Chapter 1 - The Goblin Men
Nyctris removed her damp boots, wincing at the toll black swamp water took. "These belong to some old woman," she said. They were pale and pruned, nothing like the light coca hued hands she used to massage them. Sitting cross-legged, she tried to hide the ugly sight from Hallum by dangling her feet over the side of the fallen oak.
"Let the fire dry them or they’ll get cracked and infected," Hallum said. He sprinkled a few twigs into the yellow crackling flame. Orange light danced across his face making his crimson hair appear like a second torch in the growing darkness.
She obeyed, wondering what kept the sputtering flame content with the moss and dry twigs Hallum fed it instead of feasting on the length of their haven, after all the dead tree was nothing but wood. It must have something to do with the knee deep water surrounding them, she decided.
Hallum removed his gear a half-empty pack at a time, stacking each carefully on the fallen tree. He hung his sword on a nearby limb that moaned with the weight.
When he slid his threadbare burlap shirt over his head Nyctris turned away. Like every other night since their escape, she tried not to look at the scars her brother had cut into Hallum’s back. They criss-crossed in Xixtris’s ugly diamond signature. They were fresh pink over a lifetime of savage beatings that marred Hallum’s freckled skin.
"I always thought the wilderness would have more life to it," Hallum said as they finished the meal. "Other than bugs, I think we’re the only living things here."
She could hear those needle-nosed biting bugs again but only because he mentioned them. The dank air was heavy with their constant humming roar.
"Your hairs all mussed up." He gently smoothed stray strands from her cheek with the backs of his thick fingers.
It caused the muscles deep inside her stomach to flutter. Nyctris hated that touch. It was as far as they could go in this infested waste of nature, less than a taste of what they used to share. When he pulled his hand back she turned her almond shaped eyes toward the fire. "How much longer until we escape this nightmare?"
"If anyone has passed through the swamp they never came back to tell of it. But you already know that. Take this. You’ll feel better after you eat." Hallum handed over a pouch with a few flakes of meat and dried fruit.
"I ate while we were walking."
Nyctris didn’t argue the lie. It was the echo of the one she had told him the night before. She ate one piece of dried meat, the smallest. Finished, she looked at her empty hand, shiny with grease. Salt lingered in her mouth from the dried pheasant. She savored the taste. Meat was about to become a luxury.
She put her back against Hallum’s broad chest. Her head rested comfortably against the hollow of his bare shoulder. Arms, thick from a short lifetime of heavy stonework, encircled her.
The heavy document case, secure in Nyctris’s satchel, pressed uncomfortably against her thigh. It was a reminder that she deserved none of what Hallum offered. "I don’t want to lose you again." Grasping his wrists in her hands she encouraged his embrace to tighten.
"You won’t," he said. "They were lucky when they caught me last time."
"It’s not that." It was so frustrating how he didn’t understood what she meant half the time. A part of being a slave, she assumed. His life had been simple. Growing up as property was nothing like being in a political family; slaves had the luxury of being direct. "You’re going to hate me."
"You are not you’re family," he said.
At least he understood a little. "There’s so much you don’t know." Knowing his choice to be with her was guided by deception, she could no longer bare his warmth around her. Nyctris pulled away to face him.
It was time. He might leave her for dead, he might kill her outright. Nyctris thought she deserved either, but she needed his forgiveness. Without that, nothing else mattered.
With trembling hands, she pulled the silver case out of the satchel as he slipped his still damp shirt back on to fend off the biting bugs.
"Hallum, I took this-" The case slipped from her sweat-dampened fingers. It bounced against the log and then fell into darkness with a splash.
"Here, I’ll get it," Hallum said.
"Leave it," she said. "Let the wretched thing drown."
But Hallum had already slid into the water. After several long moments, he lifted the case up with a broad, triumphant smile. "Got it."
"Got it," a wet, gurgling voice mimicked from behind him.
Thin green hands grabbed the silver case from Hallum. Laughing, the thief splashed off into the swamp before Nyctris could get a clear look.
Hallum grabbed his sword from the tree and drew it in a skillful flourish. With a hilt twice the length of the blade, he held the heavy weapon high and steady with both hands exactly as she had taught him.
A loud splash and another fit of laughter made the hair on Nyctris’s legs tingle.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Stay here," he commanded and splashed away in pursuit.
"No! It’s not worth it."
Except for a couple of stars peeking through the thick tree canopy, her only light came from the small fire before her. Outside that bubble of golden safety she envisioned hundreds of sneaking, green monsters approaching from every side. She hugged her knees tight to her chest, forcing herself to breathe slowly. "You’re being a baby," she said to herself. "A silly, silly, child."
"Child, to play with you we want," a voice outside her protective light gurgled. "Come. With you pretty mare, all of us will play."
Some of the burning twigs shifted, giving a brilliant flash that revealed four green creatures no more than five strides away. They were as tall as she, and shaped in a similar fashion, but they were unmistakably inhuman.
Wearing loincloths of dark leather and nothing else, their hairless green skin held the repugnant tint of rancid meat. Long, pointed ears stood from the sides of their faces. They changed angles as their expressions shifted from anticipation to hunger to rage.
But it was their eyes that terrified her the most. Bright yellow orbs, twice the size they should have been, devoid of pupils, looked too much like maggots burrowing into decayed flesh.
She sucked in a gasp of stale swamp air and let it out in a high-pitched, primal scream.
"Time to join, not to watch. Time to play!" One jumped on top of the dead tree. In two long steps he stood in front of her. His green hands groped forward. On the end of his fingers were long, pointed nails crusted with something dark.
Before she could react, his right hand grasped her thin tunic. His left encircled her throat. Her short gasps of air halted as his grip tightened.
"Odd looking eyes have you," the inhuman creature said but the lecherous look in his face was all too masculine.
Nyctris reached to her ornate belt, her late mother’s last gift, and pulled free a hidden dagger. Using her focused wrath to add power behind her strike, she plunged unyielding steel deep into the wrist of the hand holding her throat. She felt the familiar resistance of cartilage and tendon separating as his grip fell away. The other hand released her tunic.
The creature jumped back with a high pitched yelp. A follow-up slash made contact. Large, yellow eyes opened wide as three fingers fell with light splashes into darkness.
Both she and the monster screamed as black blood flowed as thick as tree sap from the wounds.
She rushed forward, hot tears blurring her vision. She kicked a bare foot against his chest, knocking him off the log.
"Hallum!" she screamed into the night.
From the swamp, several sets of bright yellow eyes reflecting firelight turned toward her.
Needing to be nearer to Hallum, she jumped from the tree into the ankle deep water. Twigs and briars tore at her bare feet as she followed the path Hallum had taken. Behind, she heard splashes in close pursuit.
"This way," Hallum called out. His voice came from farther than she expected.
Each step pounded more splinters into the soles of her feet.
The splashes of footsteps behind her came louder and faster.
The tree canopy thinned, letting starlight cascade into the now knee-deep black water. A dozen strides away she caught a glimpse of reddish-orange hair through a circle of pointy-eared silhouettes.
To her horror, one of the creatures behind Hallum raised a thick, spiked club. With a grunt, he swung toward the back of Hallum’s head.
"Behind you," she shouted.
Hallum spun, leading with his sword. He split the creature’s head from ear to ear.
"Run," he shouted. With a sharp jerk of his arm he threw the sword toward her.
Nyctris fell backwards into a thorn bush as the sword tumbled end over end over her. Hundreds of sharp slivers slid into her arms and legs. Polluted water splashed over them feeling like liquid fire.
With a heavy thunk, the sword came to a stop handle first against one of her pursuers, caving in his face.
"If you want me, then you’ll have to catch me," Hallum shouted. He turned and ran into the swamp. His attackers, their eyes glowing with feline luminescence, took off in pursuit, leaving her alone with only three of the attackers.
Nyctris stumbled to regain her feet as they encircled her.
She glided into a well practiced forward fighting stance, spinning the daggers in her palms to reverse the grip so her thumbs pressed tight against the hilt bottoms.
The creatures swarmed as one.
Nyctris saw an opening and swung at an exposed throat. Her arm came to a jarring halt, caught at the wrist from behind. Her wrist was twisted to the edge of endurance. A tingling pain stole her hand’s strength and the dagger fell with a splash.
She spun to stab with her other hand. That one was stopped in the same fashion.
Her arms were stretched out and up high, causing the weight of her body to pull against her slender shoulders. She stretched her legs to find the ground and relieve the strain. Cold silt squished between her toes without giving support.
Callused hands twisted the other dagger free. It was thrown into the distance where it landed with a splash.
Long fingers snaked over her scalp from behind. They tightened at her brow, catching a fist of hair. A painful jerk snapped her head back.
Nyctris’s opened her angled eyes wide in tear-filled pain. High above, a solitary star found its way through the dense treetop canopy. Captured and helpless, warm tears moistened her cheeks as she focused on the light. She refused to sob.
"You cutted me, Mare," a creature said.
A rough shove brought her head back to a natural angle then released her hair. A maimed hand waved in front of her face. Black ooze seeped from stumps of his first, middle and ring fingers. The cut on his other wrist, however, appeared scabbed over.
Nyctris thought of the star. How perfect and white the light was. It was much too high in the firmament for the evil of the swamp to spoil. She pretended she was that light; far away from what she feared was coming next.
"You cutted my good hand. Now, to cut is my turn." The creature lashed out with his intact hand.
Invisible fire scorched Nyctris’s right forearm where his claws opened flesh. The light of her star fled from her mind, along with hope of numbing such flawless pain with a simple trick. She screamed her lungs empty, gasped between ragged sobs, and screamed again. Both knees buckled under what little weight they supported.
Eventually the pain subsided enough for sanity to regain a foothold. In the distance she heard the fierce cries of battle. Knowing Hallum was still free returned some of her lost strength.
"Flail flesh from your arms to the bone I will," the fingerless one said. "For what we want, you need no arms." He gurgled a laugh that the others obediently mimicked.
Humiliated at how weak she felt, Nyctris straightened her legs to find a way to relieve the strain on her shoulders. One foot sunk in soft mire. The other fell upon something round and hard. A cautious prod with her toes identified the hilt of Hallum’s sword.
A whoosh of air was her only warning as claws slashed through her tunic. For an instant she thought she heard silk being cut with heavy shears, then she realized it was the sound of her own tearing flesh. Pain stole all thought, roasting her from throat to thighs. The sharp torment came in waves, each so absolute it drowned out all else. In the troughs of each wave there was enough time to dread the next peek and to wonder if the creatures would torture Hallum the same way after she was dead.
"Again scream, mare! For me, bleed!"
She felt long fingers worm their way into the lacerations on her belly. Skin parted slowly. An ecstasy of numb darkness beckoned but dying in the mud at the hands of monsters was unacceptable. Outsmarting the pain didn’t work, neither did fighting it. The only thing left was to accept it, surrender to its nature, and use it. Pain meant damage, not weakness. It told her what was wrong and supplied her with strength to survive.
Fueled with that truth, Nyctris planted a foot on each side of the sword hilt. Redirecting her agony into focused wrath, she kicked against the handle. The weapon spun. Steel sliced deep into the ankle of the creature holding her right wrist.
"Biting serpent," he screamed, releasing her arm to grab his ankle.
Nyctris lunged for the sword, pulling against the unrelenting grip on her other wrist. Her free hand plunged into the water. Fingertips grazed the hilt but could go no farther because of the creature holding her other arm. Making the choice between arm and life, Nyctris threw all her weight against his grip. An expected pop tore deep in her left shoulder, adding new pain to old, but it provided the extra reach needed. She slid her fingers around the grooved wooden handle. With a scream, she swung upward. Water arched high as the blade flashed, severing both of her captor’s arms at the elbows.
The eyes of the last creature opened wide. Instead of charging, as she expected, he dashed for the darkness of the marsh as silent as a fluttering moth.
Two quick swings removed the heads of the wounded creatures. As she walked past the corpse of one she stepped on the flat side of one of her lost dagger. She retrieved and sheathed it. With a pang of loss, she accepted that the other half of her mother’s deathbed gift was forever lost.
"Hallum!" she called out. "Can you hear me?"
"Run!" he called from the darkness. "They’re coming. Run befo-."
From the same direction of his voice, gurgling battle cries filled the night. The creatures sounded a stones throw away.
Searing pain from her cuts reminded Nyctris that she couldn’t defeat them. To stay would be suicide. Once dead, there would be no way to help Hallum.
She turned and ran, dragging the heavy sword by the hilt. The creatures would expect her to return to the camp for supplies, so that way was lost, along with her boots. Nyctris guessed the way north, stumbling barefoot through the unforgiving brambles as fast as she could manage.
Each stride brought bitter despair. Every step closer to safety took her farther from Hallum.
In the darkness, time blurred. Several times she awoke in the mud with no memory of stopping. She forced her legs forward, not knowing if she headed toward safety or danger. The waking world became shades of shadow. Nightmares felt as real as the waking world. Eventually there was no difference between the two.
She awoke, feeling tight cords on her wrists and ankles. The heavy stench of dung filled her nostrils. Voices mumbled outside a white haze obscuring her vision before she fell back into nightmares.