The moon barely lightened the path Tiyan chose. He knew the woods, or at least most of it. He had to spend nights in the forest before, but rarely he felt so exposed. The chill was biting him in places that he knew were well protected. The cold stars didn’t give any light. Tiyan was alone, and that alone was dangerous during the night, which started to rule over the woods, making branches look like hands and roots like talons.

Tiyan was not a child, but in the past, when he got lost in the forest, he knew that he must keep animals far enough with fire and not provoke them. Even as a young boy, he knew how to survive in the overgrowth, as back then, nothing stalked you shrouded in magic, nothing seethed with hunger unquenched, dreaming of your soul.

After the Great War, the fair folk made clear that lesser beings can and will pass the borders between the kingdoms. And humans, as a prey, as those who lost their free will, had to agree on that. They were mere fodder for darkness.

Tiyan couldn’t even hate the fae. All people living in Vennklan Valley knew who was responsible for their anguish. They knew but could do nothing.  That’s why hatred dissipated, leaving only a stone cold will for survival.

Snow. Snow muted the feelings, like enchanted, like a pillow, which chokes and gives comfort.

Tiyan fixed the sack on his back and went down the sloping terrain, still not seeing the lights of the village.

He knew he should see them already. He had an inner compass combined with a clock inside his body, which never failed him. He should be already in the village, in fact.

And that could mean only one thing. Or rather two, but the second one was not even an option.

He got lost in the darkness. Or… someone changed paths and misguided his steps. Or rather… Something.

He inhaled and exhaled, once, twice. Was this a sound of breaking twig, there, on the left? And was the call of the nighthawk especially loud?

Tiyan couldn’t panic. If these were sidhe playing with him, only calmth could save him. Think. Think. Do not let yourself lose your mind, if they try to enchant you.

There were times when Tiyan would say that sidhe, the small folk, rarely came close to Vennklan Valley, keeping to main roads, where it was easier to feed on emotions and fear and human flesh. But he was aware that it was only his luck, that his contact with the fey was limited. Still hoping it was him who lost the way, he started his effortful march forth, deciding to not give himself to fear.

To feel fear in the woods, is to be alive in the woods.

Perhaps, he thought. But fear numbs senses and makes you think only about running away, while with small folk, one needs to have clear thoughts and sharp reflexes. So something he surely didn’t have now.

His path continued down, down the slope, and now, even his doubtful mind had to admit, that ways are misplaced and the nighthawk call sounds like a hysterical song of a seelie bard.

Do not lose nerves, Tiyo. Not now. This is another hunt, the hunt of the fey. And you are their prey.

He started to walk faster, not looking behind himself. Rustling everywhere, the forest talked, share with him the secrets he didn’t want to know. The path became even more unfomfortable and he thought he saw how one root moves in his direction, slowly worming his way. The snow was catching to his feet, like a glue.

He felt it more than heard or saw. The branches seemed to reach to him and realizing that it’s not a mirage of the night, he could do only one thing.

He sat on the wet snow, not minding how cold drinks the warmth from him through the wetted places, and closed his eyes; he turned his brain off.

The wave of wings attacked him immediately. They fairies brushed against his robes, tearing the scarves off him, biting his clothes, trying to find a good place to access his flesh. Darkness around him seemed to solidify and embrace him with a cocoon. Tiyan stopped thinking at all, like his life depended on it, which, in fact, was the truth.

When he thought the moment never came, he heard a single fairy speak to him. Just inside his own brain. He shut his eyes tighter.

“Human prey. Knows ancient rules. Knows rules of mind speech. And wants to escape by knowing them.”

Tiyan knew that now, all his replies may be cruelly shredded into pieces and used against him. He decided to give simplest replies, so the fey couldn’t hang on his words.

“I respect ancient rules of the feykind.”

“But refuses a meal? Refuses bones and flesh?”

“My bones and flesh are worthless.”

“On the contrary! Good blood, we sense it in his veins.”

“I can… I can offer another.”

“Human, human?”

“No. Animals. But bigger than me, more flesh, bones and blood. I can hunt them for you, fill you with their fear.”

“Animals here don’t feel fear. Animals rot until they are numb. We can hunt them too. Weak trade.”

“But they are able to feel despair” thought Tiyan, reminding himself of the death gaze of the anglor he killed, purposefully not replying on the last. His options were melting.

“But no human soul. Human souls are the most delicious.”

Tiyan didn’t know how to reply. He would panic, if not the second voice, joining the first. Which was odd, as the mind connection could be done only between one human and one fey. The second voice started to talk fast and very soon another joined, which already was beyond his understanding.

“This is…”

“… it’s him…”

“… it’s him…”

“No… it can’t be…”

“He ordered to…”

“… never oppose the shadow…”

“… never oppose the night…”

More voices were joining and soon, Tiyan heard a cacophony of sound in his head, tearing his skull apart, rumbling inside it like an avalanche.

And it ended as quickly as it started. And before him, the familiar lights of his village, cozy, even if not promising a lot.

For him, they promised life.

Shaking, Tiyan stood, took the sack with meat which he checked if it wasn’t emptied by the hungry small folk and moved his trembling steps in the direction of lights. The noise of the fairy voice haunted him all the way to his home. The noise, through which he heard time by time “it’s him”.

They knew him, they were aware of who he was, whoever he was to them. And if they didn’t kill him, that meant they planned to toy with him, which was even worse than death.

Never oppose the shadow.

He wouldn’t even dare. As long as he could stay out of any shadows, which hid mysteries filled with teeth and wings.

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