Tiyan’s tired legs were leaving footprints in the thick snow. Muted landscape seemed to laugh from his attempts, yet the boy knew that he can’t return home without even one prey. Hunger was entering his house – and not only his. The whole Vennklan Valley was petrified in time – held head down by eternal winter. It drained them from strength and pushed into desperation. This winter felt harsher, like it wanted to check how long they can live in these conditions without breaking in half.
Some were broken.
Some still fought.
Some, like Tiyan, possessed certain skills, which were helping them survive. Existence became a string of days, which dragged like a wounded moose through the snow, an endless darkness without hope for the better, Maybe only for worse.
Tiyan felt as the cold slowly crept under his jacket and he tucked himself even deeper into the layers of scarves. This kind of clothing was slowing him down, but he had no choice. The freezing air liked finding holes in his defense.
He was equipped with short spear, his freezing hands, which he couldn’t hide in gloves, were barely usable. The wind though, the cruel wind, not that long ago brought the scent of carcass. Which seemed a salvation.
Where there is fresh carcass, at least one anglor will be as well.
Anglors, the scavenger type of wolves, which evolved during the long winter, touched by decaying magic, were one of the most sturdy and strong animals in Vennklan woods. Yet only them and few other species weren’t touched with dark spells which were making them indedible. And even if anglors were still filled with rot on the skin, their meat was clear, even if bitter in taste, didn’t cause any sickness.
Before the Great War, humans would never consider eating canines. Now, twelve years ago after it, everything changed.
The woods were filled with mishapen creatures, sometimes people were missing, and returning – white haired, with dead gazes, almost frozen – but still breathing, like puppets held together by unknown and terrifying force.
His father was always telling him that Vennklan Valley is still in better condition than the villages in the mountains, closer to Unseelie realm. It was only partially true. The animals that they usually were hunting for, at first lost their common sense, started to attack the human settlements, mushrooms growing straight from their skin, maws filled with blood, and eyes blind – or at the opposite; seeing too much. Decay was taking their minds, and taking their instinct away.
Then came magical abominations. Animals, who were only partially touched with rot. Beasts, which magic that slipped into Avras changed so much that they stopped reminding something alive. Yet they breathed and lived; dangerous like stepping over the abyss, bloodthirsty and always stronger, always better than their ancestors.
Magic crept from the Fae realms, untamed, wild and deadly.
And people who went too close to Unseelie lands, the fey lands, never returned. Eaten by the magical overgrowth of the Fae kingdom. No one knew what could happen with them, if they were killed – or worse. The Fae could seem beautiful and gracious, but their calculated ruthlessness was something all humans living in Avras knew all too well – and tried to avoid, if given.
The Fae were creatures of old days and old darkness. They possessed skills beyond human comprehension and their hearts were filled with black knowledge and night from the eve of time. They kept the whole Avras under his boot, from afar but very effectively. Snow and ice shackled the whole kingdom and made life in it dependent and cruel.
The scent of the carcass was more and more prominent. Tiyan fixed his cold hand on the spear and started slowly cutting through the bushes, trying to make as little noise as possible. The snow worked on his behalf this time and muted his tearing sounds as he crept through the branches and snowy foliage.
The only noise was the one made by the anglor. He was there. Tiyan’s heart started to beat hopefully. He really was there.
He closed the fingers of left hand on the sharp knife. If the animal takes the spear with itself, he will be able to finish it with a cut through its aorta.
The anglor slurped the blood already, a loud noise, of which the boy was grateful. The scent of blood was masking his own smell, and the noises anglor was making made Tiyan’s approach even more soundless.
He peeked from the bushes, trying to be as invisible as possible.
The beast was covered in old blood and old wounds. In the laceration on its back, a colony of fungi grew and his whole skin was touched by severe decay. Tiyan held his breath and waited for the best moment to attack. The animal relished on blood, bit through the bones and drank the marrow. Alongside with the overpowering scent of rot, it was making Tiyan nauseous, even if numerous hunts taught him a certain resistance on such sights.
And then, the beast spat with blood and rushed at him, with its horned head turned straight at him.
Fuck, Tiyan wanted to pin the beast with the spear and aimed for the heart, but it quickly wriggled it with sharp teeth from his fingers. Its maw dripped with thick saliva and something oozy and foamy. Do not allow it to bite you, he reminded himself the words of his father. One bite and you are dead, even if you will walk for days, without symptoms. His only chance was the knife now, yet he had to allow the animal very close, and that always meant risk.
Tiyan groaned and the anglor fell on him like a enormous sack of potatoes, pinning him to the ground with sharp claws and decaying body. Its long tongue working dangerously close to his throat.
Tiyan moaned with fury and fear, when the overpowering reek of decay attacked his senses. The rotting fur and flesh seemed to enter his mouth, gagging him. He couldn’t allow it, and his hand slowly started to move under the massive body of the anglor.
“Get. of. me…” he muttered into the fur, trying to find with his armed hand a place where rot was especially loose and his knife would get easier into the healthy flesh. The beast growled just into his face, hitting him with breath filled with vermin and stench; Tiyan almost choked on it.
Its teeth were closer and closer to his own aorta. His hand worked desperately, his fingers worming under the large body, until he found it… a small loose patch, where the rot was so deep, that it started to eat the muscles. Tiyan, hitting the large head with his elbow, moved the anglor a bit, but enough to free the hand…and stick the knife just into the flesh of the attacking animal.
The descendant of the wolf screamed.
It was really a scream, pained, sad and shocked. Its eyes turned at him, even sadder. Almost human. Its pupils widened in horror and Tiyan felt a pang of guilt and strange thought insisted into his mind – if these beasts suffer too and how much they understand from their agonizing condition. If they are mindless terrors – or, how he always suspected, they are still animals of olden times, trapped in cages without locks and bars.
“I am sorry”, uttered Tiyan, and slit its throat with one movement of the shaking hand.
When he stood over the dead body, trying to spit the rest of ill fur from his mouth, he didn’t feel victory or elation from the well-done hunt.
He only thought about how ugly this world had become.
And how uglier it will become in the future.
He slowly started to strip the anglor from the rotten skin and cut the healthy meat from it.
The snow was colored with blood. His hands barely moved, but he would never be able to carry the whole anglor on his back.
Everywhere and seemingly everything too, pushing them head deep into all of this.
It was everywhere, even in his heart.
Fighting with need to vomit, he continued the skinning, until he had enough of fresh meat to put into the sack and carry it home. His sister waited for him, his father, mother and grandmother. Waiting for the hunter to come home.
When he turned back from the dead form of the skinned anglor, the sun already started to set. In hurry, Tiyan headed the Vennklan Valley. During night, the darkness becomes alive.
During night… the darkness becomes hungry.