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Prologue - Autumn of the year 5312

Ven ran as fast as his legs would move. This was not a night to be running break-neck across the loose stone of the Andolan plains, wind whipping his hair in his eyes when the rain wasn’t plastering it to his cheeks. The hunkering shape of the forbidden mountain which appeared before him only during the flashes of lightning wasn’t the place to be running to. The mountain, which barely qualified to be called such - low as it was though admittedly more stone than sod, had been avoided by the people of Ven’s little village for as long as he could remember, though why they avoided it was never really made clear to him. Maybe it was the queer way that it sat out there alone, no foothills or siblings, as though it had been dropped there or simply materialized according to whim. Maybe it was the way that even the birds refused to roost there, or the way it seemed to steal the warmth from your body like a seductress would your coin purse as you slept. But whatever it was that kept the villagers from venturing too close to the mountain, he hoped it held the power to keep them from it tonight. Tonight, he was running through a storm, at night, toward a cursed mountain and the majority of the men in his village were right behind him. Armed. With torches. And the brother of the girl he’d just strangled to death surely at their head.

He hadn’t meant to, of course. In point of fact, he’d meant the exact opposite. He’d asked her to meet him behind the blacksmith’s forge because he’d finally worked up the nerve to ask her to the harvest dance next week. She’d been so nice to him, talking with him, walking with him in the afternoon. They’d sit by the little river, on the bank, propped against the remains of the worn fallen oak that served as a seat or backrest. And they’d talk, not every day but often enough. And not about much, inane things really, but they’d talk. And that was more than most had done, also for as long as Ven could remember. Most of the village treated him with a sort of benign neglect, probably fearing that he’d be as unstable and unpredictable as his often drunk and always violent father. The village elders had come very close to simply throwing him out on a few occasions, but they’d always relented, saying that they pitied Ven and if they threw out the father, the son would also suffer. The blacksmith Ven toiled for, would not even speak up in his behalf on any of these occasions. Of course the fact his father had told them quietly after the last time that he’d return in the night and burn their homes down if ever they did evict him might have had something to do with it. Ven hated to admit it, but the villagers were right to fear him, because he probably would have; just like they were right to avoid Ven out of fear he would become just as bad, which he apparently did. He had just strangled Jaina to death, hadn’t he?

He’d started the day so hopeful. His father hadn’t done much more than drink himself into unconsciousness the night before, which was always a blessing. And he’d drunk so much that this morning he was still in the same spot he’d passed out, in their little houses only room, face down on the table and barely missing his plate of cold stew. So Ven had avoided a beating twice, or at least a drunken beating and a hung over berating. The harvest would be in soon, the elders had announced last night that the celebration would take place mid-week next, and he felt incredibly alive with the possibilities of it all. He’d even set everything up for later. Ven had already gone to the river and set out a blanket in front of the old tree, a simple picnic of two day old bread and cut apples (the best he could afford on his apprentice smith wages), and he could picture them laughing and talking in the early morning sun, the shimmer on the water matched in her incredibly blue eyes.

At least that’s how it was supposed to go. In actuality, Ven had tried to speak to her twice before noon, losing his nerve on the first attempt and then finding her in a rather too intimate conversation with Foran the miller’s boy on the second. The smith had found Ven by then, of course - it was a small village and one could only shirk ones duties for so long. By the time he’d finally caught up with her and worked his nerves to singing, it was already evening and the sun was setting. The sky had been darkening for the last hour and Ven smelled rain on the wind, if he was going to do it, it would have to be now and hope they could grab the picnic items before the rains came. At least the asking would go like he’d planned. He’d rehearsed every word and gesture in his head as he beat orange hot iron into shape. So, taking her left hand in his terribly shaking right, he asked her if she would do him the immense pleasure of accompanying him to next week’s celebrations. And, to his complete and abject horror, she’d laughed. Not a deep belly laugh, or a cold and mean spirited laugh, no - the kind of laugh that makes you feel the fool for believing a fantasy. The kind that comes of a sudden and is cut off just as quick. It cut him the worse for it.

"Ven, listen. I’m flattered, truly I am. But I’m going to harvest with Foran. You and I, we talk sometimes…but I felt bad for you being dismissed by everyone. I wanted you to have a friend. That was all. Foran and I are a good match, and he and I can build a life here. I’d always thought eventually you’d leave. Find your way in the world, a place where you’d…belong." She seemed genuinely puzzled as to how he’d ever arrived at what was clearly so farfetched a notion.

Clearly. That’s when the anger took him. Anger that surged up white hot from the soles of his feet to the tips of his hair. A friend. Pity. That was all. Never more than that, of course, because how could Ven possibly be anything other than what he was? A poor, sorry, damaged boy with a wastrel father. He was the person upon which you bestowed the grace of your acknowledgement for what it was, charity. She’d even said it outright, he didn’t belong. Before he knew it, Jaina was off the ground and planted firmly against the stone back wall of the smithy, her eyes wide and shocked and her feet kicking fruitlessly as his hands crushed her windpipe. She tore at his hands with her fingernails, trying to speak, to beg, to scream. Ven watched it happening through a fog, most of his mind clouded by the strength of his rage. It wasn’t until Ven had felt the almost gentle snap of her neck in his work hardened hands, that he’d stopped, horrified by what he’d just done. The cloud shattered like weak steel, and the world rushed back in carrying the icy realization of his sin. But by then it was too late, the life had fled from her eyes. Terror and guilt ran down his spine and he knew that if anyone saw him, he was dead too, the trial of elders merely a formality.

Oh God. Oh God. She’s dead! Oh God, no no no what have I done she’s dead oh God no I killed her!

Have to go have to leave they’ll kill me too what have I done what am I going to do?

…The river.

Ven reached down and gathered up her legs, his left hand never leaving her neck, and thought to use the night’s cloak to hide him as he disposed of Jaina’s body. He thought to secret his way to the river, lower her in and pray the current took her. It would look like an accident, if they ever even found her. He’d slip back into his house, his father likely already too drunk to be able to deny the alibi he was forming. With any luck, it’d be a day at least before her fate was discovered and he’d be just as shocked in public; even if he was wasting away with guilt in private. As luck would have it, he was found out the instant he came out of the smithy’s shadow. Foran had come looking for her, it would seem, and the two men froze as soon as they saw each other. In any other situation, it would have been comical. Two men, standing still as stone, not moving a muscle and staring at one another with the expressions of startled deer. Except it wasn’t funny because Ven was holding a murdered girl whose purple neck showed clear finger marks, his hands bloodied by her panicked attempt to free herself.

All thoughts of guilt gave way to pure fear, and in hindsight Ven would regret simply dropping her body as he fled. She might have spurned him for another, but she’d deserved better than being discarded like offal. She’d deserved better than the river too, for that matter. But Foran, spurred by Ven’s sudden flight, immediately started running to Jaina’s house and yelling for her father and brother. Foran was a handsome lad, and not scrawny, but no had nowhere near Ven’s lean physique and her father was old and tired, one of the elders who really did little work besides politicking, but her brother was a different story entirely. Ven had grown big, the last few years of wielding hammer and shaping metal had defined and broadened him. But Mikal was bigger, and much more confident, word was he was going to leave the village for the capitol on his eighteenth name day - destined for the army and glory.

Ven pumped his legs hard, his breath crackling in lungs filled with autumn night air. The storm’s dark clouds had been gathered in force, black shadows in a black sky seemingly attracted to his black deed. The shoulder high stalks of wheat had quickly given way to waist high stalks of barley, and thence to open harvested land. Before long he found himself beyond the fields and careening over the open plain toward what he could only hope was escape. And then the storm broke upon him. He wasn’t sure of the direction he’d taken off running, but when the first flashes of lightning illuminated the lonely mountain in the distance, he was sure he wouldn’t have chosen that way. But looking back and seeing the gathering pinpricks of light that heralded the freshly formed search party, or more likely execution squad (trial of elders be damned), this way seemed as good as any. Maybe they’d give up when they saw where they were headed.

He reached the rain slicked slopes of the mountain and began to climb. In his fear, the sharpened rocks tore into his hands, further dampening the stones with his blood. He didn’t care. For a man who’s life meant little to anyone, he found he had a remarkable desired to live, to survive. If he escaped, he’d start over. Make penance. Help the blind. Feed orphans. Build an orphanage for the blind, anything. He promised God that, if His Grace would shine on him even though he did not deserve it, that he would do such good in this world as to erase the vile nature of this wickedness. The torches were still coming, and now that Ven was climbing, they were making up the distance he’d created with his flight. It wasn’t going to be enough, he thought, he’d never outrun them now. Stupid! Why had he come here? Why did he climb instead of go around? He might have lost them eventually, assuming he could run longer than the mob, and gone to ground…somewhere.

A quarter of the way up the mountain, he looked again at his pursuer’s progress, and found that they’d made it to the foot of the mountain. But they’d stopped. Ven took a moment to breathe, his throat raw and his hands shaking and rent from the climb, and watched the torch lights mill around. Voices rasied in anger, probably over whether to continue up despite the deeply taboo proscription on setting foot on the mountain, though the wind had picked up considerably and the words were lost to Ven. He could only imagine the vehemence with which Mikal was demanding they follow, probably equal with the vehemently nasty ways he was suggesting they exact their vengeance. With that thought, Ven decided he’d rested long enough. Continuing to climb up the mountain side, hands gripping clefts and crevices in the rock, the voices below changed to challenges. Mikal could be heard from below, most of the words covered by the howl of the winds, demanding Ven face judgment. The important ones, however…kill…murdered…Jaina…torment…vengance…those carried well enough. Half way up, Ven’s strength was beginning to flag, and he worried that he wouldn’t be able to continue. He’d be lashed by rain and wind, forced to grip the side of the mountain until morning when, should the storm abate, he’d be harried by any man who thought to bring a bow. For that matter, even if he hadn’t, one could just go back and get one because Ven wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Looking up, he could just make out the deeper black of a crevice in the rock face. The next flash of lightning confirmed that it was big enough for Ven to squeeze into. Perhaps the storm would confound the party’s senses enough that he could work his way in there, and come morning, it would appear that’d he’d escaped during the night. Hauling himself up the last few yards, he reached the cleft and began forcing his way deeper. He probably wouldn’t have made it had the rocks not been so slick with rain and his hands hadn’t further eased his passage with blood, but before long he was out of the rain and his right elbow was pressing against the back wall of the small space. For the first time since his escape, Ven allowed himself to release the tension in his muscles and slump against the rock of his little enclosure. Which summarily crumbled and allowed him to fall into a darkness he hadn’t thought existed.

All light whatsoever was gone, the only sounds were of his unintelligible grunts and swears amidst a shower of loose stone. He tumbled down what felt like a natural tunnel, the sides of which were sharp and unforgiving. Eventually, Ven came to rest on the floor of a larger cave, battered and bleeding worse than before, a strange sickly bluish light dancing around the edges of his vision. At first he’d simply assumed he’d knocked his head and the light was the trick of a concussed head, until it began to brighten slowly. More…intensify…rather than brighten, really, that light could not truly be said to illuminate so much as force away the darkness. A coldness began to seep into Ven. It reminded him of when they’d burried old Semmond two years earlier. He’d been one of the village elders, Jaina’s father had actually replaced him, and everyone had been expected to attend. It was a chilled winter morning with no wind at all, so the warms wasn’t wicked away from your body so much as bled from it slowly. This was like that but with a sense of malice attached to it, the winter morn had simply accepted a body’s warmth, this thieved it from you.

"Welcome, child." A voice laden with dark cunning said from the darkness. It was not loud, nor quiet, had no love or hate. It was sinister, as though it was made of honey and grave dust, heavy with terrible promise.

"It has been so long since I’ve entertained anyone. So long since I’ve laid my eyes on another soul. "

Ven, bruised though he was, scrambled up from his back and pushed himself along the cave floor until the wall stopped him. A figure sat in a stone seat carved from the wall of the chamber, a dark cloak obscuring most of its body. It’s face and hands…his face and hands, for it was clearly a man…could be seen by the strange dark blue glow of his skin. He had no hair on his face or head, not even any eyebrows, and he didn’t shine so much as emanate the weak light. Ven could see that the skin itself was pale, as though the number of years since this man had last seen the sun was much longer than the number of years allotted to a man. And it wasn’t his skin that radiated the cold blue light, so much as his veins. Dark blue like a map of pulsing ink, his veins stood out stark in the pitch black cave, the light shifting as his heart pushed the blood through him. A weaker shimmer of something played out across a network of scars that played over his face and hands, tortured geometries that had been carved into his flesh with care. This man terrified Ven, and it wouldn’t be the last time he wondered if mob justice wouldn’t have been preferred to this very moment.

The creature looked at Ven and inhaled deeply through its nose, seeming to taste the scent of him.

"I smell sin on you. Guilt. Murder. This is true?" Ven could not help but nod his head, his voice having left him to face the creature alone.

"Oh, child. Poor lost child. I think you and I can come to a mutually beneficial…arrangement." The smile he gave Ven was the last nail in the coffin of his salvation.

Next Chapter: Chapter One