Sunday, 6 December 2020

The Debt of Trust

I'm desperate to be something else
Wanting success, but bringing disappointment
Willing to weep but unable to change
Desiring happiness but I'll stay the same.

Conscious of the price of my ego
Tics of failure bring sorrow anew
Despite repetition of mounting mistakes
I regress into this horrible state -

Sleepless nights of distraction
From a flickering screen,
thinking "I should have"
But guilt's a deep grave

Fragile will, irresolute and dismissible
Paper thin masks hide the shame
Disappointment of others, despite my plans
No, my true desires bore fruit and this began

A cycle of error I'm caught in
Where pain leads to sorrow, sorrow feeds lethargy
Lethargy ignites desire, yet desire brings pain
All the while, thinking what I gain

by being so distraught.
A part of who I am:
discreet failures, tacit fronts
Hide a true, unchanging runt

Prone to dreams of grandeur
Of puffed up pride and praise
Yet in actions sorely lacking
My sorrys, they are stacking

without recourse, due a whip -
I have remorse, its not enough
For every promise I have broken
For every new one I am given

The thought remains, unsaid but strong
This time, what will I do wrong?

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Talks from the Podium

I watched my friend from the wooden pews
Struggling to preach an answer
To the question of peace he had not found
That threatened to tear me asunder

His hesitant words, his conflicting conviction
On a statement he knows should be true
Yet the person that's failed to convince in that moment
Is myself, my faithless hues

We have within each of us, combatting desires
To be certain things that we want
Burns bright in us, the fear of hypocrisy
When we speak of truths that we aren't

We wish them to be - at a snap of our fingers
To have that surety of mind
Yet inside we know that wishful desires
Aren't enough to bring peace of mind

If we could only have a seed of desire
To push ourselves ever forward
But we can't plant that seed, truth it may be
For we fear the loss of our present

Monday, 9 November 2020

A Threatening World

 In a village bordering the Melhuarin north and the Argan mountains...

Yngel watched as Velm returned, leading a small train of two adults and three children. He was dressed in a thick cotton shirt against the chill autumn air, with his braided hair hanging upon his chest.

Velm was the bravest man Yngel had ever known, but even he looked shaken by what he had seen out there.

“Velm,” Yngel said, stepping down from the steps of his large home. “Velm, this can’t be true…”

Velm shook his head grimly, ushering the five survivors forward. “There are no other survivors left from that hamlet, Yngel. All gone. Some eaten, some taken away. I saw a number of the corpses myself, feasted upon on the spot. Bloody things were still there. I lost half a dozen men just killing two.”

“You couldn’t kill the rest?”

Velm’s eyes hardened. “It’s a bloody miracle there weren’t more, Yngel. More than half of my guards slaughtered in seconds… you think we have a chance?”

Yngel shuddered. He looked at the survivors, mouths open and eyes down, nameless faces from the village that had come under attack not an hour ago. “Come inside,” he said mechanically, “my wife will bring blankets and food for you.”

Velm looked ready to turn away, but Yngel reached out his hand to stop him. “Velm,” he said in an unsteady voice.

His friend stopped. “I need to attend to my men.”

“I know. Just… you said you killed two?”

“Two yorak. Stragglers, small ones. They must have been left behind by the pack.”

“Then, the rest are still out there.”

Velm nodded. “I think so. We don’t know how many, but I am sure they will be back. What happens next is up to you Chieftain.” With that, Velm shouldered the sack, and began to walk away.

Yngel felt his heart quiver. His friends only called him Chieftain when they themselves did not know what to do. Oftentimes, at those moments Yngel also had no idea what to do next.

Yngel was leader of the Orthoran clan, twelfth in succession to a long line of noble Eliyan leaders. The small town and surrounding villages were his birthright, and he had ruled them to the best of his abilities in the last ten years.

Living on the Melhuarin border, near the Argan mountains, had always been risky because of bandits, wolves and other monstrosities. Leaders of the Orthoran clan had always needed to be brave and strong, and none had failed so far. But in the last few generations, greater dangers had arisen.

They were called scalebeasts by the Central Lands - a strangely accurate description. Yngel’s ancestors referred to them as varadul, the invaders. Yngel himself had never seen one, but he knew their descriptions - men with the face of lizards, hardened carapaces like armor and the strength of three men within their arms. Accompanying them would be an assortment of horrifying creatures, each deadly in their own way. They were ruthless and cruel - closer to wild animals, but still intelligent somehow.

Seldom, a small nest of some sort would crop up somewhere, and the defenders of Orthoran would rise to meet them.

But this time, it appeared as though the clan guards were not up to the task. For weeks, there had been a recent spike of incidents - refugees, his people, fleeing countryside with their farms burned and their families consumed. Yngel had responded according to his best knowledge, posting guards and patrols as often as he could. A great many of those had disappeared as well. What could be done?

“What do we do?” he whispered to himself. None of the outlying farms and hamlets were safe anymore. He would have to recall them to the safety of the walls. But then, could the varadul come in force and rip the town apart? Would he dare risk the livelihood of the entire centre, to save a few outliers?

Yngel could feel the walls closing in. The Orthoran Clan was considered part of the Kingdom of Eliya, but a messenger to the heartland would take weeks. By then, they could all be dead and gone. Even so, the likelihood of Eliya sending a contingent to save a small town of little consequence was laughably small. If Yngel had to guess, the Kingdom was probably embroiled in some war against the Tenalin northerners again.

One thing at a time. His mind preoccupied, he turned toward his door to see what could be done to settle in the new refugees.

“You have a problem in the countryside, Chieftain?”

Yngel paused. He did not recognise the voice, and he knew almost everyone in town. He turned to look at who had addressed him.

It was a small group of four, clearly foreigners. Where most Eliyans shared black hair and dark eyes like the northern natives, these people had incongruent shades of blonde, fiery, and brown hair. Yngel had often heard descriptions of the strange Cilayans and their dynamic physical features, but it was always a surprise to see them in person. Each was dressed in large, dust cloaks that enveloped their bodies, the kind well-suited for travel. Their leader, a woman with red hair and pure blue eyes, stepped forward.

“Scalebeasts. You have scalebeasts in your countryside?” she said, as though repeating herself.

Yngel jerked, realising he had been staring very hard at their strange features instead of responding. He said, “There is danger and bloodshed out there, yes. You must have seen the survivors ushered into my home... Um... To whom do I speak to?”

“Call me Sari. We saw your survivors, yes. We’ve also seen for ourselves some of the ruined villages on the outskirts of your central town.”

Yngel nodded. “You know, yet you still ask. What is it you want, travelers? If you will excuse my impoliteness, I have little time to entertain travelers. I have much to do to see my town kept safe.”

The woman named Sari looked at her companions. As Chieftain, Yngel was experienced in reading faces, seeing emotions. That look that she gave her companions, was one of need - seeking assurance from them.

Yngel realised how very young Sari was. Perhaps she was not the leader after all.

She spoke, “We’re… experts in the realm of killing scalebeasts. We’ve already investigated the ruins of your villages, and the numbers look bad. Based on the evidence, we’re looking at two separate clusters raiding in and out of your homes. We want to offer our help - for payment of course - in ridding you of these scalebeasts.”

“Experts you say?” Yngel expressed his doubt. “You have made it your lives’ work to hunt varadul? Strange, the only ones I’ve heard of that hunt varadul are…” His voice trailed off. He felt his pulse quicken, and his eyes widen. They could not possibly be...

Another woman, this one older, with lines in her face and faded blonde hair - stepped forward. “I told you it was useless to pretend to be anything otherwise, Sari.” The older woman raised her fist. It was covered in the safety of a glove. “Do not flinch, scream or cower, old man,” the woman said in a low voice.

She removed the glove. A brilliant red imprint of a strange, reptilian creature was inked into the back of her hand. As it glinted in the noonday Sun, its brilliant yellow eye seemed to sparkle with life, staring deep into Yngel’s soul.

Yngel had heard of this mark, ingrained into the skin of terrible beings. Harbingers of death, peace-breakers of the past and a curse onto any who sheltered them. He had never seen it, and he had hoped he would never have to.

Vrak. Scars. Cursed. Killers. These people possessed ancient powers ingrained in their blood, a power that had once ruled the world, and shattered it in the process. Those marked with this strange mark, known as the Hunter’s Mark, were known to the world to be especially dangerous, capable of wreaking havoc

He took three steps back. As the woman said, he did not scream. He did not dare to. His hand reached backward, trying to find the doorknob to the safety of his home. Goosebumps of fear rippled across his skin and he felt like he might vomit.

“Do you hear me? We offered our help. For your coin and some supplies, we’ll rid your town of this threat.” It was the younger woman speaking. Her name had been Sari. She stepped forward, ahead of her companion, who was slipping the glove back onto her hand.

“I… you…Vrak...” He struggled to speak, still backing away.

“Stop advancing, Sari,” a man’s voice said. He was brown of hair and looked somewhat amused. “You will bowl him over his own steps.”

Sari glared at him. Yngel felt her eyes turn back to his, and he struggled to breathe.

“I’ll repeat my offer, and we will wait for your acceptance. Yes, we are Scars - Vrak, as you called us. We bear the mark, and as bound by the laws of the Watchers, we will not harm you. If we do, the Watchers will know. We possess the powers given to us by our Curse, and we can use it to kill these scalebeasts. Your Town Guard - Velm was it? - as we heard, he already lost six men to two fledglings. You can’t hope to kill these things without our help.”

Yngel composed himself, breathing deeply. They were bound by the Watchers - Divines keep them - and could not harm him. He breathed again. “I… compensation. You want compensation?”

Sari nodded. “You have two separate clusters operating independent of one another. We don’t know everything yet, but that can be anything between sixteen to thirty scalebeasts - er - varadul. It’s very bad.”

“What is your price?”

“We’ll bring you the heads of every varadul we kill. A dozen golden marks per head.”

Despite his subsisting fear, Yngel felt a tinge of horror. “A dozen… you said there might be thirty of them. That ismore than three hundred marks! The town coffers will suffer-”

The older woman looked at him. There was no mirth in her eyes, none of the innocent youth that Sari possessed. Yngel felt another sharp wave of fear as he looked into those eyes, and saw something dark. 

The older woman said, “Choose what you value more, Chieftain: The lives of your people, or the money in your vaults? Sari mentioned these varadul working as two separate clusters; that is your luck coming into play. They are unaware of each other as of yet. A cluster will not attack a town as large as this one. But if they meet, fight and eventually become one? The best result is that your outskirts become a battleground. The worst - and the most eventual - is that a larger, more organised Claw will form, and they will rip your town to shreds.”

Sari placed a hand across her companion’s chests, gently pushing her back. “That’s enough of scaring him, Kariah.”

Sari looked at him with earnest eyes. “We are Scars. We have our… tricks, but it might not be enough. By all evidence, the clusters are at maximum size, and pose a threat even to us. We’re doing this at great risk to ourselves.”

The older woman spoke again, “if you do not have the money, gather some from your townsmen, Chieftain. Unless you would rather gather them to fight instead?”

Yngel gulped. Despite himself, their words were convincing. He could not possibly rally the townspeople to go out and fight the varadul by themselves, but perhaps he could rally the coin to pay these vrak to do it. A thought occurred to him. “But… what if you fail?”

The older woman smiled, a cold smile that did not reach her eyes. “Well, then your town is doomed. But then, you need not pay the dead.”

Sari scowled at her companion. “We won’t die, and we won’t ask for the coin first. We’ll bring you results, and then you can pay.”

The older woman’s smile deepend. “If you don’t... “ She looked around the town casually, but Yngel could feel the threat hanging over him.

“It won’t come to that,” Sari said firmly. “Please, Chieftain. Accept our offer of help - for your people.”

Yngel stared at them for a while, his back against the door to his home. Perhaps he could quickly turn, open the door, seek shelter, and close it behind him - forgetting that these monsters had visited him with an offer. Perhaps their disappearance would also signal the destruction of twelve generations of Orthorans, as the varadul brought their raids into his home. He did not know if this Sari spoke the truth, but Velm - and his circumstances - would not lie. He could tell from Velm’s voice that there was little hope for the guard to remove this threat. This seemed the greatest option to him.

After all, coffers could be replenished. His people’s lives could not.

“I… I accept your offer. These varadul… please kill them. I will pay you the full amount, as long as the threat is removed. This I swear.”

Sari smiled. “Thank you. We will be housed in a tent outside your town’s walls, Chieftain,” he felt intense relief that they were not within the town itself. “You’ll find us there, if you have any questions. If we need to talk to you, we’ll approach you ourselves.”

The Vrak turned, beginning to discuss among each other in a low voice.

Yngel felt his palpitating heart begin to slow with their departure. A twist of emotions rang through the hollow in his middle. Fear, apprehension, hope, relief and regret all rolled into one. Had he made a mistake? Could this be the solution to his problems? Or had he made a deal with Lovakai himself?

He would need to muster the gold required for their payment. If the varadul did not ruin his village, the vrak - with their dangerous, world-breaking powers - very well could. Another twinge of fear and regret rode through him.

A few days later, Yngel had managed to gather the required coin. He had heard nothing from the vrak since then, not even seen them wandering the streets. As expected, the townspeople had been angry at the need to give away their hard-earned coin, for reasons he could not fully explain to them. What could he do, tell them he had placed the fate of their town in the hands of potential murderers and peace-breakers? Everyone knew the dark stories of vrak - their endless war, their desire for bloodshed and vengeance, and their ability to exercise dominion over humanity. Only the Watchers, their headquarters centred in Cilaya, kept them under control.

And yet… If the vrak were willing to kill the varadul for coin, he would pay through the nose to keep his people safe. He would deal with Lovakai himself to not be the leader of the Orthoran that let his people down.

And so faithfully, he accrued three hundred and sixty marks - the most the vrak had asked for - saying it was to hire a group of mercenaries to venture into the countryside and root the varadul out. Velm had questioned him a little, asking about his new solution to kill the varadul, but Yngel spoke as little about it as possible. Friend or not, he did not trust Velm to react well to the idea of dealing with Vrak, even if hunting varadul was their purpose.

One day, as Yngel was seated in his study sorting a number of notched sticks from the farmers, his wife peeked inside, looking apprehensive.

“Husband,” she said, “there is a strange young foreigner at our door. She says she has news for you. Should I let her in…?”

Yngel hurriedly stood from his chair. “No. I will go to meet her. Thank you, my love.”

Her apprehension did not pass from her face. “Is this news about the… the attacks.”

Yngel struggled to come up with a response. “I… It is. She is a mercenary.”

“A woman mercenary?”

“Yes. Now please, I must speak to her.”

He quickly excused himself and rushed down the stairs to the doorstep, leaving his wife still looking confused.

Sure enough, Sari stood at the bottom of the steps to his home, her arms folded. She no longer wore her cloak, instead dressed in a simple cotton garb, and tall, thigh high boots. Her hands were still wrapped in those gloves, hiding the mark beneath. A rush of revulsion surged through Yngel as he remembered what she was.

“You… what do you want?” he said hurriedly.

The vrak looked up at him. “We’ve found the nest of the first cluster. I thought you ought to know. Seeing as how you’ve been quietly collecting the money-” how did she know about that? “-I thought it best to keep you updated on our activities. Just to put your mind at ease.”

“Have you killed any?”

Sari nodded. “Three. The ones left to guard their nest. It’s only a half day’s ride away from your gates, which is good and bad. The good part is we can keep watch over your smaller farms at night.” She broke into a sudden yawn. “The bad thing is that if they ever decide they have enough numbers, you’re within striking distance. 

Three. They had killed three, where it had taken Velm six men just to kill two. “Did you lose anyone?”

Sari laughed. “No, we won’t die easily, especially not to bloody fledglings. Anyway, at dawn tomorrow, the Heart- I mean, the other Vrak and I will strike the cluster. With luck, we should put an end to this one once and for all.”

“And the second… cluster?”

Her lips thinned at his words. “More troublesome. They appear to have less fledglings and more striders. Makes them more unpredictable. We can’t find where they’ve hidden their nest, and something’s making them difficult to track too. Kariah suspects there’s a tribehead among them - it leads them, makes them smarter - so that one is clearly more dangerous. The uh... Divines are happy with your town. If there really is a tribehead, it's a wonder they haven’t decided you aren’t easy pickings yet.” 

Sari smiled. Perhaps she was trying to be comforting, but Yngel could only think about how she might well be able to turn him inside out as smile at him. He had heard stories that Vrak could do that, if they so wished.

“We’ll get them. We don’t give up so easily. Just… Darius says you should post more night guards to your outer farms just in case we miss something. At least five men together, no less. That way, you don’t lose any more innocents than you already have. We leave that up to you though.”

Sari nodded to herself. “I’ll come again when we’ve broken up the first nest. Prepare the first round of payment for then - you’ll probably want to come to our campsite and look at the remains yourself. Then at least you’ll know what the heads look like. Stay safe, Chieftain.”

Without another word, the young woman turned about and walked away, back into the street that led to the town gate.

Strangely, Yngel felt hope. Though none of what she’d said about fledglings, striders and tribeheads made any sense to him, she did seem to know what she was talking about. If they really had found the first cluster…

 The stories said Vrak were dangerous, powerful and violent, but they never mentioned anything about them being conniving. Perhaps he could extend a measure of trust towards them.

The next day, sometime before sundown, his wife peeked her head into his study again. “You have the same visitor again. She is younger than our daughter - is she really a mercenary?”

Yngel stood. “Yes, she is.”

The doubt did not leave his wife’s eyes. “I think our Clan Guards could break her in two. I imagined mercenaries from the heartland to be more… intimidating.”

Yngel laughed weakly. “I… I would not wish anyone to try and fight her. She is… fearsome.” He did not want to imagine what a Vrak might do to any normal person that dared attack them. But he was not prepared to tell his wife who they were really dealing with. Yet.

“Please, no more questions. Prepare some of the coin I’ve gathered in the treasury room. I believe that she will require the first round of payment for dealing with the varadul in the countryside.”

His wife harrumphed. “There had better be some evidence. I don’t trust these foreigners to keep their word.”

“If there is any evidence, wife, I will bring some home for you to see. In fact, she will likely bring me to see it now.”

“Do not bring home anything that might drip blood onto the floor. And do not be late coming home or your stew will be cold.” She smiled, and rubbed his shoulder as he passed.

“Your wife has your doubts about me,” Sari said as she walked in step beside him. She had informed him that they had broken up the first nest and that there were twelve heads for him to see. Consequently, he carried a small sack filled with a hundred and forty-four gold marks.

As usual, there was still an undercurrent of fear as Yngel spoke to her. “She does not believe you are not mercenary. That is the story I have told her to avoid telling her that you are…” he paused awkwardly. The fear swelled.

Sari, however, laughed. “That I’m Cursed?” Yngel looked around hurriedly, hoping no one had heard. “Well, fair enough. I was more concerned she might think that you were sleeping with me.”

Yngel felt both shock and horror at the idea. He spluttered, “I… I would never… my wife and I have been…”

Sari laughed again, silencing him. It was a pure laugh, without any malice that Yngel could feel. “I know, I could tell by the way she looks at me that she doesn’t think me a threat at all. But does she really believe it?”

“I would never do such a thing. Never. My wife knows it. We have been united more than thirty years, and we trust each other beyond all doubt.”

The young woman smiled. “Well, I’m glad you have a happy marriage. I suppose I am a little disappointed that my dashing good looks can’t put a dent in anyone’s relationship. But then again,” her tone lost some of its merry edge, “no one would ever sleep with a filthy Cursed, would they?” He looked at her face, and saw that she had grown bitter, angry even.

Yngel knew that he should feel terror at that. What would a peace-breaker, a person with Cursed powers do in anger? There was a little fear within that he had offended her somehow. But against all reason, his wife’s words occurred to him - that this young woman, this Sari, was younger than his daughter. 

Oddly, he began to feel sorry for her. “Your… That has nothing to do with it. I simply would not betray my wife’s trust in that manner. You are a good looking young woman-” what was he saying? She might turn him into a bloody heap, “-and I’m certain you will find a… a man suited for you one… one day.” His words faltered.

Truly, what in Divines’ name was he saying? The idea of a vrak breeding and potentially bringing more peace-breakers and power-fueled monsters into the world was absolutely terrifying. His logical brain told him that.

But at the same time, he pitied the idea that a young woman like this would never find love.

Sari looked at him, her blue eyes narrowing. She pursed her lips and shook her head. She said slowly, “I know you don’t really mean that… but thank you for saying it anyway. Now, let’s hurry. The others are already waiting.”

Sari’s campsite was not far from the gate of the village, hidden within a small thicket of trees. As Yngel approached, the recognisable tang of blood wafted across his nose. They walked through a short man-made path before the campground opened up to him, revealing four small tents at the edges and a lit campfire at the centre. The older woman - Kariah, Yngel remembered - worked at the fire, stirring a small, black pot with a wooden spoon. By the right side, on a felled log, sat the brown haired man who had mocked him. He was shirtless, but a large bandage wound across his chest. A younger man, the one who had not spoken a word before, knelt in front of him. As Yngel watched, the younger man dashed red locks out of his eyes and pressed his palms against the older man’s chest.

“Hold still, or it will hurt even more,” the young man said.

“Just hurry it up. I’m getting hungry.”

On the left, Yngel saw what looked like an unrecognisable, bloodied mass; evidently the source of the iron tang that assaulted his nose. Upon steadier inspection, it appeared to be a row of severed lizard heads, arrayed in fashion barely called neat. 

“I brought him back,” Sari called.

Kariah looked up from her pot and smiled. Again, it never touched her eyes. “Good. The stew is almost ready. Now we can kill him and cook him.”

Yngel froze.

Sari scowled. “Stop that. He brought payment, and he trusted me enough to come here without a guard.” Why had he done that again? Of course, because he was too afraid to let anyone know he had been dealing with Lovakai himself in working alongside these Vrak.

“Do not worry,” the dark haired man said, wincing as the young red hair did something to him. “I only eat people at the height of a full moon. That way, their flesh tastes sweetest.”

“Darius…” Sari warned.

The older man grinned sardonically. “I am joking, of course. Welcome to our camp, Chieftain.”

Sari gestured to the bloodied rows of lizard heads. “Scalebeast - er, varadul heads. Twelve, just as I said. This includes the three I told you about yesterday. A moderately sized cluster. You can investigate them for yourself, if you want.”

Yngel did not want to approach, but Sari was gesturing so invitingly and Kariah’s eyes were trained on him, as though daring him to back away. Swallowing a gulp, Yngel moved deeper into the belly of the beasts.

As he neared the rows of varadul heads, he realised there were two different kinds. Five were smaller and sleeker, with sharper snouts. The other seven looked tougher, more brutish, with ridged edges and more compact noses. 

“Why are there two different...” Yngel’s question trailed off. He did not know if he sounded a fool or not. However, his curiosity was beginning to outweigh his fear.

“Two different heads? Very observant, Chieftain,” Kariah said as she stirred. Her eyes were no longer trained on him. “I believe Sari explained to you the difference between fledglings and striders?”

Yngel glanced at Sari, who shook her head. “I didn’t get into the specifics. He doesn’t have to know.”

“Wrong. He should. As a Chieftain, especially in a place where varieties of scalebeasts cross the Argan mountains everyday, he should possess all the knowledge possible to help fight them. Then maybe next time he will not have to rely on… vrak to save his people.”

“Velm knows enough,” Yngel said slowly. “He called those smaller ones yorak.”

“Judging from his lack of success, Velm knows of them, not about them. Yorak… We call them fledglings. Smaller, faster and more agile. If scalebeasts were people, these would be their dogs. People see them and think to avoid their mouths - but they miss the most dangerous part, which is their legs. If we had brought a whole one, I would show you - they run on twos, and pounce upon their prey faster than an arrow flies from a bow. And the other… striders. When you fight a strider, never think you are fighting a simple beast. Assume it is a man - a faster, stronger, more vicious man. It will do anything to kill you, and it is never alone. They ambush, they stalk, they set traps… They fight to win.”

“You make them sound invincible.”

“I am making them sound dangerous - and they are. You would do well to understand that.”

“Kariah…” Sari said slowly.

“Do you see Darius over there, with the bandage across his chest? We managed to surprise the nest when it returned from their nighttime patrol. They’d killed a pack of wolves and were dragging the carcasses back. We surprised them, with our flashing lights and streaks of fire, but they still managed to retaliate. Darius earned that scar because he assumed a dying strider, cloaked in flames, wouldn’t try to kill him too.”

“Kariah,” Sari said firmly.

“But I suppose that wouldn’t matter to a Clean. What are we, but the bloodhounds to sacrifice to the wolves? If one of us died, it would be in the service of keeping you safe. No mourning - no, you would be grateful that we had killed each other. The best result some would say, a Cursed person taking down a bunch of scalebeasts with him making the world a better place all around…”

“Kariah!” Sari shouted.

Kariah had not looked up from her pot. The pace of her stirring had remained the same throughout her rant. Yngel let it wash over him - he did not know what part of it he was absorbing, but he could feel the bitterness and anger boiling over in that very moment.

“I’m sorry for my friend’s anger, Chieftain,” Sari began.

But Yngel did not listen. Something strange was happening to him. “Your kind are peace-breakers,” he addressed Kariah. “The history of Vrak is destruction and horror. You were responsible for the War of Calamity, the Bloodshed Years, the Tragedy of Kunnerk, where the world’s chance for peace was desecrated… That was all because of Vrak, of people like yourself. Do you deny those events? Do they not speak to the bloodiness of history, everytime Vrak have gained prominence within it? This is your heritage, your legacy. With all this, can you expect pity everytime one of you dies?”

Yngel realised he was angry. But somehow, he was not just angry. He was…

Kariah stared at him, with that same smile that did not touch her eyes. She did not seem the least affected.

He looked at Sari. Her head was tilted toward the earthen floor beneath, her eyes downcast.

He saw something. A shining silver tear.

“Thank you,” Kariah said wryly, “For speaking the truth.”

Sari shook her head. She looked up, her weakness gone and her face resolute. She wiped the tear with a single dust of her hand. “Shut up, Kariah. Chieftain, you can leave the money and go. Thank you for honouring your part of the deal. I’ll let you know when we find the second nest.”

Yngel hesitated. The words of his wife echoed again: younger than our daughter, and they did not seem to leave him. “I…” he said, stepping toward her, not sure what he wanted to say.

Sari took a step backward, shaking her head. “That’s all there is for now, Chieftain. Please, leave the money and go.”

Yngel placed the small sack of gold on the forest floor. He turned away and walked to the entrance of the clearing.

“Before you leave us, Chieftain,” Kariah’s voice called, making him pause. “I believe the Eliyan people incited the massacre at Syakal, not two decades ago. I think that from now on, I shall blame that on you as well.”

Yngel did not respond. He simply continued walking, leaving the Vrak behind.

He was too preoccupied with the realisation that all his fear had gone, leaving only confusion and sadness.

That night, he lay in bed, staring into the darkness.

His wife shifted in her sleep, flipping around beneath the sheets to face him. He looked at her, and realised her eyes were open, staring at him.

“Why do you not sleep?” he said.

“I always could sense your inner turmoil,” she said shrewdly.

“Inner turmoil? Nothing of the sort.”

“You cannot lie to me. I see your every emotion.” There was amusement in her voice.

He sighed. He turned his head back toward the ceiling, feeling the soft down of his pillow.

“If…” he said suddenly. “If you discovered one day… that I had been a Vrak my whole life, what would you do?”

He heard rustling in the darkness, but he could not see what his wife was doing.

“Do not say such dangerous things, love. I would think you were hinting at something. Besides, we are far past the age where the Watchers believe a Vrak can manifest.”

“Humor me, I beg of you. If I revealed to you that somehow, I had kept my… my vrak-kal hidden from you all these years, how would you react?”

For a time, silence reigned. It was a stupid question, and he immediately regretted asking it. If anything, he was not sure why he had asked it, but Kariah’s words, and his wife’s words about Sari, kept cycling through his head like the wheels of a merchant’s cart. And at the centre of it all now, was Sari’s single, shining tear.

“I think I would still love you,” his wife said slowly. “I would find it difficult, but my heart tells me I would still choose to be with you.”

“But would you not be afraid of me? Would you not fear the things that I could do, now you know I have such dangerous powers?”

“My husband, you have not done anything to me in the last thirty years. Why would that change if you suddenly told me now?”

Yngel frowned to himself. “I could be the second coming of another Tragedy.”

“You live in a backward town near the edge of the known world. Why would the Tragedy have anything to do with you?”

He nodded. Why would the Tragedy have anything to do with him? He was not Vrak.

He thought of Sari. What did the Tragedy have to do with her? Well, she was Vrak. But she was also younger than his own daughter. He turned in his bed, closing his eyes and trying to sleep. In his dreams, he dreamt of running - running from a dark, unknowable force that followed behind no matter how far he ran.

Two days after the first payment, Sari visited again.

He opened the door to find her standing there, arms folded, dressed in the same garb he had seen her last.

“Welcome, Sari.” he said.

“We’ve found the second cluster,” she said curtly. “Just to let you know, it’s a big one. Larger than even we anticipated. We strike at dawn tomorrow, though it’ll probably take more than a single strike. Get more payment ready - I suspect there might be twenty of them.” She turned to leave.

Yngel felt a sudden sense of urgency. “Wait,” he called.

She turned. Her face was expressionless. “What?”

He struggled with his words. “I… I apologise for what I said that day. It was unfair of me. I have had some time to think and-”

“Words are empty, Chieftain.” Sari looked at him, face still expressionless. “What you said… It’s just what everyone feels. You were just brave enough to say it at that moment. Don’t bother feeling guilt - I’ve travelled far and wide, and it’s the same everywhere. In fact, it's worse.”

Yngel shook his head. “No. It was wrong.”

“It was honest. And it holds truth - a truth I’m coming to accept. Good day, Chieftain. Please be ready with the payment.”

She turned to go.

“Have all of you… faced twenty of them before?” he called, one last time. Immediately, he hated himself for it. But there was a struggle within him now that he couldn’t run from. They were Vrak, why should he care how dangerous it was? But he did, and he couldn’t stop himself.

She turned her head. “No. But if we don’t survive, you won’t have to pay us, will you?”

He felt startled. That was not the reason he had asked at all. But before he could come up with a proper response, she had stalked off into the streets, back towards the gates. Only when he closed the door behind him, thinking of how they could possibly win against twenty of those scaled horrors, did he realise that throughout their conversation, he had not felt one whit of fear at her turning him inside out.

Yngel waited impatiently over the next few days. Through his window, he looked constantly at the Sun, rising and setting, rising and setting. He paced his room during his free moments, unable to settle himself. Every moment he wasn’t occupied with settling the affairs of the town, his thoughts turned to the group, supposedly still hunting the varadul in the forests and hills. He discarded the idea of going to their campsite, not wanting to attract attention to their living space. The people had begun murmuring that he had taken their money and wasted it, since they saw not a hint of the mercenaries he spoke of - but he found that he cared little for their opinions. All he wondered was why Sari and the rest were taking so long to inform him of their victory.

On the second day, when they still had not returned, a horrible thought occurred to him. What if they had failed? Was it possible that they had actually wiped each other out? The idea saddened him greatly, and he found himself praying to the Divines that it had not ended that way. Velm had told him of the state of the bodies the varadul had consumed - no one deserved to die above ground, their corpses serving as food for the horrible beasts.

It was only on the morning of the fourth day, when he was waiting at his chair by the door, that a knock came at last.

He stood and opened it himself.

It was one of the Clan Guards. He looked curious.

“A woman is at the gate, Chieftain. She says that the varadul have been dealt with, and that she expects payment. Are these the mercenaries you spoke of at the Clan Meeting last week?

Yngel sighed in relief. What had taken them so long? “Did she say how many varadul were slain, Clan Guard?”

“Twenty-two, Chieftain. It’s a lot of coin… Do you require an escort?”

Twenty-two! It must have been quite a battle. He frowned; he had not expected to have to pay so much - he would have to dip into his own coffers for this - but at least the vrak had returned, and his people would be safe.

Why did Sari not come herself? He wondered. No matter. “There is no need for you to wait. I will be there shortly.”

He approached the entrance to the gate, the heavy coin pouch in his hands - two hundred and sixty-four golden marks. A hefty price to pay, but a necessary one. Yngel wondered what he should say to them, besides giving thanks. At this moment the depth of his gratitude seemed to make all his words underwhelming.

He would offer his sincere thanks, at the very least.

“Here you are, Chieftain,” the Clan Guard called. 

Sari stood by the gates, watched by the wary Clan Guard. She was dressed in the very same clothes she wore for her visits every time, but there was no stain of blood or battle on her. She must have a different set of clothes for fighting varadul.

“Hail, Sari.” He called.

She turned. Her face was resolute, carried like an iron mask, the rest of her framed as a petrified statue. But instantly, Yngel could tell she had been crying. Others would not see it, for Sari hid it better than many, but the Chieftain had a lifetime of reading faces, discerning emotion, and comforting children.

This was a broken child.

“I brought the payment,” he said slowly, wondering if he should ask what had happened.

“That’s good,” Sari responded mechanically. “You will want to see the heads of course. They’re a little old and dried, but they’re all there. Thirty-four. You’ve already paid for the first twelve of course… We counted the last bag and it was exact. This one should be two hundred and sixty four marks… I’ll take the time to count them later. The heads - right. Yes, this way. It’s in the same clearing.”

He was shocked by how distracted she was. “Slow down, Sari.” He said gently. “If the varadul are all dead, then there is no rush. You have lifted a great burden off my shoulders.”

Sari did not respond. She simply turned and left for the thicket. The Clan Guard looked confused.

“Stay on watch. I’ll return shortly.” He said.

He followed after her. Outside the entrance of the clearing were four horses, all tied to a single tree. The horses eyed him balefully, and he avoided their gaze. The smell of blood was now replaced by the smell of decay, and it was a wonder the horses did not balk and frenzy at the stench. 

He walked the pathway between the trees and came to a mostly empty clearing. The campfire no longer burned, most of it ash and the rest covered with dirt and charcoal. The tents had been packed away, assumedly into the horses’ saddle bags, and the twelve severed heads of the varadul had been cleared. Instead, the felled log had been cleared and replaced by a set of twenty-two heads. Yngel did a quick recount, but he did not believe that the Vrak would try and deceive him. There were many larger heads - striders, they had called them - than smaller ones, but one stood out above all, covered in a mass of scale-horns and somehow more brutish than the rest. Its yellow eye had no gleam, but it still held his gaze somehow.

“What is that? It is unlike the others.”

“It’s a tribehead. I mentioned before; they make clusters smarter, because they’re more intelligent themselves. I suppose we never expected one to actually be out here, though we really should have.”

“Where are…” he said carefully. His heart sank as he looked past her, to the earth where the tents had been.

There were three freshly dug mounds.

“They’re…” the young woman choked, shaking her head and quickly steadying herself. “They did what they had to. The payment, please.”

Yngel didn’t hear her. His eyes remained on the mounds. He had spent a lifetime discerning other people’s feelings, but at that moment he couldn’t seem to understand his own. They were vrak. They died doing what they were supposed to do. They had taken the varadul down with them. The world was safer without them.

If the town knew, that was what everyone would think. That was what the world had taught him to think.

His gaze returned to Sari’s face. She was shaking slightly now, expression empty. Her outstretched hand was there, waiting for the payment. She looked to be holding back a great deal, but tears still streamed down her face.

“Don’t… don’t make this harder than it has to be. Just... give me the coin so I can leave.”

Lovakai burn this unjust world, he thought.

“How did it happen?” he asked sadly.

“They ambushed us. They lived in a burrow, built by themselves. We thought we knew their route back, so we trapped the entrance. Lay in wait at separate places. Darius died before he even knew what happened. Hagus got off the warning just in time. Kariah fought like mad to save me but…”

Her voice froze. She pulled back her hand, clenching it at her side as fists. She shouted, “Why do you care?! Just give me the coin. The beasts are all dead. You counted them, haven’t you?! They won’t trouble you anymore. We fulfilled our end of the bargain. Now fulfill yours so I can leave.”

Yngel extended the pouch and she snatched it from him. “Why did you bury them yourself? Is this why you took so long to return?”

“I’m a Scar,” she said. “My troubles don’t matter to anyone else. Only news of my success counts. It’s what Kariah said.”

“A horrible thing to say.”

“But the truth. With her, it was always about truth. She kept me alive, so I’ll honour her words.”

“This has nothing to do with honour. You could have come to me. I would have helped you, somehow.”

She stood there, hands clutching the pouch, tears still streaming down an expressionless face. “Liar. No one wants to help a filthy Cursed. We were alone in the world, but at least we had each other. Now… now I’m…”

Yngel could not help himself. He stepped forward, and pulled her into a hug. At first, she resisted, trying to push him away. But as he smoothed her hair, she began to cry. Not just tears anymore, but steady, uncontrolled weeping.

Yngel remembered when his daughter had wept at the loss of her husband, not more than two Suns into their marriage. It had been similar to this. He had held her then, too, smoothing tears out of her and wondering how to make the world better.

He just had never thought he would do it for a vrak, young woman or not.

They sat on the earth, opposite each other. The smell of decaying varadul corpses lingered in the background.

“Make sure you bury those heads as soon as possible,” Sari mumbled, wiping at her face. “The smell could attract more, if there are any lurking in the countryside.”

“I will have the clansmen do that. You need not worry yourself over it.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry I dragged you into… into my sorrow.”

“Do not be. I am sorry I asked this of you. If I had known it would end with your friends perishing... I would not have done it.”

Sari shook her head. “I almost believe you.” She raised her gaze to meet his. 

“Where will you go now?”

Sari hesitated. “There are other Scars. I’ll have to find others willing to take me on, or others willing to join me. I can’t hunt scalebeasts on my own. I’ll return to the heartlands, and look for a way to start anew. There’s always a way.”

“You could stay here. I could house you.”

Sari looked at him disbelievingly. “You can’t be serious.”

Yngel held her gaze steadily.

She looked amazed. “You are serious. You’re mad.” She shook her head. “As attractive as it sounds, I can’t do that to you or your wife. How long before people find out what I am? How long before the mobs come crashing at your door, looking to root out the Cursed being you’ve decided to save? I’ve seen it happen, and I won’t let that happen to you. Not everyone is as understanding as you.

Yngel felt troubled, and it clearly showed on his face.

Sari shook her head. “Stop feeling sorry for me. Killing those scalebeasts and keeping your town safe… that’s something only I can do. You call us Vrak - I assume it’s some sort of dirty word in your language - but we are proud to call ourselves Scars. And even if you hate me-”

“I do not hate you,” he said.

“Even if others hate me, I’ll live this out. This task gives my Curse a purpose. And like my friends, I’ll carry it to my early grave.”

She turned to look at the three mounds. “They all knew they would die on a hunt, but they knew it was better than dying to a mob.”

Yngel could feel her determination. “If there is no changing your mind, at least give me until noon before you leave. I’ll prepare what I can to make the journey easier for you.”

Sari nodded. “Thank you. That will help a lot.”

At noon, Sari was seated upon her horse. Her panniers had been filled, and her water sack was full. She looked down at Yngel from the saddle, the stain of tears in her eyes. But there was a stronger resolve there now, like iron that had been cast into steel. Yngel reached into his pack and pulled out another pouch of coin, reaching out to hand it to her.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“More coin. For the road. It will make your journey easier too.”

She snorted gently. Her hand pushed the coin pouch back toward him. “I’ve already been paid, Chieftain. I don’t need any more pity.”

He smiled. “Yngel. Call me Yngel.” Somehow, he had known she would do this, so he had hidden another pouch in the panniers. Hopefully she would find it when she began running out of food. “It is a long road to Cilaya, to Corlan Cal. What I have given will not get you that far. Are you prepared?”

The young woman nodded. “You’ve given me so much already. Thank you. No stranger has ever been this kind to me.”

“Not a stranger. A friend. Do not forget the Orthoran Clan. You will always be welcome here.”

She spurred her horse a short distance, and stopped.

“You know. Kariah was right - you did show me a truth. But somehow, I don’t think it was the truth she meant. Goodbye Yngel, and may the Divines bless your town.

“May the winds favour your road, Sari.”

With that, the young woman rode away into the distance. Yngel watched her go, descending down the hill into the thick forest that wound its way south, towards the capital city of Eliya and back into Eastern Cilaya. He wondered if he would ever see her again.

Sari did not look back once.