The hound lay dead and bound on the forest floor. Its empty, amber eyes stared up at me from the earth, reflecting moonlight in their depths. A black, charred tongue lolled from its mouth.
I heard its voice, screaming in my head.
I AM HUNGRY, MORTAL THING. I WILL TEAR THE FLESH FROM YOUR BONES. I WILL FEAST ON YOUR MEAT. I WILL BATHE IN YOUR RED, RED BLOOD. COME CLOSER. I CAN SMELL YOU.
The hound lived, no matter how much I wished otherwise. The row of spines along its back twitched with fury, each of them oozing venom. Taut muscles writhed beneath coarsely furred skin. Wound wire held its maw shut. Heavy iron chains bound its legs. It couldn’t rise. It couldn’t hurt me anymore. I still feared it with all of my heart.
I SMELL IT. I WANT IT. UNBIND ME.
My master stood behind me. I could not look at him as he spoke, too terrified of the demon to look away from it. His voice rolled like thunder. “This is your last chance, Varin. I won’t give you another.”
I tried to answer or even offer a nod of my head. I couldn’t do either. My words were caught in my throat. The muscles in my neck were too tense. I wanted to reach for the knife on my belt, to do what I needed to do, but I couldn’t. My fingers trembled and I could not stop them.
FREE ME. GIVE ME WHAT IS MINE.
My master moved beside me and stooped next to my ear. I knew he spoke softly, but his words were as clear as if he were shouting. “Do it, Varin, or I will abandon you here and now. Do it and you will have the power to live, to save, to protect. If you do not, you will be a gutter rat again, no better than you ever were. Do it.”
I gripped the handle of my knife.
My master rose again. He commanded me, “Do it!”
I inched toward the hound. Its writhing grew more furious, its spines undulating in a nightmarish rhythm.
I WANT YOUR BLOOD. YOUR BLOOD IS MINE.
“No,” I breathed. “Yours is mine.”
The hound thrashed, but not long. I drew my knife and slit its narrow throat in one quick, brutal motion. Black arterial blood poured forth. It tried to howl through the bindings, but it could not. Its howling breaths just boiled out of the fresh wound.
“Good.” My master approved. “Now finish it.”
I wiped the blood from my knife in the hound’s matted coat and replaced it upon my belt. The beast’s movements were slowing. I cupped my hands beneath its gaping throat, letting its black blood pool in my hands.
MY BROTHERS WILL COME FOR YOU, MORTAL THING. YOU WILL DIE. YOU WILL BE MEAT FOR THE UNENDING FEAST. THEY WANT YOUR EYES, PITIFUL ELF.
YOUR EYES ARE OURS.
I brought my hands to my lips. The blood smelled rancid. My limbs began trembling again.
“Don’t think about it,” my master barked. “Just do it. Now.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. I took a deep, calming breath. I drank.
YOU ARE… you are…
The hound’s voice faded. Thousands took its place. The wordless, mindless screams of the damned. Pain and anger and sorrow and hunger and everything base and wrong. I could not speak. I could not think. Every thought I formed in my mind was washed down the river of voices.
MINE. One screamed. Then another echoed it. And then another. HE IS MINE.
BLOOD FOR BLOOD. MINE BY RIGHT.
One gibbering voice screamed above the others. FEAST. FEAST ON THE FLESH. SNAP THE BONES AND DRINK THE MARROW. BATHE IN BLOOD.
Then that voice was drowned by the screaming masses again. It was a physical weight on my body, clawing at my skin and pulling me under. The voices wrapped themselves around my limbs and throat. They dragged me down with rough, vicious brutality.
Help me, I tried to scream to my master. Help me! The words didn’t come. They echoed in my mind, joined the din, and washed downriver like every other thought.
Then I felt a pair of small, soft hands on one of mine. A woman whispered in my ear, sweet and kind. “You aren’t lost yet, but you will be if you aren’t careful. Don’t think about them. Hold onto me.”
As warm and as delicate as her fingers felt on mine, she began lifting me away from the pull of the damned and out of their reach. The clawed limbs at my throat fell away, but they held fast around my waist and legs.
“Hold onto me,” she repeated. “I can help you, but not if you give yourself to them.”
I clasped my other hand over hers, and we were one. She lifted me from the current. The voices left me. The woman released my hands and took me in her arms. I fell against her. I wept, sobbing the words, “I thought I was going to die. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
She laid her head against mine as I buried my face in her shoulder. She stroked my hair and whispered, “It is not over yet. Your master has inflicted a terrible pain upon you. I have to leave you now, but when the pain becomes too much for you to bear, I will come for you again.”
“No,” I gasped, my words rolling out as my body was wracked with sobs. I begged, small and pitiful. “Stay with me. Please. I need you. They’ll kill me. Please.”
She took my face in her hands and tilted my head up to look at her. Long, golden hair like rays of sunlight framed a slender face with bright blue eyes. I met her warm gaze and could not look away. I could see all the stars of the night sky in the blacks of her eyes. Love, the purest love I’d ever felt in my life, welled in my heart. She must have been a goddess. No one else could have been as wonderful as the woman that held me then.
“You are very strong, Varin.” The most wondrous smile I’d ever seen appeared, full of genuine pride and joy. “You will not need me again for a very long time. But when the time comes that you do, just call my name. I will be there.”
She began to fade, floating away like motes of dust on the wind. I threw myself against her and held her tight. It did no good. She fell away from my arms and was gone.
“I don’t know your name,” I sobbed. “How do I call you? I don’t know your name!”
Her voice rang in my mind. You will when it’s time. Be strong, Varin. You will change, now.
And then I heard the hound again. Not as a voice, but as a memory.
YOUR EYES ARE OURS.
Pain. Pain wracked my body. My head felt like someone had worked a wedge into my skull. It hammered through bone, inch by agonizing inch. My entire body tensed and I fell to the ground, arms and legs curling beneath me as if the stiffness of death had taken hold. My eyes burned with fire and they throbbed within their sockets, threatening to burst with every beat of my heart.
The physical pain tore me out of the depths of my mind long enough to think of looking to my master for help. I opened my eyes to seek him out.
I saw nothing. Empty, gray darkness. I felt thick moisture rolling down my cheeks. The wind blew. I felt raw pain inside of the sockets where my eyes should have been.
I screamed my throat hoarse and collapsed to the earth again, my limbs refusing to obey my demands to claw at my face and check for my eyes. I could feel nothing but pain and raw, uncontrollable terror. My body convulsed. My gut heaved, and I emptied it into the dirt beneath me.
Then the pain stopped. My screams stopped. Everything stopped. Blackness, body and mind.
The moon still hung heavy in the sky when I awoke. I could see it above. The demon hadn’t taken my eyes. It hadn’t blinded me. I blinked a few times, just to be sure.
I tasted wood and steel on my tongue. I looked down from the sky, and my master withdrew the handle of his boot knife from my mouth. My face twisted, confused.
“You had a seizure,” he explained. He slid the knife away and spoke as if nothing unusual at all had happened. “You just woke from it. You weren’t out long.”
“I couldn’t see.” I laughed. The delirious sort of laugh, where your mind isn’t sure what else to do. “The hound told me it would take my eyes. I thought it did.”
My master made a motion with his head. I followed his gaze. It led me to the hound.
Its eyes were gone. Mine sat in their place.
My master looked between me and the hound. His voice filled with a calming patience, but it only worked so well. His words were always hard and coarse no matter how hard he tried otherwise. Even when he tried to be kind, barely restrained raged boiled somewhere behind his words. He said to me, “Don’t be surprised. You’ve seen my eyes. How did you think I got them?”
I tore my gaze from the hound, from my eyes in its head, and looked to my master. He had the amber eyes of a beast, too, wolfish and piercing. The realization did make me feel foolish. Every time I looked at him, and every time he looked at me, I should have seen the change that would come. I still felt like I’d been misled, like he could have told me what to expect.
“You didn’t tell me what would happen. Why didn’t you warn me?”
Even as we conversed, my master was a man at work. He took a leather pouch from his belt. He loosened the strings that held it closed and stepped to stand over the dead demon. He turned the pouch over. A thick cloud of silver dust cascaded forth from its mouth. The powder drifted down to the demon, unaffected by the night wind, and spread across its corpse in an unnatural uniformity, clinging to its furred flesh without a single mote falling astray to the earth below.
My master continued on, his tone even and measured. “It is an unexplainable experience. There are no words to describe becoming, in an instant, aware of every demon that lives and them becoming aware of you in turn. It isn’t a thing meant for mortals and so our minds make of it what it will. Sometimes it is beautiful. Sometimes it is terrible. Sometimes it is both. Nothing I could say about it would prepare you for what you would experience. Nothing I could say could do the awakening justice.”
“It felt like I was drowning,” I explained. Every muscle in my body trembled as I said it. A creeping fear in the back of my head made me wonder if speaking it aloud would invoke the dream again, but the river of souls didn’t return. “Will they come again?”
“Mine felt like an open grave, welcoming me into the earth’s embrace. Terrifying, yes, but not unpleasant. My master explained his to me as an encroaching avalanche, a slow but inevitable death. His was, perhaps, the most accurate.”
He tethered the empty pouch to his belt. He dipped his fingers into a pocket. He withdrew a gray-black stone and a small loop of dull steel. He struck them together in a sharp, backhand motion of his fist. A spray of sparks lit up the night and rained down onto the hound.
The silvered dust leaped to life, igniting in a slow, rolling fire. Though it burned white hot, bright enough to sear my new vision if I looked directly at it, tongues of flame did not lash and leap at the air like a campfire would. The steady fire burned the demon away, layer by layer, inch by inch, eroding it like sugar in water. The powder burned bright, but it did not burn away. It clung to charred flesh, even as it all fell to ash.
My master watched the pyre. He spoke over the crackles and pops of flame. “When the blood was fresh, you heard them more loudly than you ever will again. But the blood is a part of you now. The demons are your kin. You hear them right now, but as irrelevant murmurings in the back of your mind, no more meaningful than a cricket’s chittering. As you grow older, the blood will grow stronger. They will grow louder.”
The burning corpse looked more beautiful than it had any right, white purity smothering black corruption. Slowly, one inch at a time, I rose to my feet. I felt weak and unsteady, but laying in the dirt a few short feet from where I’d emptied my gut didn’t hold much appeal.
He continued. “One day the demon’s blood in your veins will grow too strong. The cries of the abyss will grow too loud. Whoever you name your apprentice in the coming years will kill you before you fall, before you condemn your soul to them. As you will one day do for me.”
I suddenly wished I hadn’t bothered to stand. I knew how the demon hunters worked. I knew apprentices killed their masters. It was mercy, not murder, just one more protection against a lurking darkness. I knew that. The slaying was a tradition as old as the awakening. I knew it and accepted it long before I drank the blood, but hearing my master explain it again just then, so soon after my initiation, unsettled me more than it ever had before.
“Master,” I started to protest. The older man cut me off.
“You are minari now, Varin.” He turned away from the corpse, now burnt to mere cinders. With nothing left to cling to, the powder tumbled to the earth, ceased its burning, and lost its silver sheen, its power waning. Inert and boring and entirely absent of magic, nothing more than the dust that gathered on an untended mantle. My master placed his hand on my shoulder and gripped it. “We are blood kin now. Brothers. Equals. I’m not your master anymore. You call me by name. To you, I am Tullius.”
“Tullius.” I said the name out loud, testing how it felt upon my tongue. It felt wrong, like waking one morning and deciding to call your mother and father by their true names. You didn’t do it. It wasn’t right. Regardless of my feelings on the matter, it was unlikely that my master would allow me to do any different. So I said the name again. “Alright. Tullius.”
“Let’s go.” He spoke the words as an order. He didn’t want me to address him as master anymore, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t my superior. He still expected me to obey him regardless of name or title. He walked away and motioned for me to follow. “The guard will be waiting.”
We left what little remained of the smoldering demon behind and made our way out of the forest. Tullius tried to maintain a quick pace, but it turned into an erratic stop-and-go each time he realized I could not keep up, feeling as I did. I struggled to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I managed it, even across the moist, uneven earth beneath me, but it took more effort than I ever imagined walking would require.
The new sights in my eyes didn’t help matters, either. Everything looked the same as it always had, but I seemed to notice more of it. Every flitting nightfly stood out against the darkness. I saw the moon glinting in the eyes of owls overhead. The night didn’t obscure my sight nearly as much as it had earlier that same night.
Even the stars, as I glimpsed them through the gaps in the forest canopy, were brighter and more alive than I’d ever known them. I had lived under the same stretch of sky my entire life, and I had seen the same constellations and heavenly formations over and over again. Never as I saw them now. They were no longer pretty decorations hanging overhead. The stars radiated strength and heat. The fires of creation and destruction boiled over one another within them, spinning with unimaginable power, primal and unstoppable. The sky itself seemed closer to me, as if just barely out of arm’s reach. My heart screamed for me to try and touch them. To reach out, take the stars in hand, and wield the power of creation to my own ends.
“Keep up.” Tullius growled the words. They shattered my fixation. The intended effect, I was sure.
Before too much longer, the forest parted. We stepped out onto a thin strip of springy green grass bordering a road paved with white bricks. The city guard stood there in force. A row of men, crossbows cocked and raised, knelt in the road before us. A second row of men stood behind them, torches held high in one hand and long, hooked spears held in the other.
“Peace.” Tullius raised his arms, holding his hands aloft to display them as empty. Even to the city guard, he spoke in a commanding tone, as if it was their duty to obey him. I didn’t think he knew how to speak any other way. “Lower your weapons.”
The guards shifted, uncertain, but they did not do as he commanded.
They wore the armor typical of any city guard. Sandals protected their feet, attached to plates of hardened leather that extended up their shins and calves. A skirt of leather scales and gray-blue chain protected their thighs. A similarly crafted cuirass guarded their chests and bellies but left their arms bare to the open air. A length of blue silk pooled around their neck and shoulders and cascaded down their backs, blowing in the night wind. Each of them wore a blue metal helm, complete with nose and earguards that framed their faces, that swooped up and away in the back like a jaybird’s crest.
It wasn’t armor fit for a battlefield, but Neva Cora hadn’t been one for thousands of years.
Tullius shouted again. Louder. Harder. “The demon is dead. We are well. Lower your weapons.”
“You heard the man.” The guard captain shouted from the center of the crowd. The only way you could tell the difference between him and his men was the larger crest upon his helm. In my exhaustion, I wondered if the crest ever gave him a sore neck. He stepped out of the guard formation. “Weapons down! Don’t stick each other in the legs this time, ‘ey? Fine job as usual, minari. We heard the boy screaming and thought the worst.”
“He awakened,” Tullius explained. It was a poor explanation. I didn’t know what the awakening was before I went through it. Someone outside the minari certainly wouldn’t know.
The guard looked down at me, puzzled. Then he looked to Tullius. “He’s got the eyes now. Lots of blood ‘round there. He became a man or whatever it is your sort do?”
“Something like that.” My master nodded his head. He redirected conversation quickly, perhaps hoping to avoid further elaboration. He motioned the guard captain toward the woods. Tullius spoke with words both quick and clear. “The demon is dead, but the place of death needs to be purified. Set a watch of three men over the ashes. Choose the guards by drawing sticks or rolling stones, as we always do. Then, at sunrise, a priestess of Indora and a priest of Barthan need to clean and consecrate the earth. Exactly like that. Very specific. Do you understand?”
The guard shook his head. “Last time it was the other way ‘round. A priest of Indora and a priestess of Barthan.”
“That was last time. This is this time.” Tullius punctuated the point with a down-pointed finger. “A priestess of Indora. A priest of Barthan. If you get it wrong, the corruption will seep into the ground. That demon’s death will open a gate for its brothers to come and go as they please. If that happens, you’ll need more than a minari or two to take care of that problem. Do you understand?”
“Right, yes.” The captain nodded his head. “Three men, chosen by a game of chance. At dawn, a priestess of Indora and priest of Barthan. I understand.”
“Good.” Tullius inclined his head. “Good hunting.”
“Aye, good hunting.” Then the captain added, “Make sure that boy gets cleaned up. Looks like death.”
My master grunted his acquiescence and we were off, stepping past the guards with their freshly-stowed weapons. Into the streets of Neva Cora.
My awakening aside, our hunt that night hadn’t been anything special. It had been entirely mundane, in fact. We didn’t trek deep into any dark, mysterious forest. The hound was not all that powerful or terrifying as far as demons go. Except for the pyre, we hadn’t used any sort of magic at all. We bound it with perfectly normal, unenchanted wire and chain that we bought at market for a few brass coins just before sunset. You can’t do that sort of thing with the truly dangerous demons.
The demon’s territory had not been large. It hadn’t been running loose in a true forest, working chaos across the countryside. Rather, it had been running loose in the wooded park in the Imperial city of Neva Cora. The Imperium knew the value of grass and trees and flowers and every other beautiful thing the Mother blessed us with, unlike our neighbors to the east. While they pushed everything green and natural as far from their cities as possible, we preserved at least a little of it.
At night with the moon and the stars above, the city slept, still and silent. Tullius and I walked in near perfect darkness, only the shifting torchlight of the guard patrols kept the night at bay. When the sun rose, however, the city would spur to life. The forum, the true beating heart of the city, especially so. That’s where we were headed.
The forum served as host to all manner of communal activities: trade, games, politics, worship, festivals, and whatever other thing brought people together on any given day. It was not far from the park at all, and my trembling legs thanked the gods for that. Every step I took felt like the last I could ever take, but I managed to keep putting one foot on front of the other, somehow continuing to draw from a reservoir of energy that had long gone dry. Though the walk felt longer than reality and I was sure, absolutely sure, that I would not make it, we came upon the forum without any trouble at all.
We passed the temple of the merchant god Truscus, a stout and square building of white marble inlaid with gold and silver filigree all across its length like creeping vines, a simple form in elegant clothing. Vendor stalls had been built right into the walls, carved of hewn stone rather than the lumber-and-nails stalls in the streets. In true mercantile fashion, the city tradesmen bought, sold and traded the rights to the temple stalls each season.
We passed the temple of Khalin, god of war, laying in. Not true ruins, but ruins crafted by hand, evoking a conqueror’s strength, with shattered weapons carved of stone worked into a false, ordered chaos. Old warriors often left weapons and armor as offerings for their patron there, but the guard always removed them before nightfall.
We passed the temple of the twin gods of Sun and Moon, a grand dais with no roof above it, surrounded by a set of fourteen grand pillars set in a ring. Dials and charts were worked into its surface in such grand detail that a man could go mad trying to decipher them without guidance.
Then we came to the temple of Indora, goddess of the hunt. We ascended the steps to its arched entryway, the entire structure styled as a summer hunting lodge, longer than it was wide and open on all sides to the night air, its roof held aloft by thick pillars. Offerings to She of the Hunt lay heaped upon the altar within: buckskins, boar’s teeth, the antlers of stags, bear paws, the scales of great lizards, and every other imaginable trophy a huntsman might consider precious.
A set of stairs leading underground lay at the back of the temple. I wanted nothing more than to go down below and collapse in my waiting bed, to flush the exhaustion from my mind and body. It would need to wait at least a few moments longer. An attendant of Indora rose from her vigil near the altar to greet us.
“Varin!” She exclaimed with a wild smile, baring teeth. “The goddess told me tonight would be the night. I would hug you, but I think I’d rather wait until you’ve had a bath.”
She was Seruwen, Indora’s chosen of Neva Cora, a fierce woman even by the standards of the minari. She wore one long, unending length of white silk embroidered with styled green leaves, wrapped around her body from just above her breasts to just below her thighs. A length of ivy tied the cloth in place across her bust. A tail of excess fabric was meant to trail behind her and lay against the backs of her legs, but she always tucked it out of the way. Upon one arm she wore a leather falconry glove. More a sleeve than a glove, really. It covered the full length of her arm, wrapping up and over her shoulder. She was all sinuous muscle beneath a dark complexion, tanned from countless hours in the sun. She did not have the eyes of the minari and the blood of demons did not flow in her veins, but that did not stop her from joining the black hunt from time to time.
“Yes,” I agreed. I wasn’t sure why I agreed or what I agreed with in the first place. I was too tired to make much sense of what she’d said. It seemed like the right thing to say.
Seruwen threw her head back in a rich laugh. Tullius made a mildly amused sound from the back of his throat.
“Come, Varin.” He said. “Wash so you can rest.”
Seruwen stepped aside and allowed us to pass. We went below the temple. I washed. I slept. If I dreamt, I do not remember it. When the sun rose, so did I.
Tullius and I broke fast together, sitting on a bench outside Indora’s temple. My master looked to me and said, “We have a hunt today.”
We spent nearly a century that way. Waking, hunting, sleeping, and then repeating the process. The life of a minari. A life of service to the mortal realm.
After that, things became more complex.