an arrow.
The dark form turned around and Marlor beheld the figure that would haunt his nightmares for years to come. It was a bear, but at least twice the size of a normal one, with massive, hooked talons at the end of each paw. Bony spines trailed along its back and jagged fangs protruded from its maw. Both the claws and the teeth dripped fresh blood. It opened its mouth wider and roared.
“Direclaw!” shouted Alberg, letting his arrow fly at the monster. It struck into its left shoulder, but the bear seemed totally unfazed. Despite Alberg’s skill with archery, its hide was just too thick for the arrow to penetrate at such a close distance. The beast roared again and flexed its claws aggressively, leaping towards the father and son.
Alberg dove to the ground, pushing Marlor with him and the Direclaw Bear soared over them and through the hole out into the street. It paused for a moment before turning to the side and running off, catching another scent. More screams echoed throughout the small village. Marlor turned back to the shattered kitchen. Nothing remained except a splotch of blood on the floor, joined by Marlor’s dripping tears.
Alberg grabbed him by the shoulder and helped him outside. The noises and sights brought Marlor back to his senses and he looked around, aghast, as the only life he’d ever known collapsed around him. Many of the buildings within the village lay in shattered piles of stone and kindling, the monstrous bears running through the paths, pursuing or feeding upon the villagers.
A group of villagers Marlor recognized as some of the hunters stood back to back in a small field, firing arrows whenever a bear appeared. While some of the beasts now had arrows sprouting from their fur, it didn’t seem to be doing anything substantial. Another few men with swords ran through the street, a bear snapping close on their heels. Beside Marlor, Alberg gritted his teeth and cursed, grabbing Marlor’s arm and dragging him around the house.
They rounded a couple corners before coming to the rear, in a position mostly obscured from the rest of the town, pressed up against the woods. There, built into the ground, were two wooden doors marking the entrance to the family’s root cellar. Alberg lifted the padlock and threw the doors open, turning to face Marlor.
“Father, what are you doing?! We have to go and fight those things! They killed-they, they can’t get away with this!” Alberg put a finger to his lips to shush his son and took a deep breath.
“Yes, I’m going to go fight them,” he said, his voice heavy, “but not you. You need to survive. There will be no winning, not today, but maybe another day, you can win. For now, you’re more important than that.”
Alberg pressed the sword back into its sheath and into his son’s hands, giving him a mournful smile. He then reached into his quiver and pulled out an arrow, dragging it across his bare palm. As the crimson liquid dripped out of it, he held up his other hand, dropping the arrow, and twisted his fingers, muttering a short incantation. As he did, the blood rose from the wound and formed into a dark rune in the air. For a moment, all was silence around them. Then, he flicked his wrist, and the sigil flew into Marlor’s eyes.
For a moment, he screamed, as the jarring pain of the blood rune entering him coursed through his body. His very blood shook and morphed, changing into something other than what it had just been. Marlor hunched over, gasping, trembling. He looked up at his father, wordlessly asking for an explanation.
“The magic is in you now,” he said, almost in a whisper. “You won’t understand it at first, but it’ll come to you. It’ll be like instinct, before long. It’ll protect you, and you’ll survive.” Alberg grabbed Marlor and tossed him into the cellar. Marlor looked up at his father’s somber face, a ray of hope on it as the howls grew louder around them.
“When the howls stop, wait a couple hours,” he spoke quickly, “bar the door from the inside and come out after that. Take whatever you need, and get away from here, but Marlor, son…survive.”
With that, he slammed the cellar doors shut. Marlor heard him leave, his boots crunching against the snow quickly. He heard howls nearby, and his father shouting defiantly. He did as he was told and moved a spare wooden beam into place, barring the door from the inside. He sat in the darkness, and he waited. He counted out the hours once the howling and screaming stopped. Eventually, he exited the cellar, and stalked through the ruins of what had once been his entire world.
Almost every building in the town, built of either stone or wood, lay in ruins. Among these ruins lay nothing of the former inhabitants, save for patches of gore. After an hour of searching, Marlor found his father’s longbow laying beside a handful of bloody rib bones. As he walked, a line of tears followed him through the snow.
Marlor took a sturdy haversack from one of the houses and began to pack whatever supplies he needed: food, blankets, a whetstone to keep the sword sharp. As he was exiting one house, he slipped and cut himself on a splintered log. He winced from the pain, but as he looked at the blood in his palm, a strange incantation came into his mind. Almost unconsciously, he uttered it, and the wound abruptly closed. The drops of blood floated into the air beside him, and began to glow like a lantern.
Narrowing his eyes at the strange light, which drifted behind him as he walked, Marlor stepped out of the ruined houses and strode out of the town, in the opposite direction that the bear tracks he found went, leaving all sense of home and family behind, as cold and dead as the pools of drying blood on the ground.
Marlor shot awake, still tucked into the small cave. More howls and roars flitted on the wind, along with shouts of alarm. He stood and peeked his head out of the cave, looking up at the mountain-peak ramparts of Hammer’s Harbor above. Lantern lights glowed along the perimeter and those lights illuminated shadows, both moving along the edges and moving over them.
Marlor swore to himself as the shouts of alarm began to turn to a scream and then another. He looked at the ground, the painful memories of his first encounter with the Direclaw Bears still fresh in his mind. He knew exactly what had happened the last time he’d seen them attack a village, and knew that it wouldn’t be much different here.
He looked up to hear more shouts than screams, more voices of anger and determination than pain. They were better defended there than the place he’d been born, they were on higher ground. They had more capable fighters, with advance warning. Maybe this time, things could go differently. A glimmer of hope found its way into Marlor.
It was abruptly snuffed out as more roars sounded from the mountain’s pinnacle, followed by more than a few loud screams. Marlor looked down, squeezing his eyes shut, hoping this would all go away. Rather than seeing darkness, though, all he could see were the bloody splotches of gore and bone that had once been his family, his community, his home. He looked up again, and knew that Hammer’s Harbor would suffer the same fate.
Unless he did something. Unless he came to them, and used his skills to turn the tide. He looked down at his hands, and considered his eyes, the blood tint now mostly faded.
“They don’t all trust me,” he muttered to the wind, “they don’t know what I am, and they fear that.” he said with a hint of doubt in his voice.
“That doesn’t matter.” he responded to himself, with determination this time. He reached out and dragged his palm against a sharp spur of rock, muttering the familiar incantation over the blood. The life within his veins pulsed with warmth, and he shook his head wildly to rid himself of any grogginess. Before he could doubt himself a second time, Marlor drew his sword and raced to the base of the cliffside, and started to climb.
The howls of the Direclaw bears filled the empty streets and houses of Hammer’s Harbor, and the splintering of wood soon followed. The bears broke and rooted through a few houses, and turned their noses up in confusion to find them all deserted. Before long, more, tightly packed scents came to them and they all converged on the point they emanated from.
In anticipation of the attack, forewarned by scouts, all of the civilians of the settlement had been evacuated into the central town hall, a wide, low building with deep cellars and basements built into the mountain. A safe place, so long as it could be defended sufficiently and for long enough. The defenders began to doubt both.
Each and every fighter of the town stood in a tightly packed ring in the square before the entrance to the hall. Before them stretched pikes and glaives, far-reaching weapons to keep them defended from the Direclaw Bears’ deadly grasp. Backed up behind them, along the corner of the hall, others crouched, heavy crossbows balanced against their knees, pointed upwards at the rooftops around the square.
On these rooftops, save for the hall itself, the full pack of eight were perched, growling down at the defenders, bloodstained claws grating against the roofs, hungry for more. The nearest one to the line swatted outward, batting aside one one the spearheads. In response, its wielder, Erwin, stepped forward and stabbed at the beast. Seizing the opportunity, the bear reached as far as its claws could, slashing Erwin in the side and causing him to stumble to the ground.
Before the Direclaws could take advantage of the gap, the circle tightened, the glaives rattled in the face of the bears, pushing them back a step as Erwin, limp and bleeding, was pulled into the circle. At the front of the hall, crossbows balanced and steady, Hega looked to Fyal uneasily.
“There be no way that this ends well,” she whispered the unspoken truth that every fighter, every person here knew within themselves, even if they refused to accept it.
“Aye,” grumbled Fyal, gaze and crossbow locked onto one of the bears, which were growing bolder by the second, inching closer towards the line. If they dropped to the ground and were able to engage the circle closer than the pikes could be of use…the front line would be gone in seconds. Though every fighter there held steady, they each trembled in their hearts. Fyal knew it would take a miracle for them to survive.
And almost just like that, there was one. It began as a shrill whistling, carried on the flurries of snow that battered bear and man alike. It continued for longer than a whisper of the wind, though, and in a voice that sounded familiar to Fyal. None of the bears seemed to take note of it. As a darkened figure flew through the falling snow, they should have.
With an abrupt shout, Marlor dove from the sky and dropped right onto the back of the bear closest to the circle, coming to a stop just between its final ridge spine and the hollow of its neck. Perfect, he thought, as the bear roared, feeling a weight on its back. Before it could react further, Marlor raised his sword, held in a reverse grip with both hands and stabbed it downwards into the Direclaw’s hide.
Thrice he stabbed, and thrice the ancient, strong-forged blade plunged through the thick hide of the beast, gouts of blood accompanying it. The bear roared, and bucked its head, trying to throw Marlor off. As he tumbled, he reached out and grabbed onto the spine next to him, the momentum swinging him around into the Direclaw’s face. As it did, the maw opened, thinking to bite him. It recoiled from that notion as Marlor’s stabs cut deeply into its eye.
Letting go, Marlor landed, skidding backwards into the snow within the circle. He raised a hand and twisted it, muttering the familiar incantation. The blood from both wounds erupted, forming into ropy tendrils that wrapped itself around the monster’s neck. The bear tried to roar, but its throat constricted from the magic. Marlor twisted his arm further, unnaturally so, and the coil tightened to the point of sharpness. With a horrid squeal, the Direclaw’s head was ripped free, blood spraying and steaming against the snow.
A cacophony of roars came from its companions, senses and fury enraged at the use of the blood magic. As the warriors stood their ground, Marlor walked to the center of the circle, thin blood streaks coming from his eyes. Fyal and Hega rushed up beside him, surveying the bears.
“Ye came back,” Fyal noted. Marlor just nodded.
“Can you do something about them…like that?” Hega asked, auburn hair flecked with snow.
“I can try,” Marlor sighed, “keep them off me.” stepping forward into the direct center of the square, he swung his sword around him, letting the Direclaw’s blood form a steaming red circle around his feet. Looking up at the monsters, roaring down at him, that had ended his family’s life and home. And now threaten to do the same here. Marlor took a deep breath, and held out his left arm, palm upright. He raised his sword in the other hand, and with a grunt of pain, brought it slashing down across the arm.
Dropping his sword, he twitched the fingers of both hands as the lifeblood poured out from the cut and coalesced into the air, forming glowing crimson runes, floating in slow motion around him. He began to chant, an incantation coming to his lips unbidden, as he felt power start to flow through the sap of his veins. Fresh streaks of blood started to hiss against the snow, dripping from the other corners of his eyes.
The words he spoke reverberated through the air so forcefully, it was like each of them was a rumble of thunder. The bears roared, pained, and leapt to the ground. Around Marlor, the circle tightened and moved back, giving the fighters room to wield their polearms and keep the Direclaws back with their sharp points. As Marlor’s magic continued, the bears started to slow, abruptly. Their roars became more pained and the strong, furred shoulders started to hunch.
Faint cracks of blood began to spread across Marlor’s face, emanating from the corners of his eyes. Squeals of pain and anguish rose up from the seven remaining bears, and strange blisters, lumps of pulsating flesh, began to rise up beneath their fur. Their claws flexed and unflexed, leaving gashes in the snow, as more of the blisters began to rise from them. The soldiers held their ground, uneasy at the strange magic.
More crimson lines spread across Marlor’s face, cracks branching out from one another. He grimaced in pain, but continued the chant, fingers twitching and flexing in erratic gestures. An unpleasant squelching noise came from two of the nearest bears. The blisters swelled and then burst, fountains of blood spraying fourth. Marlor pointed his hands at them and twisted, new words spilling from his lips as new runes glowed.
On his command, the spraying blood curled around into tendrils, sharpening to points and diving into the thick-hided backs of the Direclaws. They pierced the fur and flesh, diving deep into them as the massive beasts shuddered. The first two the blood erupted from crumpled to the ground as the sharp tendrils dove in and out of them, and the gouts of blood began to sprout from the others.
The fighters gasped in horror as the crimson tendrils bit into the legendary monsters, the scourges of civilization falling to the horrifying blood magic. Maintaining the power, Marlor began to whine painfully, as the blood-red cracks began to spread down his neck and across his arms. Around the circle, the Direclaws howled as they began to fall into the snow, never to rise again with the looping spears of blood piercing in and out of them.
One of the still-standing bears roared loudly, with defiance, as it ignored the gaping wounds and the deadly blood pouring out of them. It charged the line with abandon, blasting past the unexpecting soldiers. Pikes and spears pierced it as it ran, but it was unbothered, continuing its path, straight towards Marlor. From behind him, crossbow bolts stung it and it staggered, but was unhindered.
Marlor grimaced, hunched over from the pain of the magic. Seeing the beast bear down on him, cracks of blood spreading rapidly along his body, his eyes went wide. He leaned down, picked up the sword with one trembling hand and waited. The bear came nearer, bolts sprouting from it as it ran. It continued, undeterred, as Marlor rose into a stance, sword held to the side. Around the circle, the snow steamed as the Direclaws’ bodies slumped into it, oozing blood.
The bear lunged for him and Marlor twisted to the side, swinging the blade down at the Direclaw’s skull. As he did, it tilted its head upwards and the sword smashed into the hardened crest above its eyes, shattering and leaving only a sharp piece sticking up from the hilt. Blood cracks still spreading across his hands, Marlor looked down in shock for a moment at the broken weapon. In that moment, the Direclaw bit out at him and chomped down hard on his leg and side.
Marlor screamed in pain, hearing the shouts of the villagers around him, drowning them out as his hand clenched tightly on the shattered sword. Holding it in a two-handed grasp, he pulled back the hilt and thrust it forward as he was held there in the Direclaw’s iron-strong jaws. He guided his hand below the crest on the bear’s brow and stabbed the jagged shard into its eye, as deep as he could.
The houses and people shuddered as the bear roared, Marlor limply slumping to the ground out of its jaws, hands still clasped around the sword hilt, blood dripping out of the pierced eye. With whatever strength he had left, Marlor twisted the blade and murmured an incantation under his breath. An instant later, the blood coating the metal turned to acid and the bear howled in agony one last time, cut off quickly as it melted from the inside.
Marlor yanked the steaming hilt out of the now-empty eye socket and flopped backwards onto the snow, his vision starting to get hazy. His eyelids drifted closed and he was unsure if the blood-red glaze he saw was from the blood magic or actual blood. His weakening senses heard people rushing up to him, but his mind was unable to grasp the words or pay attention to it. His eyes rolled backwards into his head and he fell back into a crimson-stained darkness.
Marlor’s eyes drifted open weakly, his vision quickly filling with light and wood. He squeezed them shut again and then opened them again, one at a time and slowly, to avoid hurting them. A cacophony of voices filled his head as he did so.
“Fyal! He’s awake, ‘e is! He’s openin’ his eyes!”
“Oh, hush, yer gonna break his ears afore he ever gets to use ‘em. I’m coming.”
Marlor tilted his head from side to side, just a bit and saw that he once again lay, swaddled in furs, in the room in Hammer’s Harbor he’d woken up in before. Lifting his head slightly, he could see the man Erwin hunched beside the cot, head turned away from him, his side wrapped in blood-stained bandages. Behind him, the larger man Fyal ambled into view. The woman from before, Hega, was visible to the other side of the room, as well as a few more villagers.
“Ah, good, ye still have yer senses,” Fyal chuckled, “I was worried ye’d never see a thing again! And o’, what a pity that’d have been if we can’t have thanked ye for what ye did!”
“What did I…what happened?” Marlor asked groggily, lifting his head up from the very comfortable pillows it was nestled on. He pushed himself up a bit and then winced in sudden pain. His hand reached beneath the blankets to feel a thick layer of bandages wrapped around his lower torso and left leg.
“Ye killed them all, ye crazy bastard!” Fyal exclaimed, a look of wonder and admiration on his face. “Ye made their own damn blood attack ‘em and then ye stabbed one’s brains right out! It’s a right miracle ye ain’t dead.”
“All of them?” Marlor whispered, disbelieving. The creatures of his nightmares, the monsters that had destroyed all he knew and held dear. The ones that had shunted him into life as a wanderer in a frozen wasteland. All dead and all by his hand and word.
“Aye, ye did,” nodded Fyal, “to be honest, with what it did to ye, I’d call it well worth it.” his voice dropped a little as he spoke, the cheeriness in his tone fading.
“Did to me? What do you mean?” Marlor asked, an edge of nervousness creeping up on him. All of a sudden, the fur blankets felt heavier than before.
“Here, take a look at yerself, it’ll be easier than explaining,” sighed Hega, leaning over and passing Marlor a small, handheld mirror. Even as he reached up to take it, he saw his hand, and trembled as he grasped it and gazed into it.
Marlor beheld himself and held his breath as he saw the true, terrible cost of the overtaxing use of his blood magic. His skin had turned a dusky, mottled maroon color. His eyes, in the glint of the candlelight against the mirror, now glowed crimson. No marks remained of the bloody cracks that had spread along his flesh, but he knew that this was what they had left.
“I suppose…it fits,” he said softly, after a few moment’s pause. The rest of the room seemed to softly exhale a breath. He lay back and, after a minute, Fyal walked up to him with a cloth-wrapped object. In still-trembling hands, Marlor took and unwrapped it, revealing his sword-the sword of his father and ancestors, shattered against the flesh of the Direclaw, and now, reforged. He ran his fingers up and down the blade and could feel where new pieces had been added to repair it-and strengthen it further.
“I thought ye might be needing this,” the big man said, “if ye are to be leaving again and not to stay this time.”
Marlor held the blade in his hand, balancing its weight. He looked at the people around the room. Some looked at him with apprehension, but others, admiration and gratitude.
“What if…I want to stay?” he asked, the words on his lips sounding so foreign, and yet so wonderful as he spoke them.
“Aye, ye could, if ye wanted to. And do ye?” Fyal asked, a grin spreading across his face.
“Yes…yes, I think I do.” Marlor replied, no longer wishing to be wandering and lost. No longer wishing to be alone. No longer needing to be.