Doomsniffer's Sandbox II: Electric Boogaloo

This sandbox is supposed to be for my longer form fiction, so it is not cluttering up my other sandbox too much.

This is supposed to be the first in a series of stories set in kind of my own pocket of the Bellerverse, tentatively titled "The Chronicles of Garick". I have no idea what this particular tale is gonna be called. Interesting fact, this was not actually supposed to be the first story, I started writing something else and started adding backstory about Garick time growing up in the army and why he was working for the Fivate, and it kinda became its own story. So, this is a bit of an "I told you this story so I could tell you these other ones" kind of scenario, and soon I will be telling these other stories.

This was actually the first tale I started writing for the site, and it ended up way longer than I expected. Other things have been written in between when I started and finished this tale.

Total length: 18 pages/~14,500 words. So this technically qualifies as a novelette, apparently.

NOTES for whoever ends up agreeing to take a look at this thing. Feel free to read the story and then these notes, or the other way round. Whichever works.

He was known as Garick. He hailed from the great Empire of Tineadh, first among the Cities, ruled by the great Fivate Ada-Geyre, the wisest and strongest ruler the world had ever known, descended from the great god Geyre himself to bring order to the world. Tineadh was a strong city, seated where the river met the sea to the North of the Waste. The lands surrounding the city were much blessed by Erits, and the hills nearby had iron and gold and other precious resources, a sure sign of Geyre's favor. The nearby villages pledged tribute to Tineadh, and in exchange Tineadh protected them from the other cities, as well as the roving tribesmen. Tineadh was the easternmost of all the cities, and so it often fell upon its peoples' shoulders to deal with raiding parties from the jungle dwellers and waste peoples venturing into its land, the first bastion protecting civilization from barbarism. Its people and its walls were strong though, and so its people were able to live in relative safety.

Garick had lived in the city his whole life, the firstborn son of the merchant Rasan. He had never been outside the walls, for it was well known that there were dangers beyond their safety. His father traded with the travelers and tribesmen who came to the city, negotiated for their wares, and sold them to the city folk. His father would tell him stories from the tribesmen when he came home in the evenings, for they were always full of adventure and wonder, and it pleased his father to see the awe and reverence in his son's eyes. He was always careful not to speak the stories in the open however, for the city guards were not fond of those who spoke of the wonders outside the city.

As he grew, his father had tried to teach his son the skills a merchant needed, the raven's eye, the silver tongue, but none had taken. His role was to take up his father's trade when his eyes went grey and his hair went white, and while he knew that that would be his duty in the years to come, it seemed as though he would never live up to the trader his father was.

His lessons were cut short however, when a jealous rival of his father's decided that the best way to take his business away was at the edge of a blade. The thugs had slain his entire family that night, parents, brothers and sisters alike. Garick, however, had sneaked away earlier in the night, while they slept, to visit a girl he had met in the marketplace, a blacksmith's daughter, dark of skin and bright of eyes, whose body had just started growing the curves of Erits' blessing. When he came back from their tryst, he found the bodies of his family, their blood beginning to harden all over the floor of the home they had shared together, their wide eyes staring at him accusingly. He still saw their eyes gaping at him in his sleep some nights.

He had been sixteen then, by all rights a man, but without home or a trade to inherit any more his prospects were dim and his options few. He had taken the only course he thought would provide him a chance to make something of his life. A stint in the army would provide him with shelter, food, training, and when his service was done, citizenship, with the land and privileges that that entailed. He had thought it would simple enough to defend his city from the occasional bandits and barbarians. That was not to be case though.

Garick's skhad leader, Imeda, had been in the army for five and ten years now, with five more left to her service. She was short in stature, and lean, but her arms and legs rippled with coiled muscles beneath her leather guards. Her skin was close to black, and weathered from marching in the sun, with a head of fiery hair and dark eyes that seemed to be watching her surroundings constantly with a kind of tired amusement. Garick found her to be a woman who was hard to ignore, both because of her beauty and her aura of authority.

She had earned her position as skhad leader years before Garick had arrived, and the way the veterans treated her spoke of their respect for her. They had recently seen combat in the Western hills, and Garick was part of the group sent to make up the losses they had taken. Imeda oversaw the bulk of their training, allowing the veterans to rest after their recent campaigning, but they were always ready to follow her orders when she needed more assistance. They deferred to her readily, and always spoke to her in tones indicating their respect for her rank and experience.

Some of the newcomers however thought it was not their place to be taking orders from a woman. Garick laughed with them at the lewd jokes they made when not in Imeda's presence, for these were his blade-partners, and he craved their respect, even when the topics made him uncomfortable. One day, right at the climax of one particularly vile story involving some livestock, Imeda had happened past. The men quickly changed the subject, and waited until she had left to burst into laughter, but Garick had been paying no attention to them. He was focused on Imeda's face, for there was none of the anger there that he had expected, instead only a look of acceptance. Before she left, her eyes met Garick's, and he swore he saw a slight smile on her face, before she gave him a short sharp nod and walked away.

The older soldiers in his skhad also told stories in the evening. Theirs were of a different kind though. Stories of battles, of scars received and trophies taken, told to elevate themselves in the eyes of the young recruits. Sometimes they spoke of glorious victories and the night was full of boasts and song as they drank into the night. Other times they spoke of fallen friends, and shared experiences, and these nights were somber, respectful affairs. These stories were not so much for the recruits, for they did not grasp their true meaning, but the veterans' solemn tones kept the recruits from interrupting their memories.

Some nights, when the drink flowed long enough, a different type of story would emerge. These stories were spoken of in hushed tones, and with furtive glances as if the soldiers were afraid of being overheard. These stories were about the monsters. The terrors. The roaming creatures they had seen on campaign. At first, Garick had thought these to be merely the stories told to frighten the new blood, a rite of passage. He mentioned this to one of the storytellers once. The eyes of the veteran were not mirthful, but deadly serious, and somehow sad. He merely said that if Garick chose not to believe him there was not much to do to convince him otherwise. He said that with time, he may come to reconsider his thoughts. It was only later that Garick wished he had listened to these stories more.

Some weeks later, after a particularly gruelling day of training drills, the biggest of the new recruits, Sterk, decided he would no longer be humiliated by Imeda. He challenged her right there in front of the rest of his friends, who sneered and elbowed each other in anticipation of the humiliation soon to be inflicted upon their cruel taskmaster. Sterk had always been favored more by Drakgin than York, and let his muscles do his thinking for him. He charged straight at her, relying upon his size to overwhelm her. Imeda, however, was not there when Sterk reached the point she had occupied a moment before. She had moved so fast, like water flowing over a stone in the river, that Garick had barely seen her move at all. She was behind Sterk before he knew she had moved, and knocked him to the ground with one swift blow. As he lay on the ground gasping like a fish, she looked at the other troublemakers. Her eyes told them all they need to know about what would happen if they challenged her again, before she had to speak a word.

"I have been in this army for five and ten years. I have fought and killed men since before you whelps were done suckling your mother's teat. I have faced things that exist only in nightmares. I have lost friends to tooth and claw and steel, and sent them to Abirt's judgment in pieces. I have tasted naught but blood and sweat for all this time, in order to make sure boys like you could sleep safely at night behind your walls. I have not the time to deal with boys such as this, who do not know better than to insult their betters."

"I will only say this once. You will listen to me. You will follow my orders. If you do this, you may survive your service. If not, I have no use for you, for you endanger myself and all of your blade-partners. Go home, little boys, and maybe some day I will let you clean the floors of my stables, when I am a citizen."

The training went more smoothly after this.

Imeda watched Garick and his blade-partners as they learned to work together, as they grew closer to the veterans and each other alike. They learned to place their lives in each others' hands. The skhad changed from hardened veterans trying desperately to keep the scraggly boys from cutting their own limbs off, to a living being in itself, each part working in unison with the others. Even Sterk, having been humbled in front of his blade-partners, was respectful and worked together with the others.

By the time they were able to master the wall of battle, Imeda had had long enough to notice where the particular talents of each man lay. A few lucky ones she singled out for more detailed training and responsibilities. Garick found himself among these few, who began to take lessons from Imeda in her tent in the evening on the finer aspects of war.

"What is the most important aspect of any campaign?"

Imeda always asked her questions over dinner. The other students she had picked sat on the carpets in her tent as they chewed their bread and drank their broth.

"Strength," replied one of the students immediately. "Without a strong army, you will be as the wind blowing against a stone wall."

"But even the strongest army can be defeated by a smaller force. In the cliffs to the west, numbers do not matter. I have seen the cliff people engage an army tenfold larger than their entire village. They chose their location so that the enemy could not bring their numbers to bear. They killed them one by one, but did not tire. In the end, they had lost only three tens of soldiers. Their enemy had lost three thousands, and went home in disgrace."

"Then speed would be of more use," chimed another student. "If their army had been fast enough they could strike like a bird of prey. They could have been in the village before the enemy knew they were coming."

"Speed has its disadvantages though. In order to move quickly, and army must travel lightly, and live off the land. Correct? To the south, the land around the river is fertile. They pledge to the Fivate, and we protect them in return. Once, many years ago, another city, jealous of Tineadh's prosperity, wanted these lands for itself. It sent its fastest riders across the Waste, to take us by surprise and take our land. Their plan was discovered, but not soon enough to rally the army. The townspeople fled from their homes, and burned the crops in their fields behind them. When the riders arrived, they found no food for their bellies, no grain for their horses. The army merely blocked their advance, and waited for them to starve. Then we moved in and helped resow the fields."

"They should have retreated then," said another. "It is no use going to war if you cannot adapt. You must see your surroundings, the flow of battle, and decide the best course of action. Like the mighty river changes course to take the easiest route."

"You are very close, but you have yet to state the most important aspect of warfare. Garick, you have been quiet tonight. Do you have any thoughts on the subject?"

Garick swallowed — (How did she always manage to ask him when his mouth was full?) — before speaking up.

"It seems to me, that behind all of these victories is knowledge. The cliff dwellers were able to enact their plan because they knew the enemy was coming, as were the river folk. You need strength, and speed, but you need to know how best to use it. You need to be able to change your tactics, but you need proper knowledge of the battlefield in order to judge the proper course of action."

"Just so!" Imeda exclaimed with a laugh. "Any army's prospects live and die upon the breadth of their knowledge. Knowledge of tactics, knowledge of weapons, but also knowledge of the enemy. If you know where your enemy is, how strong he is, and what he is capable of, you can apply your strength and speed where it will hurt him most. If you know enough, you do not even need to adapt your plans, because your enemy's actions are already a part of them. While Drakgin gives us strength, and Lita gives us speed, it is by York's fickle whims which decide the fate of nations."

Garick felt a rush of heat in his cheeks at his teacher's praise. He craved the approval of his skhad leader, but always felt a distinct embarrassment when she spoke of him before the others like this. He raised his bowl to his lips to try and hide the expression on his face. As he gazed over the rim, he caught Imeda's eyes, and he could see them twinkling with amusement. She kept his gaze for a moment, before she turned to the other students to continue the lesson.

"Now, let us look at Jenarl To-Fet's campaign in the western plains…"

Garick took to Imeda's lessons fairly readily. Despite the difficulty he faced adapting to the military life, Imeda's tutelage managed to hone his eyes and his mind in ways that his father's lessons had never managed. Imeda saw potential in Garick, and began training him to act as more than just another shield in the wall. Imeda found his smaller size and keen eyes made him useful as a scout, and began to use him in this fashion during training exercises. His fellow soldiers teased him about the interest she showed in him, but nothing more serious than lighthearted banter developed between the two of them. Despite Garick's yearnings for the contrary.

After many more months, their training period ended when the skhad received their first orders from the Fivate. The courier barely stayed long enough to trade his horse for a fresh one of the skhad's before he rode off. Imeda then emerged from her tent to relay the news that Garick and the rest of his blade-partners were to march on their first mission together as a unit. Their task was to travel to one of the outlying villages to the East that had pledged fealty to the Fivate. The tax collectors sent there had not returned, and they were to find why. Garick thought to himself that there were two likely reasons for his disappearance. They had either decided they no longer wanted to pay taxes to the Fivate, in which case their presence would likely be for the purpose of persuading them otherwise. Or they had been attacked by someone, such as barbarians, and their task was going to be a far bloodier one. He couldn't help but think of some of the wilder stories he had been told by the other soldiers though, and neither could the other soldiers around him. Whispers and rumors spread up and down the column, careful not to reach the officers' ears. That night after they set up camp, his dreams were full of things with too many teeth.

After several days march, they drew near to the village. Imeda called for a halt a little less than a day's march away, and later sent for Garick to meet her in her tent. When he drew back the leather skin and entered, he found two other men conversing with her. They grew silent and turned at Garick's entrance, until Imeda smiled and gestured him over.

"Garick! We were waiting for you. I trust you know Jarl and Woto?"

Garick looked at the two men standing next to Imeda. He had seen them before, worked with them in some of Imeda's training exercises, but he did not know them well. They were both veterans, and had been with the skhad for years before Garick had arrived. Both acted as scouts for Imeda's skhad. Woto was a hulking man, broad of shoulder, with arms like tree trunks. His greying hair was shorn close to his scalp. A vicious scar ran up one side of his face, and one of his eyes along its path was the milky white of the blind. Jarl however, was lean and tall, with lighter skin that brought memories back to Garick of the marketplace his father would bring him to, and the strange people sometimes found therein. It was almost the color of gold, but with slight green undertones, and reminded him of some of the oils his father had once traded.

"We have trained together on occasion. Lita's grace has been kind to them. They have taught me much about tracking through the wilds." Garick said, showing deference to the two senior soldiers.

"I still don't like the idea of taking the boy along. He has not even seen battle yet! How can we place our lives in his hands if it comes to that? He is not ready." Woto was speaking to Imeda, and seemed to be ignoring Garick's presence. Woto emphasized this last remark by spitting into the corner of Imeda's tent. Garick did not speak, as custom said to wait until his elders acknowledged him.

Jarl looked at his companion and shook his head. "Woto, please show some manners. We have seen him in action. We taught him our skills, did we not? How is he to to gain experience if his lack of it keeps him away? No, he has shown to be swift and quiet, and with a keen mind. He will be of use."

Woto looked like he had swallowed something unpleasant, but turned with crossed arms back to Imeda, who had been waiting for the two to finish, as if expecting this conversation. "Fine. I do not like it, but I will accept him. He had better not let me get killed."

Imeda nodded and then turned to Garick, who had been waiting uncomfortably through this conversation. "These two shall be your emtef. The three of you will work together, and rely on each other. They will help you finish what training I have started. Listen to them, and they will keep you alive. Work with them, and you will succeed at whatever mission you are given."

"I will do what I can to bring honor to the skhad… and my emtef."

"Also, if you make a fool of yourself, Woto will probably gut you himself and piss on your innards. Just so you know." Imeda added with a smirk.

"I… see."

"Do not worry, he only bites when he is hungry!" She laughed. "I will let the two of you give Garick the details of your mission. I have other matters to attend to."

She watched them as Jarl and Woto led the way out of the tent. Before he had stepped out completely though, Imeda called out to him.

"Oh, and Garick… be careful."

Garick and his new emtef left the rest of the skhad at camp and struck out through the forest. The road was the most obvious route to the village, but also the most likely to be observed. They wanted to get near enough to see what was going on in the village without being seen, so it was not an option. Jarl was in the lead, his green and brown tunic allowing him to blend with the growth around him. He would stop at times, and kneel low to the ground, eyes alert and constantly surveying their surroundings. Garick followed him, and tried to keep his eyes and ears open, especially whenever Jarl stopped. With one hand he held tight the hilt of his blade, but at other times he felt for the small wooden owl tied to his wrist to calm himself. He had carved Lita's mark himself, so the resemblance to an owl was crude, but it would bring him luck as he crept through the trees. Or so he hoped. The other mark he wore, that of York, was tied securely around his neck, below his leather armor. Its weight also had a comforting effect, but his breaths were still nervous and his heartbeats quick.

Behind Garick stalked Woto, bow drawn, constantly looking behind them. He had muttered something about "not trusting you soft-headed fools to watch his back" before they had set out, apparently his way of volunteering for rear guard duty. His size belied his ability march through the forest without making a sound. Garick found himself looking back over his shoulder at times to make sure Woto was still there. Once or twice he was surprised to find that Woto had actually disappeared, but the next time he looked he had always returned without Garick even hearing him. Woto's silence however, only made it more obvious whenever Garick, despite how carefully he watched the ground ahead of him, would produce a crack as he trod on a twig. It was barely audible, but with the sounds of the forest all around them, it was nearly deafening to Garick's ears. Each time he stole a glance over his shoulder and caught a scowl on Woto's face.

As they neared the village, Jarl stopped more frequently, and Garick grew visibly more tense. Eventually, when Jarl stopped, he motioned for Garick and Woto to move up towards him. They drew near to him, and Garick tried to keep his voice low.

"What is it?"

"We near the village, but something is wrong. Look at these tracks."

Garick looked down. The ground was smoothed slightly, and branches and twigs were broken along the path. It lead in the same direction they were traveling.

"Something was dragged through here." Garick commented.

"Just so. And look here." Jarl reached down and picked up something small from the center of the path. He held it out for the others to look at. Garick peered down, and saw, in the center of his palm, a human fingernail, dirty and torn.

"Someone," grunted Woto.

"Someone aware, and unwilling," added Jarl.

"I've heard things in the forest," said Woto, looking around. "Thought we were being followed. Twigs snapping, rustling branches. Went to try and catch them once or twice, but I couldn't see anyone."

"I too have heard them. Seen them though, I have not."

"I'm going to go scout the area again. Stay here."

Without waiting for a reply, Woto slunk out into the forest. Jarl sat on a fallen tree, now overgrown with moss, and took a sip from his waterskin. Garick followed his example, seating himself on a stump positioned facing Jarl, to cover his blind spots. The water felt cool and refreshing after their tense journey through the woods.

"Does Woto always act like that?" Asked Garick quietly.

Jarl smiled, his crooked teeth showing. "He has since I have known him. He prefers to take care of his own tasks, and sometimes those of others, if he feels they are not able. He does not place much trust in the abilities of any other than himself."

"How long have you known him?"

"He helped train me when I was a whelp like yourself."

"He did? He must be very close to the end of his service term."

"As far as I know, he could have retired to a farm somewhere at any time in the past ten years."

"Why hasn't he?"

Jarl sighed. "This is the life he prefers. I think he likes what it allows him to do. He would not know what to do with himself if he wasn't fighting someone."

Garick thought about what Jarl had told him as he took another sip of water. He reached for his side pouch and rummaged through the the cloth-wrapped items inside. He pulled one out and unwrapped it, then took a bite of the rache bread inside. It was hard and flavorless, but the recipe was supposed to provide all the energy a soldier needed, according to the Baker's guild. Garick suspected that none of them had ever soldiered before, or eaten their creation, or talked to soldiers who had had to put up with it. He chewed silently for a moment, when he thought he saw a flicker of movement off to the side behind Jarl. He tried to look carefully to see what had caught his eye, but he could not discern any cause for the movement. After a moment, seeing nothing further, he turned back to Jarl, another question on his mind.

"May I ask you another question?"

"You just have," Jarl said with a grin. "I will permit you another though, if you desire."

"I've seen what Woto is capable of. How does he manage… I mean, isn't it… difficult for him with just… the one eye?"

"I don't need both eyes to know a fool when I see one."

Garick fell forward off his tree stump as Woto materialized behind him, spilling water down the front of his armor. Jarl stood up, chuckling quietly to himself.

"Find anything?" Inquired Jarl.

"Nothing. Kept feeling like I was being watched though. Lita's Breath, I don't like this place."

"Let's move on then. Keep your eyes open."

"Get up whelp. I'm not going to carry you all the way there."

Garick and his companions slowed as they approached the edge of the clearing that marked the village. No words were spoken between them, they relied instead on hand gestures to communicate. Jarl indicated for Garick to circle to the south, near the road, while Woto took off through the underbrush to the north. Jarl himself approached the village from the west.

As Garick approached, it took him a moment to determine what it was that disturbed him about the village. The fields had crops in them, the mud and thatch of the homes were not aflame. He even saw a cockerel pecking around the edge of one hut. What he didn't see, was any kind of human activity.

There should have been people tending to the crops. Old women carrying water from the nearby stream, or sitting near their homes gossiping while they watched the young children play. But there was not a soul in sight. Garick stayed behind the tree line and watched for a while, but at no point did he see anyone.

He drew his blade, and eased his way out of the tree lines, moving as slowly and smoothly as he could manage. He stayed low to the ground, until he reached the edge of the crops, and he was able to use their height to hide himself. All the time he kept his eyes and ear open for any kind of movement or sound out of the ordinary. He made his way through the stalks waving in the wind, heading for the nearest hut.

Halfway there he tripped over something and fell with his face in the dirt.

He rolled over, and silently thanked Kalef he had managed not to fall on his blade. He stood up, brushed himself off, and turned to see what it was that he had tripped over. He nearly fell over backwards again when he saw it was a corpse.

Its face stared up at him, but its eyes had since been eaten by some opportunistic scavenger. The empty holes gazed up at him from a half-rotted face, its teeth grinning at him from a hole in its cheek. He reluctantly leaned in closer to the body, to try and discern more information from it. Memories of his family lying on the floor, throats cut, flashed before his eyes. There was damage to the body, from lying exposed for some time, so the cause of death was hard to determine. It wore a crude hide tunic, but the stomach appeared to have been ripped open by something. He couldn't tell if it had been the weapon that had killed him, or some animal who had come along later. He did find an army-issue blade in his hand though. He thought of picking it up, but decided instead to leave whoever this was alone. He had suffered enough indignities in his death.

Wanting to put some distance between himself and the cadaver, Garick made his way again towards the nearest mud home. He crept around the wall until he reached the entrance, facing the center of the village. He looked around, and seeing no one nearby, peered around the entrance into the cool interior. When no threat jumped out at him, he quickly went inside.

The interior of the cabin looked like whoever had been living there left in a hurry. There were bowls of gruel on the table by the window that looked to have been left unfinished, and now had mold and insects in it. There were a few items on the floor, that looked as though they could have been knocked over in the rush to get out. He also noticed on the wall a large iron Imperial shield. It had been polished with great care, and as he looked in it he saw his reflection staring back at him with surprising clarity. This must be the home of the poor soul he had found in the field nearby. He must have retired here after his service was over. Garick felt sorrow at the fact that after surviving whatever the army had thrown at him, something had found him here when he should have been finished, raising his family.

Suddenly, a noise behind him made him turn, blade extended. Garick nearly dropped the blade in the shock of seeing Imeda standing there in the entrance to the hut. She was not wearing her armor, but instead a thin robe that did nothing to hide the curves of her body. Garick forced himself to meet his skhad leader's eyes.

"Imeda? What are you doing here? I thought you were waiting at camp."

"I came for you, Garick."

"You came for what?"

"I need you Garick. I could not wait any longer."

At this, she shrugged off the robe she was wearing. Garick stared at her naked body, the one he had dreamed of so many times in the past months.

"Come lie with me, Garick. I need you now."

She began to advance towards him, arms outstretched. Garick could scarcely believe what was happening before his eyes. He had longed for this day, but something about it struck as wrong. Very wrong. Imeda shouldn't have been here. She should be back at the camp, waiting for them to come back and report. She certainly shouldn't be here, in front of him, naked and curvy and needing him and… naked. As much as he wanted it to be true.

He licked his lips, as they and the rest of his mouth seemed to have gone as dry as the Wastes. He looked around him to see if anyone else was nearby to see the nude beauty before him. As he glanced behind him, something in the edge of his vision caught his attention. He turned his head to look at the shield on the wall. He could see his reflection in it quite clearly, but whatever it was making its way towards him, its reflection was not Imeda's.

The thing in the reflection had the general shape of a human, but that was all that Garick could tell. Its appearance seemed to be constantly changing, flickering like a flame. He thought he caught glimpses of facial features through the blurry mess of colors, but nothing seemed to last longer than a moment before changing again. Its shape changed from moment to moment as well. First it was so tall it brushed the roof of the cabin and was thinner than a twig, the next time he blinked it was shorter than his shoulders and grotesquely fat, distended belly drooping to the floor.

He only looked for an instant, before he turned back to the creature wearing Imeda's face, now only an arm's length away, and saw that its eyes had narrowed. It knew that he had seen its true form.

He tried to raise his blade, but before Garick had time to properly react, the creature let out an inhuman shriek and lunged at him, hands reaching out for his neck. Garick tried to stumble back out of its grasp, but it was too fast, and then it was upon him. He tumbled backwards, the weight of the creature on top of him, and it let out a shuddering gasp.

And then nothing happened.

He didn't even realize he had closed his eyes until he hazarded to open them. He expected to see Abirt himself waiting to judge him when he opened his eyes, atop the pile of corpses the priests said represented every version of your self that once was, and all the ones that could have been.

Instead, when he opened his eyes, he saw Imeda's eyes staring straight into his, wide with shock, her mouth opening and closing like a fish. He rolled her off of him, and saw his blade stuck deep between her ribs.

Before his eyes, the thing that looked like Imeda began to shudder, and the creature he had seen in the reflection emerged. The shifting, changing mass of features flickered before him, faster and faster, until its back arched, and the body of a woman Garick had never seen fell to the floor where it had laid a moment before.

Garick stumbled outside, and vomited into a pot by the door. When he had finished wracking his insides, he wiped his mouth and walked back into the hut to retrieve his blade. As he pulled it out of the body, he noticed there was no blood on the blade. Instead, a kind of slick grey fog seemed to flow downwards off of the blade. He carefully wiped it on a cloth, and tossed it back into the cabin before making his way towards the center of the village.

Garick crept around the mud houses, eyes darting around, alert for any other surprises. His mind was racing almost as fast as his heart. What in Geyre's name was that thing? How had it taken Imeda's face? Why, for that matter? Did that mean that Imeda was dead? And most importantly, were there any more of them in the shadows, waiting to attack him when he dropped his guard?

He reached the center of the village without seeing anyone else. In the clearing in the center was a tall building made of wooden logs and more mud. It was probably a gathering hall of some kind, and a place of refuge. It looked to be large enough to hold all of the villagers and their animals if need be. If there was anyone still in this village, they would probably be in there.

As he circled the building towards the entrance, Garick heard voices coming from within. It sounded like Jarl and Woto, and it sounded like they were arguing.

"I'm telling you again, put down your bow, Woto."

"I've lived too long to be that foolish, Jarl. Something is wrong here!"

Garick heard another voice speak, but it was too soft for him to make out the words. What he could hear sounded odd, with a strange echoing quality about it, as if several voices were all trying to speak at the same time.

"Don't worry dear, I'll get you home safely." This was Jarl's voice again.

"Who are you talking to?" Woto's voice sounded angry. Well, angrier than normal. Garick hurried his steps as he drew closer to the front of the building.

"Has your other eye gone blind now? It's my wife you fool, she is right in front of you!"

There was more garbled speech as Garick reached the entrance to the building.

"Those sons of whores! We'll find them dear, I promise you."

He stepped inside to see Woto had his bow out and pointed at Jarl, an arrow partially pulled back. Jarl had his blade out towards Woto and was pointing at a figure huddling on the ground slightly behind him. Behind the three of them was a small pile of corpses, obviously what was left of the villagers.

Woto was just saying "For the last time there is nobody there!" when he saw Garick enter the building. That was when everything went wrong.

Woto, startled at Garick's sudden entrance, began to turn his aim towards the new intruder. Jarl, seeing his opportunity, began to advance towards Woto, who halfway through his turn tried to turn back towards Jarl. And while this happened, the figure huddled on the ground looked up and Garick saw the face of his eldest sister. He knew he had last seen her lying on the floor with her throat cut, and yet there she was right in front of him. As Jarl and Woto brought their weapons to bear, Garick watched as the thing that looked like his sister leaped up faster than his eyes could follow, and lifted Jarl up by his neck.

Woto swore as he saw Jarl being lifted up. "Aggie's Arse!" He fired his bow, the string thrumming as the tension was released, but Woto missed his target, the arrow merely passing by the thing holding up Jarl.

As Garick watched, he saw his sister's arms twist Jarl around until he was facing him. She stared straight into his panicked eyes, and her mouth opened like a snake, her jaw stretching inhumanly wide, almost down to her chest. A low humming sound began to emerge from her throat, and Jarl's struggling grew more frantic, before he began to calm down. Jarl began to shake, and then twitch violently, before his features began to flicker and twist the same way Garick had seen in the reflection of the thing that had attacked him before. Garick saw his sister's face break into a wicked smile, her jaw still stretched beyond reason, which caused him to shudder with revulsion.

Woto had drawn another arrow, and now had it pointed directly at Garick. "You! What did you do to Jarl! Where is he?"

Jarl had stopped twitching, and though he now looked like Jarl again, Garick could see something in his face was different. Garick's sister released her grip, and he turned toward Woto, who gave no indication of noticing. Garick opened his mouth to warn Woto, but Jarl, or rather, the thing that had been Jarl, sunk his blade into the back of Woto's neck. Blood began to spurt from the silver triangle protruding from under Woto's chin, and he began to gurgle and gasp as more of the red fluid leaked from his lips. Woto lost the grip on his arrow as he fell, and it flew into the wood next to Garick's head with an audible thump.

Garick turned to see the thing with his sister's face approaching him across the building, and thing that had once been Jarl wiping his blade off as he turned, grinning, towards him.

Garick's courage failed him.

He turned and bolted outside, throwing the door closed behind him. He threw the latch over the front of the door, a large piece of wood that fell down to prevent it from opening. The things inside began smashing into the door, which buckled and creaked, but the latch held. Garick hastily gathered some of the straw around the building and piled it against the door. He thanked Lita that it had been a dry summer as his trembling hands pulled his firestone from the bag on his belt. He struck it against his blade again and again, trying to ignore the sounds from the other side of the door.

The sparks flew from his blade until finally, some of them caught on the hay. He blew on the flame until began the eat at the wooden door, and then backed away from the building. Within moments, the flames had spread to most of the building. As Garick stood there, he could hear the inhuman shrieking of the monsters inside. As hard as he tried, he could not stop thinking of his sister's skin bubbling, Jarl's eyes boiling, the muscles sloughing off their blackening bones. He stood there watching the flames consume the structure, waiting until he heard the shrieking stop, and the flames died down.

He wretched again by one of the huts on his way back, despite not having anything left to expel. He ran back through the woods they way they had come, trying to put as much distance between himself and the nightmare behind him as possible.

Night fell as Garick made his way through the woods. He felt exhausted after the rush of combat had faded from him. His eyes burned and seemed to keep closing of their own accord. He found himself jumping at every sound in the woods, expecting it to be another monster waiting to turn him. He pushed his burning muscles through their motions as they protested their treatment. Garick had his blade held out in front of him, its weight tiring his arm. He periodically had to twitch his arm upward whenever it began to droop.

He was fairly certain he was heading in the direction of the camp, but he could not be sure his fatigue was not affecting him. He stumbled through the brush, branches he could not see in the dark lashing at his face, one causing a trickle of blood to fall into his eye. He tripped once or twice over roots and logs, but managed not to fall to the ground. Eventually he began to slow down and make his way more carefully, once the terror was far enough behind him.

He traveled until the moon was high overhead. He was beginning to doubt his directions again, when he heard a noise. This time, unlike the many other times he had jumped at sounds in the dark, he was fairly certain that something was actually there. It sounded like a branch cracking, and when he stopped to listen, he heard the sound of leaves rustling as well. It sounded close, and he slowly moved up with his back to a tree as he sought to listen more closely.

When he thought that whatever was approaching was drawing near to his hiding place, he jumped out, brandishing his blade.
"Who walks here?" He whispered, and was surprised to hear the figure in front of him speak the same words. Through the dark he saw another blade extended towards him, the dull shine of moonlight on metal armor, and underneath the figure's helmet, locks of red hair.

"Garick?" Asked the figure. Her blade did not drop from its position.

"Imeda? Is that really you?" Asked Garick, likewise not wavering.

"Is that really you?"

"I am myself, but I do not know how to convince you."

"As I do not know how to convince you."

The two of them stood there in the dark, blades pointed at each others' throats, and time seemed to slow to a crawl. Their eyes did not move from each others' gaze. The amusement that Garick usually saw in her eyes was gone, replaced with a cool hardness not unlike the iron of the blade in front of him.

After a moment, Garick made a decision. He lowered his blade, and sheathed it in its scabbard.

"If neither of us can trust one another, we will be here all night. Permission to report my findings?"

Imeda seemed to consider for a moment, before nodding slightly and holstering her own blade. "What news?"

Garick relayed the story of the creatures he had seen in the village, omitting certain parts that involved Imeda. He told of how they appeared to take the form of those close to the observer, and his suspicion, based on Jarl's reaction to the one that looked like his sister, that they could seem different to each person. He mentioned Woto's inability to see them as well. He also informed Imeda that the creatures appeared mortal, or at least susceptible to iron or fire. When he reached the part of Jarl and Woto's deaths, he found it difficult to continue. His breath seemed short in his chest, and he struggled to relay the details of what he saw.

Imeda remained quiet throughout his report, lost in thought. As he drew closer to the end, her eyes seemed to narrow and her mouth tightened.

"You are certain of the truth in this account?"

"I am."

Imeda looked over her shoulder, and then back at Garick.

"Here is what happened at camp. We prepared to march as we awaited your return. We were going to approach in the morning, and all but the sentries had laid down to rest. Some time during the night, the screaming started. There was confusion at first. We were unsure what was happening, where the danger lay. Eventually we gathered together in the center of the camp, near the fire. There were a number of people missing. In the end only half of the men reported. The others told stories that they had seen siblings, lovers, friends in the camp that night. Some who had already passed to Abirt's judgment. I left them to try and uncover more about what had attacked us. I found some bodies in the camp, but not enough to count for every missing man."

Garick shut his eyes as she told her story. He knew what this meant. There had been more of them. Either while they had been traveling to the village, or during his confrontation with the skin-takers, they had set out towards the rest of his skhad. He had been wasting time staring at the fire, his mind unable to think properly, while they had walked right past him and attacked his blade-partners.

"This is not what concerns me though," Imeda continued. "Before nightfall, Jarl had emerged from the woods. He was wounded and tired, so I took him into my tent and he fell to sleep soon after. He waits now with the rest of the men."

Garick met Imeda's eyes. They had both reached the same conclusion. They both began to run back towards the camp, Imeda slightly behind him. He knew that if he didn't return in time, all of his blade-partners would be dead when he returned. He wasn't going to let that happen again. He didn't look back as he ran through the forest.

Garick and Imeda ran swiftly through the woods, the two of them leaping over fallen logs and trying to ignore the stinging of branches whipping them as they passed. Once or twice they lost sight of each other, but Garick would soon see Imeda's form streaking through the trees to his side. They traveled for what felt like eternity, but when they reached the edge of the trees marking the clearing in which the camp had been set up, Garick was surprised to see that the moon had not shifted very far from it position above him. He hid in the shadows of a tree at the edge of the clearing, and he saw Imeda do likewise in a nearby bush.

From their position crouched in the darkness, Garick surveyed the scene in front of him. The camp was in disarray. Several tents had collapsed nearby, and at least one looked like the fabric had been ripped open. Belongings lay strewn about, and several pieces of armor and weapons glinted in the moonlight. Among the debris Garick saw shapes lying on the ground. He knew what they were without needing to look any closer. The light of a torch illuminated the face of one of the shapes, her eyes staring vacantly up at Garick from the blood-soaked ground.

Near the fire in the center of the camp were the survivors of the skhad, their outlines visible in front of the fire. They had managed to drag enough heavy imperial shields with them to form a rudimentary wall of battle, but Garick could see from here there were to too many holes to make it very effective. The dim light of the half moon did not illuminate the scene very well, and the few torches still alight did not reach far enough for Garick to see the faces of the men huddled together. Most importantly, he could not see Jarl's face.

He knew that the only way he was going to be able to see him was to get close, and he knew that if he tried to sneak up to the men, as alert as they probably were, they were liable to kill him before he managed to warn them. Garick made his decision and stood up, marching out of the shadows with his hands at his side, and tried to fight the urge to run away or place his hand on his blade.

"Who goes there?" Inquired one of the soldiers as soon as Garick started to make his way towards them.

"It is Garick, your blade-partner," he said as non-threateningly as possible.

There was some muttering as Garick drew nearer. He was beginning to be able to make out the faces underneath the helmets.

"Stop right there. How do we know you speak the truth?" Garick stopped walking, perhaps ten strides from group. This was far enough away that he would not be able to approach any closer before they could react. Instead he peered at the speaker.

"Sterk? Is that you? In training you had the wind beaten out of you by a woman who showed us the size of her balls, and then took yours as a trophy. Is that proof enough?"

He couldn't be sure in the darkness, but he swore he could see the face speaking turn a few shades redder.

"You son of a whore! I will gut you!"

The rest of the skhad were laughing at Sterk's reaction. "Ease up Sterk, sounds like truth enough to me," said another voice through the laughter. Garick could not make out who had spoken in his favor.

"Shut your mouth! Stop laughing!"

"If I have demonstrated the truth of my identity to your satisfaction, I need you all to listen," began Garick. "I return from my scouting trip. The village was wiped out by the same creatures who attacked you. They have the ability to take the shape of those we trust, and they use it to get close enough to kill us, or change us into one of them. I saw them kill Woto. And turn Jarl."

At this, his blade-partners began to mutter among themselves. Garick could not hear what was being said, but soon the wall of shields parted, and Garick saw Jarl standing in the center of the ring of people. Garick drew his blade, and he saw all the rest of his skhad turn their weapons towards him. "Jarl"'s weapon remained in its belt.

"That's interesting, since I saw them kill you before my very eyes," said the Thing-That-Looked-Like-Jarl.

Garick spat at the skin-taker. "You lie, creature. You stand among my blade-brothers as though you were one of us. You intend to deceive them, and kill them, or make them like yourself. I will not let you." He raised his blade higher.

"You obviously attempt to turn us against each other, the easier to pick us off. We will not fall for your tricks."

Garick could see that the skhad's members were unsure who to believe in this confrontation. Garick wanted to rush Not-Jarl, or let fly with his blade, but he was certain that he would be dead before he succeeded at that. Many of the soldiers' weapons were wavering between the thing wearing Jarl's skin and himself, while some had lowered their entirely out of confusion. This wasn't going well. If he didn't persuade them soon, they might still fall prey to whatever plan the skin-takers had, or they might decide to kill him. Luckily, Garick remembered a way to prove the truth of his words.

"Enough! I will not let you destroy my blade-partners! Friends, use you shields to see the truth! Use the ref -"

It was at this point that the arrow slammed into his back.

There was a bright flash of pain, his vision blurred, and his breath grew difficult and shallow. He dropped his blade as his knees grew weak. The sudden force spun him around before he fell to the ground.

Garick stared at the bloody arrowhead protruding from his shoulder as the figure emerged from the shadows. His vision was growing weaker, but he could just make out the bright red hair atop its head as it strode towards him.

Garick lay there on the ground with the arrow sticking out of him as he saw Imeda, bow in hand, walk forward into the light of the fire.

"I have been following this creature in the woods," he heard Imeda's voice say. "We must be vigilant against them, for they can look like any one of us! We must not let them drive us apart! They would have us kill each other while they watched!"

All eyes were on Imeda while she spoke, which meant that no one was paying any attention when the thing that was not Jarl made its move.

"Now!" it cried, and then everything fell apart. Garick watched as Not-Jarl drew its blade and plunged it into the throat of the man before it. He watched as not just the thing that was not Jarl began attacking his blade-partners, but almost every veteran member of the skhad began to turn on the younger recruits. Garick saw blades flashing and heard shields clashing as the melee erupted. He could hear the screams of his blade-partners and the crunch of bone, he could smell the stench of blood and offal, and hear the shouts of friend and foe alike.

Summoning whatever strength he could, he began to crawl away from the battle. His shoulder burned with pain as he pulled himself over the broken remains of the camp. He dared not look back, for he was certain that if he were to stop he would not be able to continue. He expected at any moment to feel the sensation of a blade or another arrow plunging into his back, but none came. Hand over hand, one brutally agonizing movement after the next, he struggled to reach the safety of the trees.

Just when he thought his lungs were going to burst and his limbs were about to fall off, he looked up again to see that he was surrounded by the thick trunks of the forest. He had passed straight through the treeline without noticing, so intent upon the motions of crawling he had been, and was a little ways back into the growth. He stopped crawling, and pulled himself up against a tree. He dared to look back in the direction he came, and was surprised to see the battle still raging. He made out several figures huddled around each other trying to use their shields to protect against arrows being fired at them by several others, while a few more still fought with blades and shields nearby. The sounds of battle still could be heard from his position.

Garick turned his attention back to his own situation. The tip of the arrow was still sticking out of his chest, so he had to do something about that. He reached for his shoulder with his good arm, and felt for the end. The iron head of the arrow had fallen off while he had been crawling, the wax holding it in place only intended to last for the duration of its flight and impact. He was lucky the arrow had gone all the way through really, or else the head would have stuck in his shoulder when he took the shaft out. He slowly pushed the end of the shaft back into his chest, wincing as he did so, and then reached around with his good arm to try and pull it out. The angles were awkward, and his vision began to turn white from pain as the end of the shaft jabbed against the edges of his wound. He managed to pull the whole thing out in the end, and he dropped it to the forest floor. His knees trembled, and the only thing keeping him upright was the tree he leaned against.

He was about ready to collapse right there and then, but he realized that there might still be skin-takers in the forest. Even if there weren't they were likely to look for any survivors once the battle was done. If his companions lost, it would not be prudent to make himself easy to find. He looked at the trees around him, and found one with some low-lying branches. He dragged himself over to it and looked up. It looked a lot taller from here than it had a moment ago. He reached up to the first branch, and with his muscles screaming in protest, pulled himself up. He sat for a moment on the branch, before reaching up for the next branch.

Over and over he repeated this, fighting his own body as it tried to shut down from fatigue. Eventually, he looked down, and felt comfortable that he had pulled himself high enough to evade observation from anyone on the ground. He could not hide his tracks, but there was only so much he could do. He hoped that this would be enough to throw off any pursuers as he settled himself into a position he hoped would prevent him from falling out of the tree.

He did not even realize he had fallen asleep before he woke again.

Garick woke with a start. Where was he? What was happening? He looked around, and the previous day's events came back to him. The village. The skin-takers. His sister. Jarl and Woto. The fire. The screams, the crackling, the smell of charred meat. Running into Imeda. The camp, in ruin. The faces of his blade-partners, lit by the fire. The thing that wasn't Jarl. The battle. Blood. Screams. Iron flashing, shields clanging, friends dying.
He shifted his position and his shoulder voiced its complaints with a stab of pain.

Oh right. The arrow.

He sat there in the crook of the branch without moving. He felt bone-weary, and wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep and not wake up. Garick silenced that part of his mind. Even though he could barely call himself such, he was a soldier. He had a duty. If he was the only survivor of the ambush, Tineadh would need him to return if they were to have any knowledge of what was occurring on its borders. He also suspected that if he were to sleep again now, he would not wake up again.

He reached into his side pouch to retrieve the remains of his rache bread. He also managed to find the small amount of pain-leaf he had been given by the Quohr Master a few days ago for his stomach pain. Many of his fellow soldiers used the leaf for other purposes than dulling pain, and Garick found himself for once being glad he was not one of them. He chewed the leaves up with his rache bread, and he found the food in his belly made him feel slightly more alive. He had hoped that the sharp taste of the leaf would improve upon the bark-like taste of the rache, but unfortunately, it seemed not even this could improve it.

He climbed down gently from the tree's branches. He could hear nothing but the sounds of Lita's children, going about their usual business in the forest, seemingly unaware of the carnage that had taken place last night. He could hear the crowing of the corpse-birds in the distance, undoubtedly feeding on what remains were left. It was said that no matter where it occurred, corpse-birds were always able to find their way to a battlefield. The sun was fairly low overhead, its early-morning heat belying what was to come later in the day.

When he finally reached the ground, he had to steady himself against the tree as his shoulder flared again. He tried to take a look at it, but the blood and dirt had dried and he was unable to see how bad it was underneath. He would have to make his way East. He would keep to the forest until he was sure that he was not being followed, and then he would try to find a village nearby that could warn the nearest outpost.

He circled slowly around the clearing that had held his camp. He decided to watch the remnants of battle for a period, just to be sure, but this revealed no movements apart from the corpse-birds.

He had began to slowly make his way through the trees Eastwards again, when, a little ways from the clearing, he saw tracks. They looked like someone had crawled through here at some point during the night. He knew he should probably ignore them and avoid whatever had caused them, get back to civilization and warn the army. A part of him though, wanted to follow it, to at least discover who had made them.
He set out in the direction the tracks led him.

He followed them cautiously long enough for the sun to rise slightly in the sky, before he saw who had made them.
Imeda sat propped under a tree, eyes closed, blade in her lap. Garick could see from this distance that she was wounded. There was dark blood on her hands and in her lap, and her breathing seemed ragged and shallow. Garick tried to creep closer, but his weariness made him clumsier than usual, and he stepped on a branch with a loud crack.

Imeda's eyes snapped open, and she lifted her blade at the sound. Her eyes screamed defiance at him, until he drew closer, and then her eyes grew weary as recognition came over her face.

"So you made it out." She managed to say. Her voice was weak and raspy.

"You as well."

"Not without a few more scars to brag about." As she said this she was overcome by a coughing fit. The blade fell from her hands and landed near Garick's feet as she bent over, sounding as though she were trying to cough up all of her insides. When it was over she leaned back and placed her head against the tree, eyes closed, and lowered her hands to her side. She looked exhausted.

Garick leaned down to pick up her blade for her. As he stood up again he noticed the the blood on her hands was now fresh, and then he saw the wound on her stomach. It looked to be a deep wound, its edges jagged and red. She seemed to be holding it together by sitting up against the tree, but he had a suspicion that it was worse than it looked.

"That looks like a fairly serious scar."

"Had worse. Not as bad as it looks. Just a little cold is all." She coughed again before lifting her head again and looked Garick in the eyes. "Is anyone else…"

"… No."

Imeda lowered her head again. Garick tried to think of something to say or do, but in the end decided that it was better not to say anything.

She eventually raised her head again. "There's nothing we can do here now. We need to get to the Almut Garrison and warn them."

"I had the same thought. Can you walk?"

"Not easily. You'll have to support me. Come help me get up."

Garick began to step forward, but stopped himself. He knew little about treating wounds, but it occurred to him that her wound would only be made worse by walking. "Shouldn't we do something about your wound first?"

"I'll be fine. Get over here and help me up." Imeda tried to use the tree's support to raise herself off the ground, but another coughing fit caused her to double over halfway up. She fell to the ground and rolled onto her side.

Garick could see that her would was worse than he had thought before. It looked as if Imeda had not just been holding the wound closed before, but it was deep enough that she had needed to hold her entrails inside of her as well. Garick felt his insides heave a little at the sight.

"Imeda, this looks very serious. I don't think you should be moving around with it."

"I said I'll be fine." Imeda grimaced at the pain. "Come here, help me find something to bind it with so we can get going."

Garick began to move towards her again before an idea came to him. "Wait, I'll be right back. There might be something in the medicum tent back at the camp."

He began to walk back towards camp, when Imeda began coughing again. This time was worse than the others. She hacked and wheezed as Garick watched, until she began to cough up blood, a little at first, and then more and more.

"Garick…" she said weakly, when she was done coughing. "Don't… don't leave me… alone here…"

He stood there next to her as she lay there on the ground, clutching her belly. Garick was unsure what to do. If he left her, she might die before he returned. If he stayed, she was sure to die without proper aid. He did not know enough to properly help her, he thought. Her wound looked very serious, and he was unsure whether she would live even if he was able to help her.

"I… what do you want me to do, Imeda?"

"J… just… hold me… please…"

Garick began to kneel next to her, when an errant thought entered his mind, and once present, refused to leave. He reflected upon the previous day's events. The first skin-taker he had encountered had worn Imeda's face and tried to draw him near, and it was only luck that he had looked at the reflection that prevented it from grabbing him. The one in the barn had looked like his sister, but it had sounded as if to Jarl she resembled his wife. And last night… He was not sure whether the Imeda he had run into in the forest, or the one who had shot him in the shoulder had been one of those creatures. Now that he thought about it, it could have been both. Or neither. They could have clearly tried to take advantage of his trust in his superior, or perhaps some of his deeper feelings, in order to strike him when his guard was down.
And Imeda had been trying to get him to come closer the whole time he had been talking to her.
He looked down at the blade in his hand.

He looked up at Imeda. She still lay there, her eyes closed, hands clutching her stomach. For a moment he wasn't sure whether or not she was still alive, but a ragged breath settled that question.

Garick thought.

If she was a monster, it could be pretending to be wounded. He knew it could change its appearance, so maybe the face of his skhad leader, wounded, was an attempt to lure him towards it. In which case, the best course of action was to turn around and run away. Unless it was faster than him, in which case it would be best to try and attack it before it realized he was aware of it ruse. If it was actually wounded, and just using Imeda's face, it could still be trying to trick him closer in order to turn him into one of them, or maybe it would transfer its essence, or whatever it was that it was made of, into him. Running would be the best option in that case.

But if it actually was Imeda… then there wasn't much Garick could do for her, he finally realized. He looked again at her wound. It was too serious for him to try and move her, and he was not a trained medicum. All he knew consisted mostly of how to tie a sling or brace, to try and keep wounds clean, and what roots to eat to cure a hangover. This was more than he was capable of treating. And gut wounds were a slow, painful way to go, according to all the stories the other veterans had told him. He knew that if he left, or even if he stayed, she was likely to linger for some time still.

Garick made up his mind, and began to advance towards Imeda, or the thing that looked like Imeda, or whatever it was. His hand tightened on his blade.

Imeda's eyes fluttered open, unfocused, before she looked up at Garick. There must have been something in the way he was walking, or the way he held the blade, or perhaps it was in his eyes, the betrayed his intentions as he walked around her.

"Garick… what are you… ah."

She closed her eyes, and raised her head.

"I guess… I can't blame you… hard to tell… who to trust…"

Garick stood behind her, and brought his blade to her exposed throat. He hesitated for a moment when he saw a weak smile creep across her face.

"Pity… we… could have had… some fun together…"

He drew the blade across her throat, turned without looking, and began to walk through the forest, smothering the emotions that threatened to force their way to the surface.

Garick stumbled through the undergrowth of the forest, he wasn't sure for how long. The fever had come to his shoulder, and he had a hard time keeping his mind from wandering. He found himself sleeping erratically, walking at other times, and was aware of at least one period when he found himself walking through the night, trying to use the stars to keep himself going in the right direction. He had finished his rache at some point, and in some corner of his addled mind he knew that he needed to find help soon. This was the last thought he remembered having before he awoke one day on an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar home.

The midday sun was streaming through the windows that had been cut from the earthen walls of this one-room home. He was lying on a bed in one of the recesses in the wall, and he was naked but for the charms he wore around his neck and wrist. He looked around and saw another larger sleeping pallet against the wall next to him, a few decorations made of sticks and leaves and feathers on the walls, and in the alcove across the hut from him, a cooking and eating area with a few crude stool around a table, and a hearth that an elderly woman was stirring a pot of something that smelled delicious on.

She turned when she heard him rousing, smiled, and then left the hut through the beaded curtain. Garick started to try and get up, but his lack of clothing prevented him from going very far. The woman returned quickly though, and with her brought two men, one elderly and wizened, wearing a headdress made of feathers and bones, and one younger man, strong and sun-baked. The younger man was carrying Garick's clothing and armor, and the blade he had had with him lay atop the bundle.

The man introduced him as the village Raesarch, and Garick knew from the stories his father had told him that this meant he was a combination of the village's medicum, as well as their spiritual leader. The Raesarch began to tell Garick of how he came to their care while he dressed himself.

Garick had walked through the woods for must have been days before he stumbled into the village. When they found him he was fever-ridden, muttering under his breath and unaware of his surroundings. At first he was feared and avoided, for the villagers knew not to trust what came out of the forests. The fact that he was wearing the remains of an Imperial scout's uniform was all that kept him form being killed on the spot. While the village guard kept him away from the others, the Raesarch was brought to determine whether he was a threat. After his investigation, he had declared that Garick was but a man suffering from a wound-fever, and he deserved their help.

Garick had been suffering from the lack of water and the summer heat, and the wound on his shoulder had turned foul. The Raesarch had spoken of needing to remove the afflicted arm if it worsened, but in the end he decided that this wasn't necessary. He administered his treatments to the would, an ointment that would kill the evil in it, and while Garick cried out at the burning sensation, several of the villagers had held him down to prevent his struggling. The healing had taken time to fully take effect, and so a family had taken him in to nurse him back to health while he was still fever-mad. The Raesarch and his student had come every day to help change Garick's bandages and reapply the ointments.

Garick had slept through most of this process, unaware of the extents the villagers were going to to try and help him.

He thanked them now for their hospitality, and told them of his need to get to the Almut Garrison. The Raesarch and the villagers had stony faces as Garick warned them of what he had encountered. The younger man, whose family had been taking care of him, told Garick that they would give him whatever he needed to give warning to the garrison. That evening Garick ate with the family, and in the morning he departed with the horse that the village had given him. It was the only one in the entire village, an old, tired nag that barely moved faster than a walking pace. It was all Garick could do to keep it walking along the road.

He managed to reach the Garrison within two more days, and was able to meet with the leader of the troops there. He relayed his report, and the head of the Garrison had barely waited for him to finish before he called out for troops to rise to full readiness. The grizzled veteran wrote something on a piece of parchment, rolled it up and affixed a wax seal to it, before telling Garick to take the message and the fastest horse in the Garrison to Tineadh, and he would receive further orders there.

Garick left immediately. He had barely been in the Garrison long enough for the tired old nag he had ridden in to be brought to the stables.

Garick knelt in the huge chamber. He was wearing a fine dress uniform that had been provided to him by one of the city's Jenarls. His arm was only slightly sore in the sling he carried it in. With his head bowed he was forced to focus far more than he would have otherwise upon his ill-fitting leather shoes. He felt very small and out of place on the reflective marble floor. His knee was beginning to ache when a female voice finally called out into the chamber.

"You may rise, and gaze upon us."

Garick finally rose from the kneeling position he had been in for what felt like eternity. He had entered on his knees, with head bowed, until he was finally given approval to talk. He continued to avert his eyes from the speaker out of deference, instead soaking in the opulent space of the chamber. The walls, columns, and even the domed ceiling were made of the same reflective marble that he had been kneeling upon. The columns and walls were covered in gilded carvings and symbols were embedded in the floor before him. Far above him the carvings on the ceiling depicted the gods' story. He recognized many of them from the priests' orating.

There was Drakgin, and Sterel doing battle with the great demon Sikayt. Lita was leading a group through the forest away from the demon, while Kalef stood in protection over the people, his flaming blade held high. There was the many-faced Abirt watching from below them all on his throne of skulls, the weights of judgment in his hand. York's masked visage could be seen hidden in the trees, the grin speaking of some joke yet to be unveiled. Past Lita's group Garick could see Aggie giving the people the gift of crops, while in the center of the room, taller than all the rest, was the form of Geyre as his hands drew the forms of the city from the sands. All of this was overlaid and painted with precious gold and gems and dyes. It was the single most beautiful work Garick had ever seen.

His eyes traveled down from the carving to what stood before him. Arranged in a half-circle facing towards the center of the rooms were a dozen chairs, well constructed, sturdy, and authoritative, but astonishingly simple next to the thirteenth chair in the center of the arc. It too was covered in gems and gold, and it was carved into a shape unlike any Garick had ever seen before. It was all twisting curves and impossible angles. He wasn't sure if it was a trick of the eyes or if the throne was one of the mythical wonders the people sometimes spoke of, but whatever the effect was it was breathtaking.

He saw that there was someone occupying the largest throne, as well as the one to its immediate right. He saw the shape of several guards in the recesses formed by the columns as well, armed with spears. He still had not looked directly at the voice that had spoken to him before, when he was addressed again.

"Breathtaking, is it not? Our grandfather had it commissioned from the city's finest artisans when we were but a small child. Grandfather was not happy with it, and had the artist's hands cut off. He'd apparently wanted Geyre to be building the city for him, but the artist thought that was blasphemous. Grandfather removed his eyes as well for that. Fear not, for we are far less stunning than it, and you need not worry of blindness if you gaze upon us."

Garick finally looked at the speaker. She occupied the largest throne, her small frame sitting in it almost casually. She had skin that was paler than anyone Garick had ever seen, almost the color of bone, and her hair was the darkest black, its length framing her face. She wore markings of red upon her face in symbols Garick did not recognize. Her dress was made of fine fabric dyed red, with elaborate gold shapes embroidered upon it. Upon her head she wore a crown made of more gold, with jewels mounted upon it. She was stunningly beautiful, but Garick could see in her dark eyes a calculating coldness that made his spine shiver when she looked at him.

"My Fivate," Garick began. "You do me a great honor to grant me an audience. I am not worthy to receive —"

"Enough," the lady interrupted. "We did not bring you here to listen to your flattery. We have people for that purpose should we so desire it."

"Apologies my Fivate. I did not mean to offend."

"We accept your apology. We granted you this audience because you came to the city bearing a message of importance with the seal of Jenarl Tabean upon it. We have read the report, but we wish you to tell us, in your own words, what has occurred." The figure leaned forward slightly in her throne and Garick felt as though her eyes burned through to the very core of him.

"In great detail." She added.

Garick swallowed the lump in his throat, and began to relay the events of the past few days. Unsteadily at first, then with more confidence, he told the Fivate all about the attack by the skin-takers, omitting not a single event. By the time he had finished, the Fivate was still leaning forward in her seat, her face impenetrable. She sat there looking at Garick without changing her expression for an uncomfortable amount of time after he had stopped talking, before she finally spoke again.

"What are your thoughts?" She asked.

Garick was about to open his mouth to reply, when the individual sitting in the other chair spoke. Garick had been so fixated upon the Fivate that he had forgotten that the two of them were not alone. His eyes swiveled over to the simple chair and its occupant as he spoke.

"Hmmm… I believe that young Garick here thinks his story to be truth."

The man in the chair was old, his close-cropped hair beginning to turn grey. He wore a simple military uniform with two blades, one long and one short, attached to the belt. Upon his head he wore what appeared to be a military helmet. This one was different from the burnished steel that most recruits wore upon their head. It appeared to be of incredible age. The metal was worn and rusted, with what appeared to be several holes it the skull, and one of the ear guards was completely gone. Where it had broken, the helmet sported new patches of metal that shined in stark contrast to the rest of the helmet, and the missing ear guard appeared to have been replaced by a piece of ceramic. The end result was a piece that looked totally unsuited to the task of protection, but which somehow conveyed a sense of immense age and tradition that was desperately but barely being kept alive. For some reason Garick suspected that this helmet was older by far than he could reasonable guess, possibly even older than the great Sundering.
Garick's attention turned back to the Fivate as she spoke again.

"Our military adviser believes your story, Garick. The question now appears to be what course of action to take. Jenarl Tabean has already readied the Almut Garrison in the event of an attack, but we cannot allow this plague to infest our people. Do you have any suggestions, Garick? You are the only one who has faced them, after all."

"Mirrors, my Fivate. The creatures reflections betray their true nature. An army equipped with mirrors would be able to search for and eliminate the skin-takers."

The grizzled man spoke again, and Garick turned to face him. "Mirrors do sound like the best way to dig them out. We cannot be certain that they do not have some way to hide from this method though. Oseah!"

At this, a young boy that looked to be about Garick age ran up to the old man's side, armed with scroll and quill.

"Your orders, sir?"

"Have the First Imperial issued a mirror for every five men, and tell the rest to polish their shields until they can shave in them. Have them march to reinforce Jenarl Tabean at the Almut Garrison. From there they are to inspect every village and town west of the Garrison. If they find any inhabitants whose reflections do not match their faces, have the entire village burned to the ground. There are monsters hiding among the villagers, using their faces. Have them inspect the troops at the Garrison as well, and kill them all if they show signs of opposition. They are not to trust anyone, even familiar faces, and especially loved ones that they may encounter. We cannot be too careful in this matter."

"Boy." The scribe Oseah looked up at the Fivate as she said this, before quickly averting his eyes. "Inform Jenarl Setacah of the First that he is to burn every fifth village regardless. These orders are to be sealed, for his viewing only. The official story is that the villages are refusing to pay taxes and rising in open revolt against the Fivate. All who are killed are collaborators or sympathizers of this revolt, and are to make an example for the other villages the price of disobedience."

Garick watched as the scribe finished scribbling down the orders, before running off with them. Garick wasn't sure, but he could have sworn that the grizzled old man was looking at the Fivate with something that approached… contempt, as shocking an idea as that was. She was the divine given living flesh. She ruled the city by the grace of Geyre himself. She could have anyone in the entire city killed for any reason, and it would be sure to be in the city's best interest. In fact, Garick had just watched her sentence hundreds for exactly that reason. And yet the man in front of him did not fear her, or even respect her, by the look of it.

The Fivate was beginning to look back at the old man, and Garick could tell from her expression that she was preparing some kind of verbal assault. Garick decided that he did not want to be in the room when that happened.

"Sir?" He began. "Am I to be assigned to another skahd to continue my service?"

Both the old man and the Fivate turned to look at him, and before the old man could open his mouth, the Fivate spoke.

"We think not. You have done well by bringing us this information promptly, and at no small cost to yourself. You appear to have a talent for information gathering, not to mention staying alive. We think that sending you back to the army might be a waste of a talent that could otherwise be put to better use."

"We have a special job in mind for you, Garick."