Ancients and the Aura
Rain slammed the forest and cleansed the reek of blood.
The hunters exulted when they finally found the carcass: an elk large as six men, spears bristling from its back and neck. Steam was rising from its fresh corpse, and Enzo could feel the heat even from a distance. He tucked his hands deeper into his coat and shivered, more out of fear than cold.
The hunters set upon their kill with crude iron knives, ten men packed all around it, flinging bits of meat here and chunks of viscera there. They worked in a speedy silence, their breath ushering in plumes from their hooded faces.
A score of guards with pikes and spears kept a perimeter, their backs toward the flayers.
“Ancients, hurry,” one said. “Abominations can smell that blood from a league.”
None deigned to reply, but Enzo winced at the word. Suddenly the sullen forest seemed to snarl and sneer at him, and an unease made him want to crawl out of his skin; he could feel the heaviness of malevolent eyes resting upon him.
The forest lit up with a flash of lightning and the bare branches made spiderwebs across the sky. Enzo counted to ten before a roll of thunder echoed. The Woodmans always wore their coats overlarge, but no amount of cloth could keep you warm if it was wet, and Enzo was soaked through and through. His teeth chattered. The pools of water in his boots and the swirling sensation of fear around his ears kept him glued to one spot. When he moved his neck to look about, his joints creaked.
Only the oldest school children in the village could go hunting, and even then, they had to draw lots. When Enzo’s name was first pulled, he jittered with excitement and lay awake all the night before, yet now he cursed the moment his name had been pulled. Why did it have to be so wet, so miserably cold? But the more statuesque Enzo remained, the more he realized that it was not the rain that pestered him, but a gnawing in his gut, a tightness in his legs that yelled at him: Run! Get out of the forest! By the Ancients, you’re indanger!
Beatrice and Knoll were the other students in the party, but the moment they stepped out of the village walls, Knoll began to cry and a guardsman had to take him home. Enzo was tempted to join him: without the walls of the village, you could count each breath as a stroke of luck.
Enzo had never been in the wild before, and he never would have guessed how different it was. When he inhaled, his belly didn’t rise and fall, but his whole chest seemed to swell; it was as though the air came trickling down his throat, and it always tasted like the bile of paranoia. Every movement he made seemed quick and jerky, and every sound was as loud as the smithy’s hammer. The trees, which leaned with the wind when viewed safely from his bedroom window, seemed to lunge and lurch at him with each gust. Indeed, the wind did not kiss his face, but it billowed in gales, trying to take Enzo’s feet out from under him. The wilds of Thegraen were a cruel and dangerous place, but Enzo would have to get used to them if he ever hoped to become an Empire’s Man.
Still, he could not quell the rising fear in his belly. He found himself shuffling toward the flayers, deeper into the protective circle. His eyes darted and his ears pricked and honed until they rung, and when he bumped one of the hunters he jumped half out of his soaking boots. “Shove off, Enzo,” the grizzled man said. He threw a steaming haunch onto a square of muddy canvas.
“Quiet,” a guard hissed, and she readjusted the grip on her fifteen-foot pike. Beatrice was holding onto some guard’s knickerbockers, and in the dead space between the guards and the hunters, Enzo felt horribly alone.
He wondered if Empire’s Men felt like this all the time. They, of course, had black-powder weapons and a blade of Ancient steel, but then again, Enzo had thirty of the village’s most seasoned guards, and still he could barely resist the overwhelming urge to scream and sprint away.
“Posthaste,” a guard murmured.
Enzo balled his fists at the sound of Beatrice’s whimpers and forced back tears. He sucked air through his nose hard to stop himself from drawing shuddering breaths, and against the impulses of survival, fear, and common sense, remained still.
Soon, he would not be a villager, falling asleep each night thanking the Ancients he had survived another day. Soon, he would be an Empire’s Man in burgundy, praying for protection as he ran headlong into a throng of Abominations.
But how did he stand a chance of being Purged if he was a coward? He was on this excursion for a reason: to toughen up, to prepare for what it felt like to be a soldier. The Purge was due to the village soon, and if Enzo was a squabbling baby like Knoll, how could he ever hope to be picked?
Enzo crossed his right hand over his body and gripped his knife’s hilt. If an Abomination did come, he would join the guards and attack. He would not run.
A rustling in the bushes dissolved his resolve, and he shrunk back into the circle. “Hear it?” one guard said to another. The other made no reply, but his pike pointed at the source of the noise. “I need seven to fall in and direct your points here,” Enzo knew that was Jusia, if not by her voice, by the way she commanded.
One of the guardsmen that should have joined the others in a phalanx instead slunk nearer to Enzo.
“Hear something?” one of the hunters asked. “We only need a minute more: down to the neck now.”
“Oh Ancients,” one guard said. “Oh, oh stars above, please.” And he moved to the opposite side of the circle, never turning his back toward the rustling.
Enzo’s legs went numb and he could feel blood moving through his veins, pooling in all of his muscles and warming him, preparing him for miles and miles of flight all the way back to the village. The guards were causing a stir, rustling and clinking and slushing through the mud as they made a wall against the bush. The sawing of knives and the tear of flesh behind Enzo was stentorian.
Enzo tugged on his knife, but the crossguard snagged in his belt. He yanked and pulled again, and when the blade became entangled in the leather belt he began to panic and he felt hot tears on his cheeks against the cold rain. If he ran, he would have to run defenseless.
Then his heart slowed and his stomach churned with apprehension, replacing the icy grip of terror. “Visser,” he whispered. “It’s Visser,” he said to the nearest guard, who was now ten meters away.
“Enzo,” Jusia’s voice came. “Are you sure of it?”
Enzo’s breath caught in his throat and he hesitated a moment. If he was wrong, and the guards lowered their defenses, an Abomination could come bounding out of hiding to slaughter every last one of them. But Enzo and Visser were a kindred spirit, and he could feel his friend’s anxiety as he waited, not daring to move lest a guard skewer him. “Yes. Visser, come.”
A streak of orange. Enzo was knocked to his buttocks in the mud and a fox was lapping the tears off his face. Enzo forgot his dread for a long enough moment to smile.
“Ancients save us,” Jusia breathed.
“I pissed myself,” came some voice in disbelief.
“Me too. And the rain’s washing it down into my boots where it’ll stink.”
“I pissed myself,” came the first voice again, now angry.
Visser looked strange in the rain, his normally puffy amber coat clinging to his slender frame, his white paws covered in a black spattering of muck. Still, his opalescent orange eyes were wide with mirth, and he had the faintest tinge of blood on the white fur around his lips. “What did you get?” Enzo asked. “Rabbit? Rabbit’s your favorite.”
Visser licked his chops and wagged his soggy tail once and Enzo knew.
“Does he smell any Abominations?” a guard named Sprig asked.
Visser normally tucked his tail and ears when he smelled the rancid flesh of such beasts, so Enzo was confident when he said, “No.” But still, he knew that rain cleanses scents easily, and he lapsed back into dismay as he thought of one of those foul creatures stalking them, invisible.
Thunder cracked, vague and distant. The single clap didn’t roll or echo.
“Did you see lightning?” Gerod asked Piper.
“We need to get out,” Jusia said. “Now.”
“The forest has that mean feelin’,” someone confirmed, and Enzo could not recognize the voice over his own labored breathing. The prickling along his neck, the eldritch sensation Enzo was subjected to the moment he left the village, intensified. All of his hairs crawled with invisible ants, biting and stinging and telling him to run.
“I don’t care how far along that elk is, we leave now.”
“Done. Gather it up, gather it up.”
A din rose as the guards dashed to gather the canvas sacks and tie them to their persons. Those who had their loads left without waiting, feeling the nips of fear along their spines.
Enzo had a sack large as him in his arms without remembering having moved. Yet now, he was so focused on sprinting forward that the baggage hardly hindered him; so desperate was he to be free from the cloying malevolence of the forest, he likely could have carried a man twice his size. Still, he soon found himself trailing, wheezing as he attempted to keep up. His boyish legs could only carry him so fast. Visser stayed back with him, though his discomfort was written plain across his face.
When next Enzo lifted his eyes from the saturated bootprints, he saw tree trunks and boulders and a myriad of bushes, but a startling lack of humans. How could this have happened? He had been running for his very life, and still everyone outpaced him, even Beatrice! He froze. How could he have let this happen? The rain continued its pitter-pattering, splashing when it hit the ground and drumming when it struck the dead branches above.
Enzo weighed the haunch; just to curl it from his waist to his chest was a strain on his arms and back. Why had they given him such a large chunk, when he was the smallest in the group?
“Empire’s Men are strong,” Enzo said aloud to force back tears that were welling in his eyes. “Empire’s Men are courageous.” And with that, he continued his sprint, albeit through a haze of tears.
A thundering crack like a felled tree rang out, so sudden and so loud that Enzo fell flat onto his face without remembering having tripped. Another blast sounded, this time setting his ears ringing and tangibly pounding his chest like a punch. Visser curled his tail between his legs and pressed against Enzo. Enzo scooted to a tree and propped his back against the trunk, and in the moment of stillness he felt watery warmth trickle down his thigh. He was immobilized with terror, peering through the drooping lower branches of an evergreen. What was that noise? It was not thunder; no, thunder was not half so loud. Even thunder when lightning struck the tree right beside your house could not slap you in the chest like that.
“Do not fire!” he heard a man yell. Enzo was too afraid to shiver in the cold rain. Water carrying dirt from his hair dripped into his eyes and stung them, but he dare not move. He scanned around the forest through blurry lenses.
Enzo heard huffing. It was more of a wheezing— the same sort a deer made after it was stabbed and was still running— and it was getting closer. Enzo’s breath fogged in front of him. He wanted to run but he wanted to hide and he knew he should raise the village alarm but he was shaking too violently to move; he wanted to know what was happening and what those two awful booms like thunder were. More than anything, though, he wanted to run.
A man crashed through a tangle of brambles, garbed in a heavy burgundy jacket and black knickerbockers with black boots up to the knee. He had a rifle slung across his chest and a bare sword he was using to slash through bushes he could not jump over as he ran. He gasped and sputtered as he went, and even from a distance of fifteen meters, Enzo could see his eyes bulging with the fear of a wounded rabbit.
An Empire’s Man.
The Imperial City was thousands of miles north, the southern fronts were a few hundred miles south, and the Purge was not due for another few months. There was no reason for an Imperial soldier to be in the Southron Forests. But Enzo only thought of one thing: if an Empire’s Man was running scared, it could only mean he was being chased by an Abomination.
He was left with no choice. He had to run now and run fast; the wretched beast would catch his scent of fear and surely kill him. His legs were stiff from being pulled up underneath him. His clothes had been soaked through and clung to him uncomfortably. Visser shook and whimpered. Just as Enzo stood, something came crashing through the bushes. He did not wait to see what species of Abomination it was; he was sprinting faster than he believed was possible. He was keeping pace with Visser, too desperate to worry about twisting an ankle, too terrorized to remember the meat.
BOOM! Enzo’s chest received a thump and his ears rang and he collapsed, then stood again and ran with more intensity.
He did not stop or slow down until he saw the shanty wooden palisade surrounding his village, and even then, he only slowed to gather enough breath to yell: “ABOMINATION!” and then his voice went hoarse and it hurt to breathe, though he could not stop sucking in the cold, wet air.
Eleven guards at the gates came storming in Enzo’s direction, their pikes and spears raised and at the ready. The twelfth was raising the alarum, and over the rain, Enzo could hear the bell thunking away and setting fear into the hearts of all the villagers.
“It’s Enzo,” one said to another as they sprinted.
“Chief will not be happy.”
Then another, the one who reached Enzo first, said, “Where?”
“Empire’s—“ Enzo exhaled, then he wheezed, sucking air like a bellows.
“Where is it?”
Enzo was being bombarded. He fell to the ground, unable to stand any longer. Visser licked his face, still shivering like a man stricken with illness.
“He’s injured!” one yelled.
“You seven, begin scanning the forest. Find the Abomination and keep it at bay until the full guard can set out.”
As six coursed forward, one young man took slow steps away from the forest. “I can’t,” he said. He began to cry, and fell to his bottom, whimpering again and again, “I can’t.”
At the same time a man was moving his finger back and forth in front of Enzo’s eyes. “Follow my finger.”
Enzo was angry with them for babying him. He was not hurt, but he could not muster the breath to say so. He followed the man’s fat finger. His lungs felt as if he was swallowing fire, and now that he was done moving, his legs seared. “Not hurt,” he breathed. “Empire’s Man. Running.”
“What?” and the man’s voice was nearly drowned out by a scream from the village.
“There was an Empire’s Man, running from something. Something was booming like thunder—“
“You saw an Empire’s Man?” the man’s voice was cynical.
Another guard came to Enzo’s rescue when he said, “You heard the thunderin’ too, but know you saw no lightning.”
“Black-powder,” one said to another. A clatter rose up as seventy men and women armed with iron pikes and spears and crude dirks and shields sprinted past. One that ran skidded to a halt near Enzo and ran back toward the village.
“We need to take him to Chief,” a guard said, and he was already lifting Enzo from underneath his armpits. Enzo recognized the man as Bernard, who was a village guardsman when he was not farming.
Enzo let himself be picked up, then said, “I can walk myself,” and shook Bernard off. He held back a moan of pain as his thighs flexed. He was afraid, but trying not to show it. He hoped the guards could not see his heart beating through his coat. Bernard stayed close to Enzo and they made a slow pace.
“Run ahead,” Bernard pointed to a guard with his broadhead spear, “And tell Chief that Enzo is faring well enough.”
The guard— not much older than Enzo— went sprinting.
“Bloody—“ someone yelled.
“We haven’t found an Abomination,” a shout came from behind Enzo. “But we did find these.”
Enzo turned and saw all seventy guards winnowing between the trees, fronted by four battered Empire’s Men. The guards walked in wonder behind them, as if they gazed upon gods. The Men had their black-powder weapons slung over their shoulders and their blades sheathed. Their burgundy Imperial jackets did not darken from the water, and they seemed to glow as if freshly washed. One had a cut all across her forehead that still oozed, and another had a crooked and bleeding nose. Yet as Enzo looked, he did not recognize one as the man with the big fearful eyes.
“Let’s go, Enzo,” Bernard said, pushing him lightly by the shoulders. “Chief will want to see you before he deals with these Men.”
The dirt streets were abandoned: the heavy rain and the bell had driven the people back into their homes. Bernard’s long legs kept such a quick pace, Enzo jogged to keep step as they moved down the village’s largest street. The major shops of the village lined the main road, and their chimneys billowed heartily into the rain. Enzo could see warm yellow light radiating from many of the windows and longed to be inside near a hot fire.
Chief’s house was the center of the village, its face perpendicular to the road from the gate. Bernard banged the door with the butt of his spear. Enzo opened the door and walked in, wiping his muddy feet on a bristly boar skin just inside the door. Bernard remained out in the rain, which hammered loudly on his widebrim hat. Chief came thundering downstairs, dressed in his coat and draped with a wolf-pelt cape that denoted his leadership. One hand rested on the traditional Woodsman Chief longsword. He looked once at Enzo and Enzo could see his chest release a sort of pressure, and then he turned to Bernard. “Define the alarm.”
“At first, we suspected an Abomination sighting.”
“Empire’s Men. Four.”
The hotness in Chief’s eyes vanished and underneath his heavy brows they shifted with apprehension. “What are they doing here?”
“It is unknown, Chief. They’re being escorted here now. Enzo described them as firing— how many times?”
“Thrice,” Enzo said, and remembering the splitting thunder of it made him shiver.
Chief turned to Enzo: “You are well?”
“Stay here then. I will meet these Men at the gates. Quick, now, quick!” Chief and Bernard went running with all their iron and bronze bits tinkling and clattering.
Fear was tight in Enzo’s throat and it made his stomach feel heavy. Why were Empire’s Men here? What had happened to the running one? He watched Chief and Bernard make their way all the way down the avenue, until they were dots disappearing through the slender gate.
Enzo shut the door and a wave of solace and comfort rushed over him, unbidden. His house was always the warmest, for the Chief had the largest hearth in all the village. Off came Enzo’s boots and the small rucksack slung over his back. His sash soon followed, the leafy green and deep brown checkers hanging wet but beautiful on a peg by the door.
Enzo inhaled the still and comfortable air. Chief’s house was dark. The interior was made of all sorts of different hard woods like oak and maple. The only source of light came from the tender fire in the parlor, for the leaden sky let nothing but grey bleakness through the windows. Enzo removed his tattered duffle coat, set it on a peg, then walked further into the house.
His destination lay straight ahead, where the parlor and a blazing fire and soft chairs beckoned. Visser padded toward the fire’s tender love just after shaking all the water off of himself. Enzo joined him on the floor in front of the fire and stared at the embers. His bones were warming and his muscles were loosening and he was comfortable, and sleepy, but he was too anxious to lie down. He knew Chief would be back with the Empire’s Men and he would talk to them, and Enzo knew he could eavesdrop. He wanted to know what was going on. Bad things were always happening in the village: someone was always dying, there was always a problem with a crop, and there were always fears over an Abomination attack. Uninvited Empire’s Men had never been an issue, however, and Enzo wondered why Chief had caused such an angry fervor over it. Empire’s Men, after all, were revered and practically worshiped like Ancients themselves.
The bell stopped pealing, and the thudding of rain on the roof became clearer. Visser was dozing. “Lazy bum,” Enzo told him. “Nothing fazes you?” When Enzo leaned backwards on his arms, they collapsed beneath him from exhaustion. He rolled onto his stomach, rattling with fear and bereft of all energy.
Visser lifted his head and moved one ear back and then closed his eyes.
Every time Enzo’s heart beat, it reminded him of the wallop in his torso and the blast and it made him feel queasy. He rolled over and opened his eyes to the ceiling and commanded his heart to calm down. He told himself to stop thinking about the incident. What happened to the fifth man? Perhaps their comrade died; Empire’s Men did that. They were supposed to do that. The most famous line in literature went: live only to die, O you glorious few. Empire’s Men died in glory to save the people of Thegraen. If their comrade had died, he did so valiantly. And all those black-powder shots must have meant that the others had slain whatever Abomination was chasing the Man Enzo saw. But why was the presence of Empire’s Men in the neighboring woods cause for such a fear that made his stomach feel small and tight? Weren’t they supposed to make people feel better? At least with them here, Enzo knew, the village was safe from an Abomination attack. That made Enzo feel better, if only until he recalled the fear in the Man’s eyes.
He shook his head to clear the thought: Empire’s Men were never scared. He thought of how the soldiers walked. They were laden down with such gear, they looked like they could survive a fortnight in the foulest conditions. They all had the sort of brutal faces you find in the guardsmen and not the vendors or tanners or farmers in the village. They were all grim looking and pocked with experience. . . only the guardsmen always had this water in their eyes and they squinted against it, because it was the welling of fear they could not contain. The Empire’s Men had eyes always so wide, you could see the whites and they glimmered— especially when their hopes were darkest. Their eyes never watered with fear. In fact, the one with the cut didn’t seem to fear the wound or bother over it, bur rather she had a satisfied curl in her lip.
How Enzo dreamed of being an Empire’s Man. How he dreamed of wearing the glory that was the burgundy jacket; how he dreamed of having a weapon that could kill an Abomination with the single squeeze of a finger.
The sound of rain leaked into the house as the door opened. “Enzo,” Chief’s voice called. “Make us some tea.”
“No tea,” a deep voice said.
“We really must make this as fast as possible. We are on a tight schedule,” another said in her low but womanly voice.
“But we appreciate your hospitality,” said another.
Enzo stood and looked at them all standing, dripping wet in the threshold. They were a small army. Chief was soaking but he looked big and strong, even next to the Empire’s Men.
Water dripped from his pillowy white beard as he spoke: “Would you have a seat—“
“Really,” a Man said. He had a short rifle with a bore as big as an apple hanging off his back. He seemed to be the leader.
Enzo could see Chief turn a shade of pink. “If we are barring friendliness, then, I demand to know why you were in my territory.”
“We were delivering supplies to a neighboring village.”
“Which one? Brightpines? Conesprig?”
“I did not know they were in need,” Chief said. He scratched his beard around his neck. “What were you delivering?”
“You have no carts.”
“They were delivered.”
“And you left your horses with the Brightpines as well? And there are only four of you?” Enzo felt nervous for Chief speaking so boldly. His voice was pointed and even mad.
“The Empire is short Men, and the Brightpines are a smaller tribe. Four is too many anyhow. And our horses were killed while hobbled outside the village.”
Chief looked them up and down. Enzo wondered if he was scared, standing so close to them. He could smell them from where he sat: like campfires and sweat and that sweet pungent scent that he guessed was black powder. They smelled worse than wet hunting dogs. “How is it that you ended up in my territory?” Chief asked.
“We were chasing an Abomination.”
Enzo looked at each of them. All of their burgundy berets were straightened and their uniforms were tailored to fit them. They each had a different black-powder gun and a different blade of sorts. The man with the big-bore gun stood so close to Chief their chests were nearly touching, and he looked down on Chief despite the fact that Chief had to duck to get into some of the smaller cottages in the village. He had a sword as wide as his thigh and just as long strapped to his left side. The girl was lithe and her boots looked smaller than Enzo’s. She stood with her hands behind her back and she was standing on the tips of her toes to look into Chief’s study with a bored curiosity. The older woman was larger and she had a big sword strapped across her back. She stood with her hands akimbo and her small eyes flicked back and forth between Chief and her comrade. The fourth one was a short one with lanky body parts. He had the butt of his rifle against the ground and he leaned heavy against it. The muzzle nearly touched the ceiling, and the length of it was twice as long as him. Enzo’s eyes went up and down the gun, and then moved to the Man’s face, and Enzo started and nearly fell backwards. The Man was staring at Enzo with an unrelenting heaviness that made Enzo’s knees shake. His eyes were set between two curtains of lank black hair, clumped together and dripping. Those black eyes were sunken in black sockets that stood against his skin as pale and pocked as an aspen. The Man’s eyes did not move. None of him moved, and it seemed to Enzo the man did not so much as breathe. Enzo wanted to crawl under the couch or hide under blankets. He felt like a child who had seen a shadow in his room in the dead of night. He felt trapped under the phantom of the Man’s stare.
A low growl rose in Visser’s throat, and Enzo grabbed him, smothering him against the ground the keep him from pouncing.
“What sort of Abomination was it?” Chief’s voice came and the familiarity and closeness of it made Enzo feel less afraid. He could still feel the Man’s presence the same way you feel eyes watching you from the forest.
“Yes. Larger than a moose.”
“And you have slain it?”
No one spoke.
“Was it killed?” Chief reiterated.
“No,” the small woman said.
“We would have, but you took us away from it,” the big woman said.
“We were able to wound it near death, however.”
“We are in a state of danger,” Chief said, his voice rumbling deep in his throat. “How could you do this to villagers you are supposed to protect? We do not live behind City walls—“
“Nor do we.”
“WE,” Chief shouted to regain control of the conversation, “do not have Ancient weapons.”
“We are sorry you have been disturbed,” the largest Man said. “We will be leaving now.”
“You’ve chased an Abomination from their village to mine and you depart,” Chief cried in outrage and Enzo’s breath caught in his throat. Would the Empire’s Men hurt him for being insubordinate? Enzo shook his head and cursed himself for even thinking that. Empire’s Men were pure of heart.
“It must be done.”
“Chief,” the small woman said, “I assure you we will track it and kill it.”
“Track? In such rain?”
“It bleeds like a pig for slaughter,” the big woman said. Enzo continued to stare at the couch. He looked at a downy feather poking out from the upholstery.
“It can’t have moved far,” the big man put in.
“Yes,” came a voice unknown and Enzo had a feeling like fingers running down his back. “It bleeds and limps. Oh yes, so helpless. Wounded. The thing. . . we. . . will kill it.”
Enzo was breathing heavily. He did not like that man.
“Yes,” Chief said as though to confirm a spoken promise.
Enzo sat up to watch them leave. The Man with the oppressive eyes was turned through the door and had his rifle leveled like a lance to fit it through the door. The man with the big-bore gun shook Chief’s hand. “Best of luck until the Purge.”
“Yes,” Chief said. “Bernard, have the full guard escort these four Men. Keep all on posts through the night. A Stag roams to forests. Just as the sun sets, have a patrol of ten guards separate and systematically tell the citizens the threat is over. If they ask you to define the alarm, leave nothing obscure.”
The door slammed.
“They were not good Empire’s Men,” Chief told Enzo as he walked toward the fire, still wearing his muddy and sodden leather boots. “You should not have listened. They were not good Empire’s Men.”
“There are bad Empire’s Men?” Enzo asked.
“No,” Chief said. He looked at Enzo with sad eyes and the redness in his face was receding and his chest was swollen with worry. “But they are far from the City and they have been in the wild for a long time and sometimes they start to act like the animals of the forest. They are negligent.”
“They were negligent?”
“Yes,” Chief said. He looked at Enzo. “You were not harmed?”
“Were you scared?”
Enzo puffed his chest out and lied, “No.”
Chief smiled at him. “If you were afraid and need to talk of something, there is no shame in it. You’ve got the heart of a lion, but the body of a boy.”
Enzo was not sure he if was consoled or offended by Chief’s words. A boy? In a few months’ time, he would be testing to be Purged from the village, to serve the glorious life of an Empire’s Man. For now, though, it was still the winter month of Restut and he was still a small boy, prone to fear. He cursed himself for falling behind and for hiding when the glorious soldiers came.
“You were out in the rain for a long time; you’ve had a long day,” Chief interrupted Enzo’s angst-filled train of thought. “Why don’t you go and change out of those sopping wet clothes, then finish your schoolwork.”
Enzo agreed that nothing sounded better than simply getting dry and sitting down. He nodded and walked up the stairs, then continued along the landing. The first door on Enzo’s right was a large storage room filled with cabinets and drawers and files that seemed to be bursting at the seams with parchment and official documents. Enzo walked another ten feet down the hall and took a right to enter his room. He never spent much time in his room, its only true purpose being a place for Enzo to sleep. However, it was nearly spotless, as the Chief would expect no less to have a tidy boy. Too concentrated on getting warm to care about the mess, Enzo stripped off his white wool shirt and threw it on the dark wooden floors with a loud, wet flop. His knickerbockers and long underwear soon followed. Those, that he accidentally used as a privy, he planned to carry downstairs to hang and wash in the rain. He changed into a dry set of undergarments and sat down on his feather mattress— a true luxury in the village.
Enzo was lucky to have Chief as a father. He sometimes wondered of his true parents, and what had become of them, but that was when he was littler. Those days were long gone and over: a boy his age thought only of being Purged. He could not afford such trivial thoughts as family.
Life concerned learning about the Aura, and the heroes and tactics and how to fight and how to study Abominations. Indeed, these ideas concerned almost everything in the village. Everyone carried bladed weapons, lest an Abomination attempt to maul someone. Guards were set all around the fields of the village, and the farmers worked under the pressure of constant fear of an attack.
Just two weeks before, a pair of Orancs had gotten into the pastures and slaughtered a few sheep, but only because they had found no humans to kill at first. It took seventy-five guards to kill the six-foot-tall tree-looking beasts over the course of a few hours; fifteen of the guards died. It was the most deadly attack in the last five years. Chief spoke at the funeral, as attended by the entire Woodman village of some five-thousand people.
Enzo had cried when Chief spoke, and he was glad he did not have to stand up in front of everybody with Chief. It is said that to die at the hands of an Abomination is the best way to die.
Enzo’s first schoolmaster had told them on their first day of school, when Enzo was only six: “All men die. To die fighting an Abomination makes you immortal in death. You will never be forgotten; you will always be remembered as a person who died in glory to defend humanity.” And so the people cried for the fifteen men and women, but were happy that they were courageous. Still, Enzo was sad because most of those that died were young and they had family in the village. Even though everyone made food for and entertained all the widows and widowers and orphans, those misbegotten ones still always had red, puffy eyes and Enzo did not like to see that. He hated Abominations for that, and every time he saw ashes where funeral pyres were, he got angry and wished he could kill every last one of those atrocious, carnal beasts.
Enzo thought about what it might be like to confront an Abomination, then shivered and shook the thought from his head. He was glad the four Empire’s Men were going to kill the Stag. The Abominations were getting closer to village with each passing season, it seemed. Though the wretched things always prowled through the forest, they mostly avoided villages— or they used to.
Visser entered the room, thoroughly dry and warm as a stove from the heat of the fire. He jumped up and down playfully, spinning in circles. “All right, all right, I’m coming,” Enzo told him. He pulled on socks, gathered his soiled clothes, and then set off downstairs. Visser bounded down the stairs and tripped on the last step, but quickly recovered. “You clumsy thing,” Enzo laughed as he threw open the door and tossed his pants onto the step, out in the hammering drops. He tried to forget about everything that happened, and slammed the door shut so he would have no reminder of the awful trauma of his excursion. His school knapsack hung by the door, and with goosebumps rising on his arms he snagged it went to the mantle.
Thunder bellowed and Enzo dropped his things in his haste to cover his ears and close his eyes. He was cold and wet and sore all over again, and fear was holding him so tightly he felt like something sinister stood before his very eyes. Almost as in a dream the Man went running, his breath rattling like dry bones as he crashed through the undergrowth, and just as a scream rose in Enzo’s throat, he opened his eyes to find himself self and dry at the bottom of the stairs.
Sweating, he continued to the hearth, trying not the think about what he had seen.
He lay a foot away from the warm glow, stretched out on his stomach and propped up on his elbows with his schoolwork set out in front of him. Homework for every child in the village, and the entire continent of Thegraen, pertained to everything Abomination and Empire-related. The sole purpose of school in the village was to prepare students for the Purge, and hopefully a life in the Empire. Of course, students were required to study humanities, such as literature and writing; and sciences such as physics, chemistry— which was certainly not Enzo’s favorite— and mathematics— which Enzo despised with a passion. In truth, the only education that mattered was an education that got a student into the ranks of the Empire.
He looked down at his work: Identify three signs of a Borshert bite. Enzo knew a Borshert was a small species of Abomination, only about the size of the palm of his hand, and it was black, with ten legs on either side of its body, and a protective shell over its back. Though it was small, it was extremely venomous, and its toxins could course through the veins and stop a heart before Enzo would finish answering the question. Enzo scribbled quickly in his untidy writing: Victim vomits profusely. Yellowing of the skin. He paused to think. Skin near bite dies. He looked around the room for something to distract him. Though he respected the importance of his work, he could not stop thinking about the Men and it was giving him a stomachache.
He began to daydream. He thought about what the exams for the Purge might be like, and whether or not all these arduous years of schooling would pay off. Enzo was not particularly averse to school; on the contrary, he enjoyed learning in almost all subjects. What he disliked was having to spend four days a week, eight hours a day sitting in a musty old room in an uncomfortable wooden chair.
A knock sounded loudly on the door. Enzo started.
“Who is it?” Enzo called, more neurotically than he had intended.
Chief came down the stairs: “Don’t worry over it. Complete your work.” Enzo nodded, slumped down, and returned to his work, shifting from Abomination theory to a subject dubbed history of battle. In a multi-paragraph essay, describe how the Empire was able to conquer the Western Front in 335, Third Era. Include specific details and accounts (The Bird-Man is NOT a viable detail!) Enzo laughed at his schoolmaster’s cunning. The Bird-Man was the most famous legend in Thegraen, one that told of a man with the face of a raven, who had captured the Aura back in ancient times, and absorbed its ineffable power. Though there were hundreds of different versions, it always ended with the Bird-Man coming back to rule Thegraen with the power of the Aura.
Shaking his head to concentrate, Enzo began planning for the essay.
“But is he okay?” a familiar voice rang in Enzo’s ear. “You know, I once saw an Empire’s Man. He let me shoot his gun.”
“I’m sure he did, Kale, and yes, he’s all right. You shouldn’t even know about it. We don’t want the farmers. . . stirring up.” The Chief’s voice hung heavy with foreboding. Then he muttered to himself, “If the alarm did not already succeed in that.”
“Well,” Kale said, without the slightest hint of remorse, “my dad was sent on a patrol and he told me all about it.”
Chief sighed, “Head home now, you can see Enzo tomorrow.”
However, to Chief’s chagrin, Enzo had just arrived at the door, “Hello, Kale,” he beamed. Visser wagged his tail and twisted his body in a happy greeting.
Kale, a tall boy with brown hair and deep blue eyes stood at the door, his hands akimbo and a smug grin on his face. Enzo and Kale had been friends since birth, and though Kale was often up to antics about the village, the two were like brothers.
Chief scanned Kale. “I suppose you could do with some drying off.”
“Thanks,” Kale said as he sauntered into the house.
“Not long, though! Enzo has schoolwork and I’m sure you do too, Kale.”
“No,” Kale said. “I’ve finished it all. I’m passing all of my courses.”
“Is that so?” Chief asked.
“It is!” he told Chief, then turned to Enzo, “So you were attacked by Empire’s Men?”
“I wasn’t attacked. I saw four of them running through the forest, and I thought it was an Abomination—“ then he lowered his voice, “so I ran.”
“I would have stayed to see if it was an Abomination. I could have taken it out with my bare hands,” Kale made a violent action as if wringing someone’s neck, “You know, I’ve killed an Eviscerator before.”
“Is that so?” Enzo mocked, copying Chief. He couldn’t help but smile.
“Yup! Threw a knife right at it! Spiked him right in the back, and then I pounced on him. Didn’t stand a chance!” He talked animatedly as he was wont to do, making stabbing and wrestling actions.
“So you think you can make the Purge?” Enzo asked casually, walking toward the parlor, returning to his schoolwork as Kale dried off by the fireplace.
“That’s another thing I was going to ask you about. The Purge isn’t coming for another two months, and we need to boost our chances of getting in. We could,” he looked around dangerously and lowered his voice, “we could get out of here for good! Live the life of the Empire’s Men!”
“Why did you whisper?” Enzo asked.
“I dunno,” Kale shrugged. “I want to be an Empire’s Man.”
“The life of an Empire’s Man!” Enzo echoed grandly. “You want to train?”
“We can start tomorrow, after school.”
“Where will we meet?” Enzo asked. This was how the two got into trouble: they fabricated an outlandish plan, and fulfilled it without thinking it through. The two had nearly burnt down Kale’s dog’s kennel during one such endeavor.
Kale had taken off his thigh-high socks, rudely flashing his bare feet and resting them on the bricks in front of the fire, “Just find me, I guess.”
“Your feet?” Enzo said, plugging his nose. “Don’t you listen in Imperial anthropology lessons? Empire’s Men never take off their socks, in case the Abominations—”
“Smell their stinky feet,” Kale interjected.
“Or if they have to prepare for battle short notice,” Enzo included.
Kale waved his hands, “There aren’t any Abominations.”
“We might as well start training to be like Empire’s Men now,” Enzo raised his eyebrow as he picked up a quill made from a hawk’s feather.
“We’ll meet tomorrow. Just find me.”
“Kale! I can’t just ‘find you’! There’s got to be some planning to this!”
“Fine,” Kale looked absently in the distance.
“What are some reasons we took the Western Front in the Third Era, three hundred fifty-five?” Enzo asked, swiping the soft quill along his lips.
“What?” Kale asked. Enzo repeated the question.
Kale raised his finger, as if he had a sudden idea. “Don’t say the Bird-Man,” Enzo jested. Kale put his finger down, put out.
“You figure it out, you’re smarter than me,” Kale breathed out heavily, hunching over and picking at wet lint between his toes. Enzo began scrawling out his essay. “Do you think Francine likes me?” Kale asked suddenly.
“What?” Enzo asked, not looking up from the parchment.
“Francine. I think she likes me,” Kale said confidently.
“Why?” Enzo looked up to see Kale sprawled out on a plush chair, like a chief in one of the richer villages nearer to the Imperial City.
Enzo laughed, “You’re full of yourself!”
“She talks to me! A lot!” Kale said defensively, sitting up.
“Well on that basis, I’m sure about ten girls like me!” Enzo chortled.
“Shut up,” Kale japed, a smug smile stretching across his face as he leaned back in the chair. He began to pet Visser absently. “What do you want to do?” he asked after a moment.
“I have schoolwork,” Enzo said, rereading a sentence over and over.
CRACK! a sound lighter, but nearer than thunder rang out. Enzo covered his ears with his palms. K
“Ah!” Chief called from his study. “It is done. The village is safe from the beast!” Then Enzo saw him come storming out and he watched Chief blunder out the door to tell the guards to notify the people the Abomination was slain. “It is slain!” Chief shouted as he ran without a hat, “The beast, the Stag, the Abomination is slain!”
“I’m gonna go,” Kale said, resignedly putting his socks back on his feet. He made his way out of the parlor and to the door. The moment he crossed into the threshold, he whirled about and dashed toward Enzo: “We should train by killing Abominations!”
“We can’t! Fifteen guards died fighting those Orancs. Could two boys do what seventy-five guards barely could?” He felt his throat tighten when the image of the ashes on the ground returned. “Plus,” he added sullenly, “I couldn’t kill a fat rabbit if I was starving.” He looked down at his parchment.
“But you just killed a deer.”
“The huntsmen did.”
Kale looked put out again, folding his arms. “We’re not natural-born killers, are we?”
“No,” Enzo. “But we don’t need to be just yet. We’re students. We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
“We can’t kill things and practice to be real Empire’s Men?”
“You have to learn to load a gun before you shoot it,” Enzo said, and he smiled at his own clever analogy.
“I don’t get it.”
“One step at a time, Kale.”
“What’s the first step, then?” Kale asked. He leaned forward.
Enzo thought for a moment. The paper in front of him leered. The ink on his quill was drying. He dipped it in the small inkwell next to the upper right corner of his paper. “Study, so that we can pass the Purge exams.”
“Fine,” Kale groaned. He had pulled his socks high over his knees, tucked them under his knickerbockers, and tied little cords to keep them secure. “Is school starting at the regular time tomorrow?”
“Yes,” Enzo said. “Why would it not?”
“I just thought,” Kale mumbled inaudibly, “you. . . Empire’s Men. . . maybe a late start.” Kale’s feet dragged across the cold wooden floor back to the front door. Enzo got up to walk him out just as Kale was putting his muddy boots back on. Enzo opened the door and the sound of rain flooded into the house. “I’m going to talk to Francine tomorrow,” Kale said, wiggling his foot into his boot, not bothering to lace it up.
“Good luck,” Enzo said. Kale threw his coat on and sprinted into the rain, running clear down the main road. Enzo returned to his stubborn essay and missed Kale. His presence had made him feel comforted, and less afraid when the explosion of the black-powder rang out.
He could not concentrate on what he was writing. He could think only of himself in an Imperial uniform. The smooth sound of the rain pitter-pattering on the roof so tenderly made Enzo pleasantly exhausted. Leaving his schoolwork on the floor, he decided to take a nap and languidly flopped onto a plush love seat. Visser jumped up onto the couch and curled into a tiny ball on Enzo’s thighs. “How does that sound?” Enzo asked.
Visser pinned his ears back, looking at Enzo quizzically.
“A life in the Empire. You and I living as glorious Empire’s Men!”
Visser licked his chops and his tail lashed. Enzo was not sure Visser knew what he was actually saying, but he was sure Visser could read his expressions and emotions, just like Enzo could read Visser’s.
Enzo worked on his assignments, but succumbed to exhaustion before he knew he was tired. He dreamed of being Purged.