The Weave of Fate
A twisted, gnarled twig set poised on the end of a small bow. Its tip was sharpened to a wicked point, carved with deadly intent, while small feathers tickled Dari’s nose. He held his elbow high, hearing his father’s repeated instruction in his head.
“Back straight. Elbow up. Tight grip. Breathe,” Dari whispered, replaying every lesson he’d ever received, all in preparation for a single moment—this moment.
He let loose a long, slow breath, squeezed one eye shut, and lined up his prey. Dari gasped as the majestic beast came into view. Through a lush meadow, nestled against the backdrop of sharp hills and rolling bluffs, the antelope grazed. It ducked through fields of wildflowers, under the shadow of towering, highland grass. It perked its ears and lifted its nose, testing the brisk morning air for hints of danger.
Dari held his breath.
Sweat beaded on his forehead and his arm quivered in anticipation. He suppressed the pain in his stomach and the intense hunger that woke him night after night.
“You can do it, Dari,” came a light whisper, as soft as the morning breeze.
Dari mustered the smallest of grins, flashing a glance to his older sister. Elan stood watch nearby, concealed in the shadow of a collapsed stone wall. Layers of dust caked across her cheeks, her freckled adolescence blending seamlessly with countless hungry years on the street.
He didn’t know why she had to come. This was his hunt, his first prize. Their father had already taken Elan on plenty of hunting trips, though never this far from home. The antelope rubbed its antlers against a nearby boulder, eliciting a dull rumble that echoed through the grass. Dari’s eyes widened—it was huge. His chest tightened, muscles tensed. His heart pounding, he peeked at Elan, comforted she was by his side, though, of course, he would never tell her.
Elan motioned toward the magnificent animal. She crouched low, withdrew an old hunting knife, and gave Dari an eager nod. He raised his elbow, straightened his back, and took aim.
The antelope lowered its bony antlers and gave a gentle tug on a clump of grass, revealing shattered, red cobblestone. Behind the animal stood a broken brick wall, once home to a bustling inn. Beside the inn lay a collapsed roof and a rusted anvil, still rooted into the ground.
The young hunter stared down his prey, grazing in the Outer Quarter of Wyvern’s Rest. His bowstring strained under the tension, his arm quivered, and his pulse raced until the final, merciful release. The twig fluttered through the air, tumbling end over end before falling into the grass a few feet away.
The antelope snapped its ears to attention while a piercing whistle streaked across the old square. It bolted as an arrow exploded through its chest, raising high onto its hind legs, then collapsing to the urban wilderness.
Dari’s heart filled with pride, and his mouth fell open in excitement.
“I got it, Papa!”
Elan sprinted from the shadows. The young girl bounded through the grass, unable to contain her excitement.
“We got one, Papa! We finally got one!” Elan’s wavy brown hair bounced with her through fields of red and orange flowers. Her head disappeared, but her voice continued to resonate off the city walls and collapsed stone buildings.
Dari threw his bow and sprinted toward his father, a smile beaming across his face. He tucked his scraggly hair behind his ears and raced into his father’s outstretched arms.
“You sure did,” said the hunter, tucking his bow behind his back. Dari studied his father’s green eyes and crooked smile. He saw the tears of joy wash away layers of dust and the long scar that cut across his face. Dari smiled back, knowing a full meal and a good night’s sleep awaited them for the first time in weeks.
His father gave an eager, heartfelt embrace, yet his eyes drifted toward Elan and the shadows that danced along the old street.
“Come, Dari. We must be quick. Let’s get your sister.” With a nod, they stood up and hiked through the abandoned square to collect their prize. Crumbled stone lined the old roads, now home to acres of highland wilderness. Dari’s gaze wandered to the nearby bluffs. Other than the city walls, he found it hard to see where Wyvern’s Rest ended and the highlands began. A horrible scent drifted through the air, and Dari snapped a hand to his nose.
“People actually lived here, Papa?” he asked, his face contorted by the foul stench. Why? He wondered, taking in the old courtyard.
His father chuckled. “Well, that was a long time ago…before you were born, even.” Dari saw his father’s smile fade while lines etched across the hunter’s forehead. The sight had become familiar. Dari knew what he was thinking. He saw it in his face. He knew when his father’s thoughts drifted to a different time…a better time.
“Amazing, really,” his father said, yet his eyes remained unfocused.
Dari gave his father a sympathetic look, one the hunter was quick to acknowledge. His father put a hand on his shoulder and returned his gaze to the overgrown streets. “Amazing that one man could − destroy so much.”
“She’s fantastic!” came a high-pitched call from the end of the street. Dari and his father turned to Elan. She stood proud, waving her hands in jubilation.
“It’s perfect, Papa!”
“No, Elan! You must be quiet,” Dari’s father shouted in a muffled tone. A worried expression etched into his face while his eyes darted across the Outer Quarter.
But Elan’s joy could not be harnessed. She brandished her hunting knife and beckoned her family over.
“Hurry up, let’s get it ba—“
Elan’s revelry faded. Her body made two subtle jerks and her expression turned blank. The knife dangled from her outstretched hand, then fell to the ground. She staggered, collapsing near the fallen antelope while Dari and his father looked on in horror.
Three crude spears protruded from Elan’s back.
Stooped, pale creatures crashed through the grass behind her. They stood no taller than Dari, but their eyes burned like fire and their claws were sharp as daggers. Their skin was a marbled, milky white, with drooling, murderous talons for teeth. The creatures pounced on her fallen body, and stabbed furiously. The sickening sounds echoed off the nearby walls, drowned by the shouts of Elan’s father.
The hunter knocked an arrow and fired, striking one of the creatures. The shot flung the beast off Elan, but the others continued their sadistic tirade.
“Papa! What are they doing?” Dari shouted. His mouth dropped as terror gripped his heart.
A few of the creatures lifted their bloodless eyes toward the screams. With a shriek from the lowest depths of Hell, they charged. Dari wrapped his arms around his father’s leg and closed his eyes. Another arrow whistled through the streets, followed by a horrific screech of pain. The sound of clawed feet pounding across cobblestone grew louder. Dari felt a rough hand grab his shoulder. Through a window of tears, he opened his eyes to his father’s imploring face.
“Run! Dari, you must run!”
“But Papa!” Dari clawed at his father’s outstretched arms. “I can’t…”
His father pulled another arrow from his quiver.
Dari felt a shove, then stumbled a few steps back. His father gave him a final glance, then spun to draw his bow. With tears in his eyes, Dari turned and ran through the abandoned streets. He ignored everything he saw and everything he heard. He put one foot in front of the other—and ran.
Arrows continued to whistle through the street. Dari heard the piercing cry when they hit their mark, then he heard his father. The screams were brutal and shrill.
And then they were gone.
Silence fell over the Outer Quarter, apart from Dari’s relentless footsteps. He hurdled collapsed walls and sprinted through empty squares. His feet were bleeding and his heart cried out.
For as long as his feet could carry him, he ran.
Vine-covered buildings and mountainous highland grass gave way to bare, cobblestone streets. Dari passed under a rusted gate and into an old market, diving around a large, crimson wagon and several worn oxen. He darted past an enormous man, dressed in blinding white robes, then burst through the doors of an old inn.
Dari entered the grand hall to the sound of music and laughter, though he could feel none of it. Panic-stricken, he navigated the mass of legs before barreling into a wall of deep, emerald green and the smell of fresh cut flowers. He dove for the darkest corner of the inn and, with a heavy heart, collapsed against the wall.
While his hands and feet shook beyond control, chilling thoughts invaded his mind; the look on Elan’s face, the screams of his father, the terrible shrill of the—creatures . As the crowded inn drank their troubles away, Dari closed his eyes and fell into darkness.
The rhythmic chorus of hooves shattered the early morning silence while long shadows crept through the empty streets. Half-starved rats scurried across broken cobblestone in terror, avoiding the wheels of an enormous, barrel-shaped wagon. Oiled oak and gilded iron lined the over-sized carriage as it crept into a large courtyard, ushered in by a complement of armed guards, its curtains drawn shut.
Axles groaned and oaken beams ached as the crimson behemoth ground to a halt. Its door flew open to reveal a man working his way to the edge of his seat. A wagon this size would not be made for just any man, however. He was as wide as an ox and half as tall. Hoisting himself up, at great cost, he turned sideways and angled his body into the light.
His robes were a brilliant white, a sharp contrast to the aged stonework of the city. They were long and silken, stretched to their limits as they folded in and out of his many rolls. Several hairs stretched from one side of his head to the other, with very little in between to hold them in place. Vivid purple flowers clung to his chest and jeweled rings adorned his hands. With a sudden lurch, he squeezed the oval door frame and pulled his way through.
He emerged into the morning light, his eyes slow to adjust after their time spent in darkness. His hands subconsciously fell to a leather strap across his chest while his eyes squinted into focus. Pudgy fingers clumsily massaged the strap. They came to rest on a tired, worn satchel, which he pulled into place, secured under his arm. Satisfied, the large man adjusted his robes, then stepped onto the cobblestone street…with a splash.
Profanity rang across the courtyard. Stagnant, muddy water forever stained the luster of his robes. “Gods be damned!” he screamed, tiptoeing through the rancid puddle. He mumbled under his breath, cursing the Gods, the puddles, and any rats that scrambled into view. He danced around cracks in the road and pools of water while he delicately raised his robes, much to the delight of those nearby.
“Payment,” came a gruff voice, interrupting the laughter. The white-robed man jumped at the words, emitting a childish squeal and squeezing the satchel to his chest. His eyes unfocused from the courtyard and set upon a tall, armed man, draped in boiled, black leather armor and a grim look of displeasure.
“Mr. Aerent,” the voice continued. “Our deal.”
“Oh, r-right, right,” Thibold Aerent stumbled, diving into his robes.
“A deal is a deal, Lord Rowan,” he continued, withdrawing a small coin purse. He pushed his hand through the idle strands of hair in reflection, then thumbed over several pieces, his eyes rolling skyward as he counted the total in his head.
Rowan snatched the purse and peered inside. He gave the coins a gentle shake, then allowed the contents to settle. He looked up with a devilish grin.
“This’ll do nicely, Thibold,” he said, with a nod to the mercenaries flanking the wagon.
Thibold’s eyes widened as the wagon guards fled his protection. He reached for them. His lips stammered to speak while his eyes darted back to the courtyard. Crumbled, moss-covered stone buildings lined the market. Wooden merchant stands leaned against their hollowed forms. Cracked and broken cobblestones reflected the morning sun and a subtle breeze delivered the putrid scent of dead fish and salt water.
“B−but wait,” he begged. “I said you’d get the other half once I arrived,” he continued, a distinct lift in his voice.
Disheveled families lined the crumbling walls, huddled together to shield against the cool morning breeze. Their ragged blankets offered little protection from the elements, and no protection from the sinister scent of feces and urine. Thibold crept toward the carriage, a hand straining to cover his face.
“By the Gods,” he gagged. “Wh—where have you taken me?”
Rowan spun while the rest of his men continued toward an old, stone inn. He raised his arms outstretched, as if pointing to the limits of the city.
“Congratulations, you dumb sod…you’ve arrived.”
A crooked smirk stretched across his face.
“Welcome to Wyvern’s Rest.”
He then turned back toward the inn and kicked open the worn, slanted doors, allowing a chorus of chatter to spill into the quiet market.
Thibold stood in the old market, his arms wrapped tightly around his leather satchel. The smell of stale beer and sweat poured from the inn for the slightest of moments, eliciting a gag reflex from the startled businessman.
His eyes wandered in disbelief. The raised highway had collapsed into the blackened sand, the brilliant mosaics of the inner city walls had faded entirely, and the busiest market in all of Cyrea had become nothing more than a rancid tent village.
“Wyvern’s Rest,” he mumbled. “It—what happened?”
Haggard merchants eyed the visitor as he tiptoed around the front of his carriage, careful to avoid the stagnant water and broken cobblestone. Thibold stepped into the shadow of the inn, ducking under the loose boards that marked its entrance. A large wooden sign hung from the second story eave, worn and cracked, wearing a mask of paint long forgotten. The sign swung gently as a breeze swept through the market, followed by a low, rhythmic creak.
But this can’t be.
Thibold’s shoulders slumped. He squinted to make out the faded letters of the sign as it ebbed in and out of the shadows.
“The Guilded Wyrmling,” he whispered.
His hand slipped into his robes and fumbled around before pulling forth a loose piece of parchment. He unrolled the letter and read while his lips mouthed along, slowing to a crawl as he reached the words Guilded Wyrmling Inn, Wyvern’s Rest.
Thibold stood on the boardwalk for several moments, his eyes dancing along with the swing of the wooden sign. From the darkened street darted a young boy, his hair soaked in sweat, his eyes soaked in fear. Thibold jumped as the child darted past, bursting through the doors amidst a torrent of tears. Terror gripped the boy’s expression. That same terror seeped into Thibold’s heart, a haunting sensation that remained well after the child disappeared.
Thibold stepped to the end of the boardwalk and peered along the dark walls of the inn, through the iron gates and abandoned streets of the Inner Quarter. Subtle shadows danced among the highland grasses that flanked the road, and a feeling of dread washed over him. He quickly stood, the stone of the old inn shielding his view of the empty street.
Sweat beaded on his forehead as he looked around once more.
“It just has to—this has to be some sort of mistake,” he whispered, again, to no one in particular.
He pulled the satchel into his chest, tracing the buckle with his fingertip. Doubt surged through his thoughts. His bright robes contradicted the grey, worn inn and the shadow of the eave offered little to conceal his vivid attire. Thibold sensed the eyes of the market and the danger looming beyond the gate. His feet tapped excitedly on the boardwalk before finally launching toward the wooden doors, stumbling head first into the warmth of the inn.