This is the fifth chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday.
My sincere apologies for missing the post last week. We were doing some server maintenance and it became troublesome to post for a couple of days.
To start reading from the first chapter, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.
For an explanation of why there is a novel being published on this site, click here.
Brandon sprinted through the bushes at suicidal speed. Branches tore at his clothes and thorns jabbed at his skin, but the desperate need for survival drove away the pain until he was lost so deeply in the thick of the woods that he was certain that no one could find him. He had followed the trails, at first, but he knew that Aleks could navigate them as well as he, and he eventually sacrificed speed for secrecy. Now he was utterly lost, which he thought to be a good start. It was difficult to find a wandering child in these woods that wanted to be found; Brandon had no desire to be found and was content to be in a place where no sane human would attempt to go.
He staggered to a stop, took a breath, and took account of his surroundings. Pine trees surrounded him with a thick layer of needles on the ground below. The branches were so dense that the sun could barely penetrate the canopy, and tangles of vines climbing towards the light created a nearly impenetrable web through which to navigate. He was safe, for now.
That safety brought back his senses; reports from various parts of his body informed him that he was in no state to be standing, causing him to collapse in a heap. There were swollen lumps forming from the rocks he had failed to dodge, there were bruises from where he had been beaten and strangled, there were countless tiny cuts from the thorns he had ignored in his haste, and a badly twisted ankle from a root that had seen fit to impede his progress.
Above all of that, however, was the screaming pain from the burn on his face.
The pain made him nauseous and he nearly passed out, but his suffering refused to be ignored and it kept him lingering on the edge of consciousness. He had a moment of wishing that he had been killed so as to have avoided this suffering before his stomach reminded him that he was both starving and parched.
Stubbornness seized him. He was not come this far to die bleeding in a heap in the forest. He struggled to his knees and crawled, dragging his stolen spear along with him toward the sound running water, thinking it couldn’t be far off.
The stream was cold and clear, trickling down from the glacier high above the valley. He fell face-first into it, and the icy water soothed the burn on his face, rinsing the wound clear. He drank deeply and forced the eye beneath the burn open. At least he could still see, that was something.
With his face numbed and his thirst quenched, he set about tending his myriad wounds. He stripped off his soiled and shredded clothes and rinsed them in the rocky stream; the tatters served as bandages and the cold water soothed the ache and sting enough for him to get a grip on the direness of his situation.
He was utterly alone. He didn’t know much about demonic social circles, but from what he’d heard, demons seemed to work alone. The only woman that might have been able to tell him more, or love him despite his nature had been burned alive the day before. The only other person who may have had some pity left for him, had hurled a rock at his head after he had accidentally murdered her father. All of his worldly possessions were likely now being used as tinder to incinerate his victim. All he had to his name was a stolen spear, some ruined trousers and an array of bandages that had once been a tunic. Not even a name, in fact, as his name had been stripped as well. It was a demon’s name; to speak it was to invite the attention of malign spirits and the wrath of Oreamnos.
It wasn’t as though he felt likely to need to introduce himself to anyone, but somehow having his name stripped made him feel less human than anything else. It may have been from his mother’s foreign tongue, but it was what ordinary people had called him. Taking that away seemed to also take with it the disguise of humanity that he now realized it had been. He no longer had a name, he was simply Cursebrand. All that remained of his former self was the human shell around a demon soul. He wondered how long it would be before that, too, was stripped away.
The chill of the evening air eventually dragged him from his lamentations. Being slightly damp and mostly naked was not a sound way to spend a night in the mountains, so he built himself a bed of pine needles and a blanket of fallen boughs. Comfortable it was not, but it was warm and dry and would keep off the dew. Hidden, warm, and safe, he finally succumbed to the demands of his exhausted body.
What he did that night was not so much sleep as engage in a three way battle between his psyche, wishing to replay the day’s events through the potent medium of nightmare; his wounds, screaming for the full attention of the conscious mind to fully appreciate their severity; and his body, desperately trying to shut them both up so that it could get the rest needed to survive the coming day.
As is often the case in war, there was no victor, but the battleground was much the worse for having hosted the fight. Cursebrand awoke feeling utterly ruined. His wounds, having had time to properly settle in, had begun to throb and ache. Every tiny movement of his face reminded him of his terrible scar and his twisted ankle vehemently refused to bear his weight. And his stomach felt it was now a good time to remind him that he hadn’t eaten in almost a day, and that what he had eaten he had seen fit to eject. Despite being desperate for food, his body offered him none of the strength needed to collect it.
Cursebrand struggled to his feet, leaning heavily on his spear. He was lost in the woods, but the mountain offered some help in that regard: uphill was safe. Climbing would lead away from the village and perhaps to berries above the tree-line. However, after a short time spent in ascending, the siren song of a downhill roll started to become nearly irresistible. He pressed on, however. While it was painful to even move, the exertion and focus needed to do so quieted the fear and shame in his mind.
The sun was already sinking again by the time he managed to pull himself out of the woods. As he broke the edge of the wood he was struck with a mix of awe and terror. There, in stark silhouette, stood a great six-legged ram, the avatar of Oreamnos. It stood motionless, horns held high and proud. Cursebrand was transfixed, unable to think or breathe. The majesty of the moment overwhelmed him and he dropped to his knees. He laid prostrate before the god and begged for his life.
“I am a monster in your sight, I know that now,” Cursebrand cried. “But I can be good. I will not menace your people anymore, I promise. I will hide in your mountains far from humans. I promise that I can be a good demon…” Cursebrand begged at the hooves of the avatar for some time, his face buried in the dirt, hand clenched together behind his head. Something he had said must have moved the Ram God, for a strong wind blew and when Cursebrand looked up, the Ram had vanished. In its place was a wide patch of ripe berries.
“May His mountains protect us,” he muttered reverently. Those were, as he would realize much later, the last words he would speak aloud for a long time.
Berries do not make for a satisfying meal, but for a starving boy they were sweet and seemed full of life and hope. He had been offered a chance and he aimed to make good on it. Tonight he would sleep in the forest, but come dawn he would make for the high hills, far from people. There he could be safe from them, and they could be safe from him.
A little peace of mind aided his sleep considerably. There was still fear, there was still pain, and there were still pine needles sticking into him, but there was also hope. His throbbing wounds were made to feel somewhat less urgent by the thoughts of healing, and his dreams were quieted by the plans he made for his future in the wilds.
Morning came much later than planned; he had slept like the dead and his body thanked him for it before it got on with reminding him of all of the injustices served upon it two days prior. He returned to his berry patch and then readied himself to find a more permanent residence.
If he was going to leave behind humanity, he would have to cross a ridge and get himself over the Bear’s Maw. However, all of the easily traversed paths out of the valley led to other villages. He had been warned that it was dangerous and full of wolves and cave lions, and that nobody who crossed it ever came back. It seemed like exactly the sort of place he needed to go, but he needed supplies and would need a place to gather them.
A cave among the barren rock of the steep slopes seemed the safest place. Few animals would try to rob him and no people would bother to make that climb. He just needed to find one out of sight of the town.
Climbing was not at all what his body wanted. Cursebrand engaged in lengthy debates with his limbs in an attempt to convince them that creeping over sharp rocks towards a cold cave was somehow preferable to laying in the sun munching on berries. While he seemed to be losing the argument rather quickly, the negotiations kept both him and his body distracted long enough to stumble upon an opening.
He hadn’t noticed it at all from below, due to a well-placed protrusion of granite right in front of it and was practically inside it before he even saw it. It was a normal sort of cave, a fissure in the mountain a few yards deep with a roof made of large rocks, filled in with gravel. He limped inside, spear at the ready. There hadn’t been a cave lion seen in the lower valley in years, but above the tree-line was their domain and Cursebrand did not wish to discover himself trespassing unprepared.
He was rewarded for his prudence. There, in the darkness of the cave, two glassy eyes caught a glint of sunlight.
Brandon froze, gripped with terror, and neither moved. His mind screamed to attack before it was too late, but the unwavering gaze of those pale eyes gripped him. He stood frozen watching the eyes, and the eyes watched him, motionless.
A stone fell from the ceiling and startled him into action; the demon within him took charge and thrust at the cat. The spear struck cleanly, splitting that gaze in two.
He stood, panting. The creature did not move. Its glassy eyes stared off into the middle-distance as its skull stayed locked on the end of his spear. Slowly, his eyes adjusted to the dark of the cave. He came to see that he had not slain a cat at all, but what appeared to be an emaciated infant. Its limbs were thin and gangly, its stomach distended and its skin was dark, tough and leathery.
Cursebrand dropped his spear and scrambled out of the cave. He had stumbled across the imp. He had stumbled across it and run it through. “Why had it not attacked or fled?” he thought. With a pang of guilt he considered the possibility that it had thought him to be one of its own. He may have just murdered the only ally he might have ever had.
“No,” he thought to himself. “I am not the risen dead. I am not a spirit guided only by hate. I am free to make choices.” He looked again at the pathetic creature, its horrible snarling face staring back at him from either side of his spear. “I may not have made this choice knowingly, but it is the choice I would have made. I have protected the town and perhaps atoned for some of the sins of my mother.”
In apparent response to his thought, he heard hoof-falls on the other side of the rock blocking the cave, but when he peeked around, there was nothing to be seen. “Maybe,” he thought, “there was more than chance involved in finding this cave.”
These considerations on the nature of divine aid were somewhat truncated, though, as the imp moved. Not much, but enough to get Cursebrand’s full attention. The risen dead are not so easily killed, he recalled, they must be burned or they will rise again and again. Even dismembered limbs can take on a life of their own.
Fearful of the wrath of an angered imp, Cursebrand set about building a pyre for it. A task, he was surprised to discover, much aided by the imp, itself. It appeared that the creature had been making a home for itself in the little crevice. There was a blanket, and a water skin and some simple clothing as well as trappers wire for snaring squirrels and stoats. It seemed that the little demon had been stealing from the town already. He suspected that the wire would be used less to catch rodents and weasels, and more to ensnare wayward children. What was more important, though, was the fire-pit that he found himself standing in. It was cold, fortunately, but there was still some wood and tinder that would serve to burn the body of the wretched little creature.
He started the fire and watched as the dry husk that had once been an innocent infant in his town, crackled into ash. Once he was certain that the demon was truly gone, he gathered the spoils of his battle and fled deeper into the rocks. The fire had been smoky, and he feared that the town may have been able to see it. He could see the village clearly from the rock outside of the cave and it seemed as though the priest was speaking to the assembled mass. He looked powerful even from high on the mountain. The tiny white-robed man gestured emphatically and the villagers watched him like entranced statues.
They would never know the service he did for them that day, he thought, but that was fine. The children of the town were safe now from remnants of his mother’s witchcraft. All that remained was for him to remove himself from the valley. Oreamnos willing, he would cross the Bear’s Maw in a week or so, never to return.