The comfort of routine was a commodity greatly treasured among the farmers of Selin’s Grove. As Salinea fled, the warmth of Helion bathed the fields, and dark things that lurked in the night recoiled. The solace of dawn was tangible. The small farming village stirred.Leaving the warm embrace of his wife, Lily was no easy task. He heard his cows yammer in the barn. His roosters crowed, reminding him that his day had started. Marcus stretched and began to get up. Lily made it easier for him; she rose and immediately tidied herself. The warm spot she left behind quickly cooled. She headed toward the kitchen to prepare a morning meal to break the night’s fast. They were in love and the couple had stepped into a pace long ago that reflected the completeness they felt. They didn’t finish one another’s sentences or follow each other around, it was deeper than that. They could sit in silence without the pressure of what to say next. They worked the land. They lay down together and they woke together. It was right.Marcus tightened his thick leather belt, and reveled in the scent of fresh brewed coffee. He slid on his well-worn boots and strode through the cozy farmhouse. The aged wooden floor groaned with disgust at such an early start, just as it did every morning. The clomping of his heels competed with the complaining floorboards.“You didn’t kiss me this morning, Lily” he exclaimed in feigned umbrage. He didn’t expect a response, but as he crossed the living space he found it odd that he hadn’t received a chuckle.He stopped and placed a log in the pot belly stove that stood in the center of the room. It was getting cold in the mornings; not freezing, but crisp. He warmed his hands over the freshly fueled flame and thought of the harvest that was drawing close. His orchard was doing well this year. It would be a good yield. With the town’s harvest festival fast approaching, he felt as a child waiting for holiday. His family would be well stocked for the frozen months. Marcus imagined himself a fat bear packing on the last bit of weight before hibernation.His pondering was cut short with the strong metallic scent that reached his nostrils. Hairs on his neck stood at attention. He knew the smell. Marcus rose from a squat and rushed towards the small kitchen, fearful that Lily had cut herself.“Sweethea-,” a white hot flash interrupted him. Marcus fell, wet warmth spread down his neck. Something struck him in the head; the weight of it and the tightness he felt told him he had a passenger. He reached for his rider as he met the floor with a thud. His hand recoiled. Piercing pain shot up his arm. He instinctively looked at the wound on his hand and felt nauseous. Two fingers were severed entirely and a third dangled there, threatening to drop off completely, only his index finger and thumb were intact. He opened his mouth to call for Lily but could only make gurgling sounds as the weapons that removed his digits clamped down on his throat. As the soft morning light dimmed, he saw another creature, slightly larger than a house cat, sitting on Lily’s chest chewing on what looked like strips of raw bacon.“I love you, Lily” he thought. He strained to reach out to her with what remained of his hand and grasped a clump of her blood matted hair. The creature that sat upon Lily’s chest sniffed the air, it swallowed the meat that it held in its maw and removed the rest of Marcus’ fingers. Marcus silently cried as their lifeblood lubricated the old creaking floor.In his final moments, he saw Lily reach for him as he had reached for her.“Ivy,” The thought entered his mind like a bolt, dragging him from his swift slide to oblivion. Their daughter was asleep in her room and was sure to wake at the sounds of struggle outside.“Stay in your room child,” he willed, but disappointment washed over him as a thin sliver of light widened revealing the silhouette of a young girl. She was only 10.“Papa?” she whimpered. Instinctively she ran to the tower of a man who was the strongest she had ever known, arms outstretched.Panic gripped him, but he tore free. She was but feet away as he forced all of the air left in his lungs past the yawning wound in his neck and through his shredded voice box.“Run!” It was raspy and wet, but discernible, and broke over the sounds of tearing and crunching.Ivy stopped in her tracks.“Go,” he mouthed, no air left to give sound to voice.She turned to run, but it was too late. He felt a weight leave his body as one of the creatures lunged at her. He swiftly reached out with the last bit of strength he possessed. He was going to give all he had left to his baby girl.Marcus grasped the neck of the creature that had so recently grappled his. He stopped it but Ivy yelped in pain. Through blurring vision, Marcus saw blood drip from her leg as she darted through the front door.“She made it,” he thought. Then the creature turned on him.As Orin finished slopping the pigs he headed for the barn to muck out the stables. He was 15 now and knew all that he was meant to do daily. His dad was already in the lower fields reaping the final harvest of the season. The barn was still dark, the dawn light of Helion not yet high enough to reach through the doors. The horses greeted Orin with grunts of anticipation as he crossed the threshold. One by one, he unlatched their stalls and led them to the enclosure for them to graze while he cleaned. Asher was last. Orin loved to spend this extra time with him, and Asher truly loved Orin. He was more than a horse, he was Orin’s friend. Mostly gray with the tiniest black speckles all over his coat he had a look that resembled soot and ash. As Orin reached up to unlatch the stall, he felt an odd sensation and he bristled as Asher tossed his head nervously.Orin looked up at the far door leading to the upper fields. There, standing in the morning light was a child. He couldn't see her face, the dusty dark of the barn hid that from him, but he figured it was Ivy. She loved Asher almost as much as Orin did, and when her parents were working she often wandered to the stables. Ivelisse Barker was her given name; she lived about two miles to the north at the edge of the orchards. Orin always found it cute that Ivy could not pronounce her own name. She called herself “Ivy” and it stuck."Ivy," he called out with a casual smile. "You need somethin’? A bit early ain’t it?"“Uhh,” she responded. She teetered there for a moment, and then fell.Orin sprang into action, he was to the other end of the barn in seconds and in less than half a minute, the girl was in his arms. She was well loved and well taken care of but now her feet were bare and she was still in her night clothes. Her lips were blue and blood trickled around the caked edges of what looked like a nasty bite on her leg. Orin wheeled and headed for his house. As he carried her he could feel that she was feverish. Had she walked all the way here? She moaned and shuddered in his arms. As he reached the house, he drew up his leg and kicked out. The front door flew open with a crash. Wood splintered. Orin, rushed through the front room, and laid her down on his parents’ bed.He called out for his mother. "Ma! Get in here it’s Ivy,” he moved quickly and rushed out to the well as he yelled behind him. "She's Feverish!" He quickly dropped the bucket into the depths with a splash. He felt the weight of it as water filled the bucket and retrieving it seemed to take forever. The old wooden crank creaked and Orin spun it as fast as he could. He had to cool her down. He grabbed the handle of the bucket as soon as it was visible and sprinted back towards the house. Water sloshed over the edges of the bucket and pooled in the dirt and then on the floor of the farmhouse."What happened to her?" Orin's mother, Mabel took the bucket and pushed him back towards the door. “Get the elder,” she ordered as she turned back to the girl, soaked the rags in the cold well water, and placed them on the girl’s forehead. Ivy jerked away from the icy cold. Orin’s mother tore Ivy’s night clothes open and placed the frigid cloth on her chest. She placed another on her belly, Ivy whined.Time passed as Mabel sat with the girl. It seemed like an eternity. Despite the cold of rags, Ivy was burning up. Mabel impatiently considered going to look out the door just as she heard movement in the front room.“Back here, Baba,” she called out. “Ivy is in here. Orin, show her in”. There was no response, but she heard footsteps moving towards her. Mabel looked up as the noise reached the door, but knew something was wrong even before her eyes were able to focus.The smell reached her first. It was the sickly sweet smell of rotted flesh coupled with loam and filth. There, standing in the doorway, was a squat creature with greenish pale skin. Its head looked far too heavy for its body and its large eyes were unnaturally clouded white. Gaping, dry wounds and flaps of skin hung open on different parts of its body. Its flesh had the appearance of dried meat that had been gnawed upon by rats. It sniffed the air. Mabel could hear the rasp of its breath passing through a dry wind pipe and the whistle of air being sucked through torn lungs and over exposed ribs.It looked like a goblin, Mabel knew they had a foul odor but not like this. Ever since she was a girl she was taught that goblins feared the day. It was early morning but Helion already shone brightly. She tried to stifle herself but couldn’t help but to let out a brief gasp. It was enough.The goblin turned in her direction and stared blankly with milky white eyes. Then it moved, and it was fast. It darted across the room and leapt into the air, its mouth gaped open and it bared needlelike teeth.Mabel moved equally fast as she pulled a dagger from her bodice. Her hands moved quickly, these were not the hands of a milk maid. The dagger twirled between her fingers as she sought proper positioning. Blade pointing down, she thrust out a jab with her right hand. At the last moment she veered left and the sharp of the blade hit its mark. There was a scraping sound, and then a pop, as the oversized head came free of its rotting body. The head rolled across the room and met the wall with a wet thud. The body fell limply onto the bed leaking black blood onto the sheets and coated unconscious Ivy with pungent ichor. This all happened in the time it would take to swat a fly.Mabel breathed again and looked up to see Orin standing in the doorway, mouth agape. He had just seen his mother move with the speed and accuracy of a seasoned fighter.Orin began to speak, but the baba he was sent to fetch brushed past him and headed for the girl. Mabel welcomed the distraction, and now hands that were just used to kill with precision, worked tirelessly to assist the elder with healing. She cleaned the mess she made and bid Orin to discard the goblin’s body. He tried to speak but she gently pushed him from the room and told him to fetch his father from the fields. Mabel and the baba had work to do.Later that evening, as the bedroom door creaked open, light from the lanterns in the bedroom broke the dim silence of the family room. The two women emerged. Sweat beaded on the younger woman’s brow. The elder seemed calm, but serious.“We could not break the fever,” stated the baba. “She needs the clerics.”Mabel’s husband, Routh, wordlessly nodded with a grim visage. Earlier that day he had been to the Barker home, after Orin had fetched him from the fields. He had found the bodies of Ivy’s parents and had barely spoken since then. He extinguished his pipe, pulled on his boots and headed for the door. He grabbed his coat and unlatched the door handle in one fluid motion. Orin looked on in wonder. His parents were more than what they seemed, not just a farmer and a simple farmer’s wife.Minutes later, Orin heard the baying of horses outside.Routh came in from the cool night air. “I’ve prepared the wagon,” he explained as he strode toward the bedroom. “You know I can’t come with you.”“I know my love,” responded Mabel. She followed and looked on as he easily lifted the slight girl from the bed. He swaddled her as if she were a baby and carried her into the front room. “I’ll take Orin,” she added.Orin’s eyes darted up.“He’s strong,” she continued. “He learns quickly and it’s only a few days travel to G’gantia.”Now Orin was standing. G’gantia was the light of the world and the seat of humanity. He had been there as a child, he knew, and remembered the glory of the city. No city in the world was its equal. If only his journey wasn’t on so dire an occasion. Everything was happening so fast.“Orin,” he was jarred to attention. His mother had been speaking to him. She handed him a sack informing him that there were rations inside for the ride. His father laid the girl down on the lounge. He pulled up a floor board and revealed a large cloth covered object. He pulled the cloth free and in his hand held sword and scabbard. The scabbard was crimson with platinum inlay and was tipped with silver. Orin’s father slipped the blade free. It shone in the candlelight and etchings on the blade glinted and moved as if alive. The pommel was ivory, capped with platinum and the leather hilt had the hue of crimson. It looked well oiled. Orin had never seen it, or its like.“Listen son,” Routh began as he handed the blade and scabbard to his son. “Something dark is coming. These goblins are the beginning. I never wanted to tell you about my life before you. I was a fool to believe we put our past behind us. I’m sorry I kept this from you. Your mother will be with you, listen to her. She is better with a blade than I. You don’t have the time to become as skilled as her, but you can look the part”Orin took the sword, and turned it over in his hands. He was numb. Was his father serious? Who was he anyway? A thousand questions rushed through his mind. He watched his father lift Ivy again. He carried her to the wagon and bade Orin to follow; He did. His father gently loaded the girl into the wagon. He then helped Orin stow his gear. It was then that Orin noticed that one of the horses was Asher. He felt proud and somehow safer to have Asher here. The other was called Starlight. She was entirely black but for one star shaped white spot on the center of her forehead. Star was slightly larger than Asher but Orin believed Asher to be the stronger of the two, and Asher was definitely faster. Both horses were nervous and stamped in place waiting for their master’s commands.“Where’s mothe-,” he was cut short. Through the door strode his mother. She was wearing a full set of crimson leather with belts and straps pulling tightly around her body. Behind her flapped a fur lined cloak attached to a hood she was now pulling over her tightly bound hair. No fewer than seven daggers were strategically strapped to her body and on her hips hung two short swords. Over her shoulder was slung a crossbow and a bandolier of bolts lay across her chest. Orin was speechless.The baba threw furs into the back of the wagon and nodded to Mabel. With that his mother cracked the reins and they were away. Riding into the night in this manner felt like a dream. The growing cold snapped him back to reality.The sound of the horses and wagon drowned out the scene behind them. The dark prevented them from seeing the goblins descend on the home. Orin’s father fought off the assailants as Orin and his mother rode into the night. This was an easy task for him. He and the baba would soon be safe. Concern rose in his mind as he looked out at past the goblins and saw the now moving bodies that he had interred earlier that day. Marcus and Lily were among the goblins. Their half-eaten bodies shambled toward the farmhouse. He heard the panicked baying of the livestock in the barn. The horses were under attack. He could not catch up to his family now and he had to warn them. He cried out for Mabel to stop, but they were gone.It took a few days for mother and son to reach G’gantia. They traveled through the first night and briefly camped the next day. A warming fire, a few hours of sleep, and rations were all they had time for. Ivy’s fever had broken briefly, but had returned in full force. Her skin was pale and her breathing shallow. They reached the city but were surprised to see no guards at the gate. It had been a long time since Mabel set foot upon the stone streets of the capital, her feeling were mixed. They passed in front of the walls of the prison that was situated outside the city gates. They could see citizens moving about the courtyard and could smell the salty air. Mabel knew the temple of Helion stood in the next quarter. She drove the horses on and then hesitated as she detected a hint of the sweet rot she had smelled days before.Fear washed over her as they lurched forward. One or two of the citizens in front of them sniffed the air as the goblin did so many days ago. She didn’t have time to react.More people than she could count charged at the horses. The eyes of the beasts rolled in terror as they reared up. Asher broke free of his hitching. He kicked the rotting bodies of the attackers. Starlight wasn’t as lucky. There was a wet tearing sound as she was disemboweled by the strong lifeless hands of her attackers. She whinnied in terror and panic, it was no use. The splat of her entrails on the cobblestone marked the end of her fight.Orin grabbed Ivy from the wagon. He held his father’s sword in his right hand and Ivy over his left shoulder. The creatures mercilessly attacked as he swung wildly. They tore at Ivy and Orin spun around. He caught more than a few walking corpses with sloppy hacks of his father’s sword. He was growing tired. He could barely lift his sword arm, it dropped, and the tip of his blade sparked on the rocks below. He wouldn’t let go of Ivy. He would die protecting her from the teeth of his assailants. As the end of his strength drew near, he heard the wild whinnying of Asher. He was fighting as well.Orin saw him then and Asher charged in. His strong chest barreled over their foes, knocking them aside. He kicked and fought for his master. Orin turned and saw a hand waving him toward the gated wall of the prison. Asher helped him get there. They pushed through the crowd. Orin placed Ivy behind the wall and turned to go back for his mother. Strong arms held him back. Asher turned galloped away. He led a host of creatures with him.He looked for his mother. She was amazing. Orin watched in awe as his mother did what could only be described as a dance. Mabel, short swords in her hands, punched out in an overhand thrust piercing the skull of her closest attacker. She then reversed her momentum and spun with the same arm removing the head of another. Reversing again she opened the torso of a third spilling its entrails on the cold stone. Keeping her momentum she spun with her offhand and without looking removed the head of her fourth assailant. She thrust with her main hand and dropped the creature directly behind. In seconds she had dropped five foes. They kept coming. The abomination whose guts had been spilled renewed its attack.“Headshots then,” she whispered to herself.She kicked out behind her. The foul thing stumbled giving her time to step back, turn and remove its head with a backhanded slice. This cleared a brief path and she seized the opportunity. She ran away from the gated wall and sheathed her swords. As Orin looked on she reached the opposing wall, kicked off, and with that momentum spun like a windmill. As she spun her hair fell free of its ties and her next move was almost imperceptible. She drew daggers from their bindings and in a fluid motion loosed them. Her blades found their targets. Six monsters dropped, daggers pierced their skulls.She was beautiful among the corpses. Mabel saw another break in the line of rotted filth and darted for it. A cold hand reached out and grabbed a bit of her auburn locks and tore them free, taking a bit of scalp with them. She felt warm liquid flow down her neck behind her ear. She made it through the line but rather than having the gate opened, did a handspring and flipped over the wall. She landed in a crouch.There, beyond the gate, stood survivors. Onlookers stared in silence for a moment and then as if on cue they cheered.This was the first time Orin was able to focus on the crowd; mostly women and children. There were 25 guards along the wall wearing the same crimson leather as his mother, though not quite as impressive.One man in the crowd wore a platinum breastplate covered with dried blood and had long silver gray hair that reached his shoulders. He was well regarded and the crowd parted as he approached the newcomers.“Mabel?” he questioned with obvious incredulity. His mother turned and smiled.“Hi Leoben,” she responded “It’s been a long time. Meet my son. Orin, meet Captain Leoben Greymane of the Crimson Gua-.” “You’ve still got it,” he stated, barely cutting off his title. He was humble man, not comfortable with formal titles. The job was what was important, and honor as well.As Leoben spoke with his mother, Orin’s attention turned to Ivy. She moaned quietly as she lay unconscious against the wall. He went to her. He pulled the swaddling back from the child’s face. It felt as her fever had broken some. Intent on bringing her to the clerics, Orin lifted the child up and strode toward the building. He strode passed Leoben as Mabel explained the previous days’ events. Leoben’s eyes grew wide“Orin, no!” he called out. It was too late. Ivy’s eyes flew open. They were clouded and white except for piercing dark pupils. She turned toward Orin and closed her strong jaws around his shoulder. The shoulder that once comforted her now would nourish her. Blood welled up around the seal that her lips made on his skin. Orin cried out. Still refusing to hurt the child Orin stubbornly held on. A single bolt fired from Mabel’s crossbow stopped the struggle. Orin let her limp body slip from his arms. He fell to his knees, his strength gone. The guards took defensive positions around Orin, blades drawn“Step back from my son!” ordered Mabel. Her razor sharp blades were in hand. She stood with a defiance that mirrored her belief that she could take them all.“He’s bit,” Leoben exclaimed. “He will turn!”“You have 3 seconds,” Mabel interrupted.“Are you sure?” asked Orin. “How do you know?” “It’s the same with all the others. I’m sorry, fever sets in and within days, the infected become abominations,” promised Leoben.Mabel stared at her son and slowly lowered her blades. The three spoke late into the evening. By morning, Orin was feverish.He stood at the gate, with his father’s sword drawn. Beside him stood his mother, her face taut from a night of tears and a morning of resolve. The guards stood between them and the survivors. Mabel drew her blades.“Now!” ordered Captain Greymane. “The ship is in the harbor, two miles from where we stand. “Ivy walked a cold two miles from where her parents died to the neighboring farm house. She did it alone and with feet bare; certainly this group could reach the docks. Orin would die to get them there and his mother swore to return to his father, and tell him of his son’s bravery.Orin opened the gate. Silence fell over the crowd and they quietly walked towards the docks.As they reached the first corner, Orin turned to see Asher galloping toward them and felt elated. The horse slowed to a cantor, then stopped in front of Orin. Asher tossed his head. He was in pain and Orin he could see chunks of flesh torn from his flank. His gray coat was stained with blood.Wails from the abominations found the ears of the group. Orin mounted his old friend and pointed towards the horde with his father’s blade.“I love you, Ma,” he stated. “No regrets.”She held together for him. She smiled, Inside she shattered.Orin spurred Asher on, they charged. Orin swung wildly, thinking of his mother’s dance as he worked his blade. The fight lured much of the horde away and Orin wondered if this was how his father once fought. He wished he knew more of his father’s past, but pride replaced regret. He was wielding his father’s sword.The survivors could see the docks now and with Mabel fought alongside Leoben; they could see victory, but lost sight of Orin. Sails of the ship shone bright in the sun. Guards flanking the survivors pushed them on. The survivors never saw their protectors as they fell, one by one. By the time they reached the ship there were a handful of guards remaining.Orin felt Asher lurch and the horse squealed in pain. The sound of flesh tearing could be heard over the groans of the filth surrounding them. Orin reacted and thrust his sword. He found his target. He pierced the skull of his longtime friend. They went down.“You have suffered enough, my friend,” he said in a strained whisper. He gripped his father’s sword as long as he could as he felt grasping hands pull his limbs tight. There was blinding pain, a wet crack, and then there was nothing.Mabel never saw Orin fall but knew he had. She spurred the survivors on with renewed vigor. As the last of them boarded the ship, the remaining guards took up a defensive formation. Leoben and Mabel cut the lines unmooring the ship. Rats escaping the city clung to the ropes. The ship lurched forward; they leapt free of the ropes and scrambled over the carved wooden letters that read “Harbinger”. The ship was away and Mabel had a new promise to keep. Leoben shouted orders to the soldiers and they began their fight back to the prison. Mabel began her dance through the surging monsters. Leoben fought alongside her.They eventually reached the prison courtyard. 10 out of the 25 soldiers survived, but they had a victory. With the survivors safe, they could begin to retake the city. Mabel stayed the night and mourned the loss of her son. In the morning, as the sun crept over the walls, so did Mabel. For a second time in her life Mable left G’gantia behind. This time the city had taken too much. She felt pangs of jealousy as she thought of the passengers of the “Harbinger”. They were bound for the 8 Kingdoms; new lands, new people, and a new start. She smiled and wiped teary eyes.The “Harbinger” rocked on the waves. The refugees felt calm not felt in some time. Most avoided the sailors, and all of them pondered the new lands they would call home.“Ahah, a bit o’ rum’ll do tha trick,” said Mallory finding a stray bottle. He was a salty seadog and rum was as much part of his life as was water. Mallory reached for the bottle, cursed, and pulled back a bleeding hand.“Argh ya scurvy varmit,” he exclaimed “Yer done fer! Ye bit yer last hand!” He stuck the rat to the table with his dagger. He twisted his face in disgust seeing the clouded white eyes of the thing. In one sloppy awkward motion, he tossed the rat overboard and tossed back the bottle. He then lost himself in drink, making the bite a distant memory.
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