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C H A P T E R 01: P A R T 01
In the meantime, Arch barely notices the cold, his body well adapted to subzero temperatures after years spent sleeping in the ice of the Valley of Brhynn. To keep up appearances, however, a scarf wraps around his neck and he wears an overcoat trimmed with fur. For the past year he’s done a lot of things to keep up appearances, including the shifting of most of his natural coloring and a few physical attributes, not only while in the city, but here in the forest as well. In this new version of Eden the first thing he’d learned was that different is not acceptable. Different will get one enslaved or dead and neither appeal to Arch overly much, so even here on the border of the Wildes, he remains shifted.
Tall sentinel trees with their branches lifted to the skies, thick with leafy crowns of green tower above the Elkinphyr as the land slopes upward and he follows amidst the low, flowering shrubs, the creek dropping down and away between walls of exposed rock. This trip to his cabin is one he makes every other week, leaving the crowded, cramped city and its magic and steam driven machines behind. The storefront he keeps there and the role he plays as the R-ward’s bookbinder and seller of uncommon herbs is one he’s gradually become accustomed to since his arrival, gamely listening to old stories and songs as the Regal assigned him, but it’s all just another shift, another disguise, another mask. Inside he’s a ghost, walking a world with which he no longer resonates. Much has changed on Eden and it’s only on mornings like this in the forests that almost no one travels any longer that he feels somewhat more connected.
Gaining the top of the knoll the mist is thicker and Arch’s sharpened senses are the only thing that allows him to see through the rolling white and over to the next rise where his cabin rests. The trees grow closely together here, wide trunks leaving little room between and plenty of shadow beneath their spreading branches. Set just beyond the next crest of rock, its small porch overlooking the entrance to the valley below and its garden protected by a thorny hedge visible even at this distance is his second home. Here, the only sounds are the calls of birds and the rush of the creek after a hard rain. Here, there are only wide spaces and fresh air instead of narrow streets and the venting of the great steam machines. Here, soft, muted light allows him to strip away the magic-infused blindfold that protects sensitive eyes instead of the energy-heightened crystals that shift the strength of their glow with the touch of fingertips, but are always too harsh. Here is very much like the place he was raised, the old Eden before the war, before the passage of time.
Pushing the long front sections of milk brown hair over his shoulders and slightly adjusting the leather bag slung across his lean frame, the Elkinphyr sighs quietly into the fog. He has an extra day this week, a city-wide holiday allowing for his shop to close without raising suspicion and he intends to enjoy it. Stepping off the rocky ledge and into the grass with a silence earned only by years of training, Arch takes a few steps before empathic senses flare hard, the strength of the emotion that hits like a tidal wave widening pale blue, nearly colorless eyes behind their cloth. Anger, so intense it threatens to overwhelm and tinted with pain and confusion, all close, much closer than he’d like.
Carefully closing his barriers around the foreign emotions to keep them from leaking into his own, Arch slips behind the nearest tree as sharpened senses extend carefully. He smells the other person before he sees him and once he locks on, his gaze easily finds the flash of red between the massive trunk of an oak and the slab of granite that cuts through the forest floor, almost concealed within the fog. The stranger is facing the distant cabin, but those emotions prevail, kicking up the Elkinphyr’s defensive instincts. No one ever comes out here to the border of the Wildes, the city and country people uncomfortable in the forests. People would have no reason to seek out this cabin, so far from the roads and the safety of the settled areas.
To be different in this Eden is to be dead and behind the shifting Arch is very different—a myth walking the land once more.
Between one heartbeat and the next twin swords fill the tall man’s hands, black blades glimmering faintly and he steps away from the tree…
Roin: Silver eyes rimmed in orangery red stare dully at the dim light splashed structure standing tall before him, the black clad figure sticking out like a blotch of ink against bleached parchment in the early morning fog. The soothing, dew ridden moss beneath his bare feet remains hidden in the billows of white that swirl around him, looking very much as if it’s attempting to swallow the Hunter all the way up to his taught leather covered knees. The over head light that peeks in through the shadowed canopy of foliage above catches silver and gold embroidered threads woven into his thick coat, twinkling here and there like a small scattering of stars. The coat’s large hood obscures most of his pale features save the very tips of orange tinged red strands that spill out from below, creating a vibrant splash of color against a blanket sea of green, black and white.
The quiet noise of the surrounding forest remains a whispered blur to dulled senses -the fog shifting in billowy tendrils mirrors perfectly the clouded sensations moving about his head. In a moment of forgetfulness, mercury tipped fingers slide up to scratch half heartedly at the tight gorget that encircles his neck, a futile non attempt to remove one of the remainders of his enslavement for what has probably become the thousandth time. As long clawed fingers drop fluidly back down to his sides, he strains to remember why it is that he’s stopped in front of this dwelling when he knows full well that it’s dangerous and in the back of his mind, he can hear a tiny voice telling him to flee, that the dwelling must house more of his captors’ kind and that they might very well be waiting within - ready to spring out and drag him back to the hell he’d escaped however long ago it had been.
But that voice seems faint… muffled… and hard to hear over the fog that surrounds his mind, making his body difficult to command in kind. There’s magic involved and it’s rendered him nearly useless, made it almost impossible for him to do even the simplest of things. The device that’s locked around his neck makes him feel as if he’s swimming just beneath the surface as it continues to tease him with clarity all the while keeping him mostly subdued.
If only he’d slain that filthy creature before it managed to bind him again and not after… he suffers now because of his inadequacy. He hasn’t eaten for days. Every catch he’s made has been hard earned as his reflexes have been slowed considerably and what normally comes as second nature has been very difficult to grasp.
It was food that brought him here, he remembers that now. The aching tug of his stomach had made him forgo his normal caution and approach the dwelling he’d happened upon because he hoped he’d find something to eat inside. The other dwellings of that kind had provided him with food so he couldn’t see how this one would be any different.
The tall Hunter’s hand rises up once again to scratch at the collar he wears yet another time and he frowns at the length of time it’s taking him to act. The device around his neck has made him slow and he knows that the longer he remains where he is, the greater the danger will become.
Finding it difficult, he wills himself to move forward and manages only one step before his footfalls come to an abrupt halt. The presence of another intrudes into his hazy senses, sending a shockwave of panic coursing mercilessly through the core of his very being. Anger flairs hard through his lithe frame and with it, his muted orange locks suddenly snake into shades of brilliant fire –tendrils of red spilling over his hair line and bleeding down into the topmost edge of his pale skin. Despite the internal scream to move differently, he makes almost a lazy spin in time to find twin blades being summoned as a figure reveals himself from behind a large nearby tree. All thought leaves him as he lunges forward as fast as he can muster -his hunger, the tight pull of his stomach, even the collar that binds him gone as silver claws strike out -his only intent to kill the one confronting him before that one has the opportunity to take him forcibly back again …
Arch: Anger spills from the stranger as he turns, so thick and hot it borders on pure rage when it slams against the Elkinphyr’s barriers. He can feel cracks snaking outward, tiny fissures seeking to break and overwhelm, to bleed through and set fire to his own emotions. The urge to take it all in and let it blaze is seriously tempting, the kindling he’s been collecting for thousands of years enough to create an inferno. The betrayal, the war, the ice, Haezyn, he’s kept them all down below the surface because they don’t matter in this new Eden and can’t be changed, but any one of them could fuel his own rage for a very long time. It would be so easy…
The streak of silver claws wrenches Arch’s attention from the empathic assault, snapping him into clarity as his battle training reinforces barriers and centers him on the movements of his opponent. A fluid sidestep leaves only air for the razor-sharp weapons to sail through, the strength of the lunge carrying the other man past. The second slash follows at a lower angle, meant to disembowel, but another step slides the Elkinphyr easily from its range and pulls a soft, slightly frustrated sound from the stranger. Black fabric moves like a patch of night through the fog, but somewhat awkwardly, slow to turn and bring his claws around for another pass. He’d guess at drunk, but there’s no smell of alcohol and the emotions continue to scream anger, drowning out everything else. Puzzled, Arch slips past the next strike and the follow-up as well, each time moving quickly enough to evade.
Pale blue eyes sweep over the stranger as his body moves almost on its own, well trained enough in evasion patterns that he can concentrate on the one trespassing in his secluded area of the forest. Saturated red hair slips into sight as the large hood falls back, braided and dreaded in a style he’s never seen in the city. Nor has he seen anything akin to the blazing red and silver eyes that are revealed as the shadow disappears. What he does recognize are the tattoos and all black clothing, marks of the slaves he’s seen only from a distance. Those two had been female, but this one, silver claws once again seeking to slash at him, is definitely a male Hunter.
Arch shifts his feet to widen his stance, readying himself to meet the attack straight on. Remaining in place, one blade flicks out to smash the flat against the red-haired slave’s wrist, knocking it aside as the other deflects the second hand from a swing aimed at his midsection to instead catch harmlessly at his coat, shredding the edge of the cuff. The brunt of the slightly taller man’s weight is met by the Elkinphyr’s shoulder and red ringed silver eyes all but burn in the surrounding fog, the anger and hate rolling off the Hunter in almost visible waves before he’s pushed aside. Bare feet stumble, clumsy from whatever is slowing the stranger down and impairing his movements and Arch’s spinning kick needs little force to send the Hunter to his knees. Smoothly completing his turn he stands before the slave, one sword poised just above his heart and the other hovering beneath one eye.
He should kill the Hunter now and be done with it. The presence of another endangers the secrets he holds, secrets that threaten not only his life, but that of all his people. Behind his cover of a simple bookbinder, he must remain a ghost. But… he’s curious and it holds the twin blades just a fraction of an inch from slicing into pale skin. “No leash,” he observes quietly, his gaze meeting the fiery glare from behind the fabric that covers his eyes. “Someone must be looking for you.”
Roin: red rimmed silver eyes narrow as a wave of loathing shifts through the Hunter’s slim frame in the wake of the contemplative words spoken at him from the looming figure above. The language these creatures speak is base, clumsy and he’s yet to understand how they tolerate having it slip from their very mouths. It sounds as if their bodies expel noise without rhyme or reason and he can barely stand listening to them talk.
He’s had this language forced upon him since his capture –shouted at him, spit at him, screamed at him as if he were nothing more than an animal and it hasn’t failed once to make him sick on a level even he can barely comprehend. He hates this language, hates what it represents, hates it down to his very soul. He swore when he killed that one that he would never again allow any of his kind to subject him to more or their hateful words and magically inhibited or not, he will not break that vow even now.
This one’s talk of a leash speaks loud and clear. He knows full well his intentions as they are no different than any other of his kind and he’ll be damned if he’ll sit still and allow what he plans to actually happen.
He won’t be taken again, he won’t be captured. He’ll die before he lets one of these creatures lay another hand on him again.
With a snarl of desperation and rage, mercury tipped hands slide suddenly up, slowed movements wrapping tattooed fingers around the black blade hovering closely over his heart. The pain barely registers when the razor sharp metal cuts deep into his palm as he pushes the sword away, allowing his body a fluid arch free of the path of the metal resting just beneath his eye. With almost clumsy grace he releases his hold and jumps up onto his feet once more, his quick turn sending a small spray of crimson droplets flying as an outstretched arm aims another attempt to gut the blindfolded man. Arch simply steps out of the pathway deadly silver claws take and makes a single fluid turn back, spinning his sword around before bringing the heavy hilt crashing down against his back -the force of his blow knocking the black clad figure out in an instant.
With a final quiet grunt, Roin falls heavily onto the dew ridden moss unconscious, his woven clothing spilling against the misted green like a puddle of ink. Red locks tumble around head and shoulders as he falls still as a following spin completes the Elkinphyr’s turn. He swings out to send black gleaming metal down, a precise mark meant to take the Hunter’s head. But just a fraction of an inch above purchase, his movements suddenly still and he finds himself staring down at the unconscious man, a slow frown forming in the wake of his own hesitation.
From one instance to the next, twin swords fade from view and he straightens, sliding a foot out to kick the Hunter over onto his back. Swirling billows of white shift around the unconscious man’s form as he settles once more and as the Arch looks on, fiery locks begin to lose their vibrancy, the rich color snaking away to leave his hair a faded shade of orangey red. Before long, his blindfolded gaze begins traveling curiously over the lean figure prone before him -moving from the telltale collar of enslavement to the now faint tendrils of color tainting an otherwise clear hairline, shifting from the richness of the clothing clinging to a toned body before finally settling on the tattooed fingers tipped with long silver claws and the thick line of blood trickling from a deeply cut palm.
With a few moments of thought given in silence, a soft sigh slips from full lips before the tall man decides to squat down, reaching back momentarily to adjust the heavy leather bag slung across his shoulder before slipping long arms beneath Roin’s body. With an easy movement, he lifts the Hunter up and turns towards his light splashed cabin up ahead …
Arch: The last dregs of sunset light the cabin’s porch in scattered shards of red, orange, and gold, the brightness diffused by the heavy crowning canopy overhead. Framed by the support posts, the Elkinphyr sits in a wooden rocking chair facing out over the valley, the occasional soft creak of aged wood an accompaniment to the lingering eventide songs of the birds. On the floor at his side are two leather carrying cases specifically made to hold an assortment of needles. There is a set of sleek metal, another of bone, one of turtle shell, and even a set of carved stone needles, all varying in length, width, weight, and purpose. One by one each is pulled from the fastenings and sharpened, the motions so well practiced that it frees the tall man’s thoughts to wander.
Through the opened door in the great room behind, the Hunter is slumped in a chair, his unconscious frame securely tied down. After carrying the slave to the cabin, Arch had spent quite a long time simply looking him, interested in studying a race he’d never seen up close. These Hunters are new to Eden, a people who had come into existence after the Elkinphyr had gone to sleep far to the north. This one has a frame similar to his own—lean and athletic—but that’s where their similarities end. The razor sharp silver claws at tips of fingers and toes, the long braided and dreaded hair that changed color so swiftly, the tattoos and red-ringed eyes, those traits he’s never seen in another person on Eden, but he’s not sure if they’re specific to the one tied up behind him or to the race in general. Those female Hunters he’d glimpsed across the market square in the city had been muzzled as well as collared, much of their features save their slender bodies obscured. For some reason he vaguely remembers hearing an explanation about why a slave’s face was mostly covered, something having to do with the owner’s vanity and so he’d taken advantage of the situation to study the stranger. Up close he’d carefully taken in the set of the slave’s cheekbones and the spanning line tattooed across them, the shortened point of his ears with their odd, extra skin, the slope of his nose, and the shape of his eyes behind closed lids. The briefing he’d been given before assignment to the Western Province hadn’t included anything about this race at all, but whether that means he’d simply not been told or his people really don’t know about the Hunters, Arch isn’t sure.
Leaning down to slip the slender, hooked needed into its holder, he selects the next in the set and begins to run it over the sharpening stone in his other hand. Nor is he exactly sure what it was that stayed his blade this morning. Curiosity mainly, he supposes, something intriguing about this new race, but he’s seen a lot of unusual and unfamiliar things since waking, yet he’s never brought them into his home. The risk he’s assumed is fairly steep since not only is the Hunter a slave whose owner obviously values him given the expensive clothing and silver jewelry, and guarantees a search party is bound to be on his trail, but the other man has now not only seen this cabin but been inside it and could likely lead others back here. There are secrets he houses here that he’d rather not let out. Nothing that could lead anyone who discovers them to his people, but there are enough to raise questions Arch isn’t interested in answering.
There’s always the original plan, which he should give serious consideration to now that he’s at least satisfied the curiosity of seeing the Hunter up close. It would take little enough to finish that arc of his sword and remove the slave’s head, thus ending the threats he poses. It would also finally put a stop to the anger that continues to leak from the red-haired man even in his unconscious state. The effort of screening something so pervading and physically near has given the Elkinphyr a serious headache. His empathy is so sensitive now that it takes a lot more to keep the barriers thick enough to safeguard his own feelings and prevent the foreign ones from bleeding through. Even five minutes of emotional quiet at this point would be a blessing.
A slightly choked snarl pulls Arch’s attention into the cabin behind, the glare leveled at his back most certainly meant to burn right through him. Straining at his restraints, disgust and a slight edge of desperation mixes with the anger spilling out of the Hunter, and the knots are unyielding despite the effort put into breaking them. Although tested, the magic he’d reinforced them with remains strong, but his captive seems bent on continuing to struggle. With a quiet sigh, the Elkinphyr returns the needle to its case and rises to his feet, stepping across the threshold with only a slight stooping of his tall frame to keep the floppy hat he wears from brushing the doorframe.
The baleful glare is turned up a notch as the space between them narrows, but the flaring scent of fresh blood drags Arch’s blindfolded gaze to the bandage he’d wrapped around the Hunter’s hand earlier in the day, the white linen stained with crimson. Diverting his steps to the cabinets along the cabin’s wall, he retrieves a small metal box. Slipping the latch free, the Elkinphyr removes a fresh bandage and a jar of his own healing salve, homemade from the ancient herbs growing in the garden outside. Holding both items in one hand, he slowly approaches the slave and sets them on the floor beside the chair, his tall, slender frame folding down to kneel beside.
Leveling a measured gaze of his own at the Hunter from behind the blindfold, Arch lightly rests his fingertips on the knots securing the wrist of the injured hand to the wooden frame and readies the action needed to dissipate the reinforcing magic. His captive stills, but his emotions riot, waves of hatred crashing against the Elkinphyr and testing barriers. “Look,” the tone of Arch’s voice is low and chilled, “unless you’re interested in seeing just how fast my sword can go through your neck, I suggest not moving once I free this rope.” An ugly frown twists the Hunter’s mouth and Arch shakes his head. “Your corpse would already be rotting out there in the forest if I wanted to kill you, understand ?”