Beware the Ills

Chapter One

I will never tell you my name. It’s not important. It gives no specific view to my personality or character, not that there is much to observe. A name is simply a title, a label, a strand of living data to give you immediate worth in the chaos. It’s worthless. Worth can only be earned. There is no need for anyone’s full realization about me. I’m not allowed to be close to anything or anyone. I prefer it. I need to always be clear, always lucid. No room for error. Perfection’s attractive, and so can being perfect. I must be able to kill with consistency and certainty, and ignore all distractions. Consistency always feels like perfection.

Nothing’s more important.

It’s snowing, like always. It snows every day in some random capacity on this island. I cannot consider it my island. I don’t own the island. I don’t have money. I’ve never owned money, but I know the island like something I own. I know almost every inch of it, from the dark of the Ill’s tunnels in the grey stone mountains, to the cracks along the Shingles. I know the forest from its needled edges surrounding the shore, to the clearings near the river dividing this island.

Almost every inch, every snow-ridden inch, I have witnessed and known.

The island always stirs with a constant coldness. The wind blows in from the sea. The wind howls in from the mountains.

The Ill’s control the mountains bordering the ocean. Only one beach froths free of them on the whole of the island. I’ve watched this one shore countless times.

I try to forget it. I hate memorizing every little detail out of boredom.

I can picture it now, the shore, the white brushing back at the water, throwing up warped shapes in wet bursts. I can’t see the beach now, but I know what’s occurring. I know they’re landing. New encroachers, new invaders, new outlanders from some faraway country. I can faintly see their outlines through the trees. Blue and I have climbed high and deep into the velvet canopies. We’re not in the highest tree of course, that would be ridiculous and stupid. They would spot us, especially Blue, and we would lose nearly all our allure. Surprise and legend, are some of our most powerful attributes to killing.

Without those two arrogances, we’d be just another pair of natural disasters.

I hear machines grinding. I hear men screaming over the writhing and flaking snow. The cold bites my teeth as I breathe it. It stings wickedly today, its extra bitter. It draws my skin back in stiff lines along my white face. The deep cold began yesterday, and it normally breaks in the afternoon in some capacity or another. Mind you, it’s always cold. This however, this winter has been the coldest in some time.

Blue growls behind me, he’s getting restless. It’s time to move, even he knows that maneuver. I breathe deeply and shake my face in the cold. More trespassers to kill, more to add to the graveyard, a timeless routine. I replay the image in my mind a few times to savor it. I smile.

We move.

We’re falling. Blue drifts before me. He’s heavy and bulky, not that it matters in a fall. When all this hunting began it would be one quick experience when I would fall. All objects would mesh together in a blurred image. Air would bite, green-needles would sing, and the weakest appendages of trees would be severed by my curled form. My armor would clap my shoulders on the landing, it would make me wince and blink my eyes. The pain doesn’t happen anymore, there are too many calluses. Now I fall and time petrifies nicely. The trees are quiet. I can nearly see the faces within them smiling at me. I was never surprised to see them. They are living things after all. The faces come more often, like I am always being watched by some tree-masked spook of the island.

The clouds still, sunlight stops also, all objects obey my descent. I land, and nothing stirs. Blue lands behind me, spinning his body around wildly in a hulking flourish. It’s ridiculous, these flamboyant stunts. He takes joy in the strangest things. The quakes from his fall make the tree’s thrash subtly. The ground echoes a hidden thunder for new invaders to hear, ponder, and tremble.

We run.

Never stop, or at least rarely stop when moving in the forest. Whenever we fall we normally run, even if the forest yawns empty of marauders or Ills. I tilt between the trees slightly as we dash. We stop and crouch down on the snowy sheet as we get closer to shore. Consistent movement isn’t always synonymous with progress. We dart again, or I dart, Blue is less nimble. If he falters and crushes a tree or cluster of twigs, I’ll cut his face so it’ll bleed into his eyes. We can’t give anything away, not a single thing.

We run faster.

The island throttles back at us as we run. The snow billows as we move—a convenient and masking flurry. The landing sounds are intensifying. We’re getting close to the newest batch, the fresh round of marauders. We fall onto the snow knees first and crawl with our noses. No point in blowing the game. We slither past rocks and trees, twisted with heavy green moss and spiked frost. I see forms silhouetted close to the hill overlooking the shore. The snow’s covering us slightly as we crawl. It feels whimsical or polluted, like it’s always been cleaner than us. My breath pushes a path through the flakes. Blue makes a low grumble behind me as we crawl. His form isn’t suited for such low stalking.

I will cut him if he complains further though; I have no qualms about it.

I would always cut him above his eye when he was young and disobedient. The spot would heal quickly according to his body’s systems. More importantly, blood would rush into his eye until it sealed. The wound was always more for annoyance than a physical pain. I haven’t had to do that for quite some time. I scarcely remember how to do it in fact. I’d have to think hard about how deep to cut him.

We stop crawling.

I have found a place to observe them. A thick tree has been toppled from one of the cold storms, hewed right at its base in spectacular fashion. It still holds most of its big limbs on top. Below are hundreds of smaller cracked strands, which give us good cover in the crushed mass.

I look out into the forest intently. The black pillars are smiling with their hidden smirks. Their beams crawl up to the sky like old and mossy prayers. Their needles are a sick bright green and are covered in patches of fresh snow. The ground below them puffs unevenly with mossy green growth and drifts of snow.

I can hear the sea far clearer now. I picture their ships in my mind. They’re covered in metal and wood, probably some lightweight metal suited to the stormy seas surrounding this island. No doubt a metal undiscovered in the Diamond Town. They don’t spend any time looking for new things. They’re too wrapped up in the old materials and beliefs, or that’s what I’m guessing.

I haven’t been there for years.

Most of the invaders come here with big, but still maneuverable ships. They know the combat will be on the island mainly. Seldom have I had to kill men on the deck of a ship.

I hate the sea, it surrounds everything so emphatically. The mountains on the north side of the island have a similar attitude. They’re a consistent grey, a bleakness always lingering on the horizon. I imagine the Diamond Town should be happy with their protective presence, even though they house the Ills. The island’s infested with the Ills. I don’t mind slaughtering them and feeding them to the ground.

The nearby sea, next to the white sand, sits black, hollow, and deep. It’s so close from our hiding spot. The sea isn’t lifeless, or at least not from what I have seen. I still hate it, the dull roar of the waves, the spraying salt, the ridiculous black piling over and over again. It makes me sick. Still, in the sea there are things, in fact in the sea there are monstrous things. Monsters are there, many of them drifting deep in the dark. Occasionally, they wash up on the shore from time to time.

They die of old age down there with nothing hunting them.

They’re white as the snow these tentacle things. They have what seems like a hundred arms. Some arms are longer than others. If you were to stand them up from tentacle to tip they would be as high as the Diamond Town walls. A few of the arms have wide round ends with holes curling up into rings. I have seen these holes effortlessly rip the skin off a man, much to their disappointment and dismay. They were so strong, the skin, came off like crumpled paper.

Their head’s long, like a pyramid of sorts with a single eye in the middle. The eye wiggles like black marble, guided by a few glimmers of inner light darting back and forth. The eye makes me laugh. This wild behemoth circling the deep along the shore adorned with such a crazy eye in such a large body—what a cruel joke.

When I trained in the waves I would swim faraway from shore where the sea would slightly settle. I would stare down at them. I could see their long white bodies circling the blackness restlessly like phantoms, until one would sense my vibrations and dart up towards me in a silvery flourish. It was very invigorating to watch. I would then casually swim to the drop off close to the shore and walk onto land. They would burst through the water in a frothy spray and immediately try mounting the stones and shore. Their bodies are too awkward for life on land, their arms whirling wildly as they try to ascend the rocks in the shallows. I never stayed in too long after that however.

I have sat in the trees along the shore and watched the Ills who would fish for food in the shallows. The monsters would wait for them with their long white arms hidden in the muck and mud along the rocks. They’d be slaughtered effortlessly and silently in twisted pulls. Even for me, it was a hideous thing to observe and remember. I would not survive an encounter with them, not wrestling in the deep and dark.

No focus on that today, no focus on monsters in the deep sea. The invaders who have arrived must have repelled them. They are boarding the island unmolested and intact. The altercation between the invaders and sea monsters demonstrates competence. So many invasions do not reach the shore. This is always a very disappointing and anti-climactic conclusion for Blue and I.

I must concentrate. I hate when separate nagging thoughts distract me at semi-pivotal moments in reality. Memory always crawls into ill-placed moments in my routines.

They’re on the hill where the white sands arch away from the black broth. There are no paths to walk. I allow none, except for the ones the forest and wind have carved out themselves. It would be disrespectful to eliminate them. Close to the shore, and just a little ways up the white hill, I have placed a few corpses empty of all their tissue except a tiny amount in their chest. The corpses wear foreign armor, which shimmers with a lost gold. The armor looks quite alluring. I place it there to observe whether this batch of invaders will be distracted by some slight treasure, or stay focused on the goal. It’s necessary intelligence. The corpses also instill both wonder and certainty.

The corpse makes a certainty, a certainty all tales are true, and the terror could be factual.

A white hand splits the forest on the hill. The hand moves slightly erratic as it parts the green needles. It pushes and breaks the stems. The hand freezes at the sight of the corpse and vanishes, like it needed to ask a question. He or she will not retreat long. Blue grumbles beside me. He starts stirring the snow with his giant hands. We’ve been holding too long for him in this position. The cold changes are getting harder on his joints. Nothing to be ashamed of, it’s cold here, very cold.

The invader slowly shoves through the soft layer of trees with his armored side. He’s white and withered. He has little to no hair on his face. That’s an uncommon trait for most of my visitors. He’s clean shaven, edged, and blue eyed in his face. He looks straight ahead. I see the snow gleam off his eyes. He’s blinking a lot, the flurries are disorienting him. He has a weapon in his right arm. The angle of his pose suggests extreme weight’s being carried, but he’s also relaxed slightly, which advocates experience balancing hefty weight.

These are enjoyable moments of discovery. This makes me excited to kill them.

Blue hums behind me. I jab him in the ribs with my elbow. Strangely, sometimes he sings to himself, though I am fairly certain he has never heard music before, or at least before I attained him. The trees are moving. The air piles atop itself in snow. I want to be closer, but I resist. I’m becoming impatient as I get older. I’m completely patient for months then in the origin of the hunt I grow impatient.

This trait, this cancer, it will never desert me, never.

He’s retrieving someone to examine the corpse I have left advantageously on the white hill. There are more of them now. All are white, old, and men thus far. They’re all clean, thin, and organized. They have armor as well, but I can’t describe it well enough through the trees and gusts. The wind stings my eyes when I stare too long. If they’re adorned in heavy armor, I imagine they have not scouted the island, or are knowledgeable of its climate.

Why wouldn’t they do research? I’m embarrassed for them.

I hear twigs breaking and footsteps. They’ve broken through the woods and I can see their armor. Their armor looks fancy, which doesn’t guarantee it’s effective. It’s not heavy iron armor, but not light tin scraps. It’s a moderately plated shell. The plates won’t protect them against my swings, not at all. However, they will be able to stomp around the forest well enough with them. An armorer somewhere did them justice. I’m curious to who designed mine. I never knew them. I only know it must have been a while ago.

Their armor covers their entire bodies except for their faces. The armor gleams a deep dark brown, like the trunks of the trees across the frontier. The armor’s plates are round and linked together with little brown rings. The helmet’s narrow and pointed; almost pyramid-like, with a sharp point and no face mask. The cold will wear them thin there, like old living leather. It’ll streamline the air right into their jowls. I’m glad someone else will get worn down by the cold. A cloth hangs down on their ears to cut the wind. Smart, it’s thin enough to block the sounds of war and the errant gusts of the wind.

They’re looking at the corpse, turning it over all quizzically with their weapons, like children with some random dead animal. Why do humans in all new situations revert back to their adolescent awkwardness? I don’t understand. It’s delightful to watch from a far. I close my eyes and picture them without looking. The armor color blends well, very well. They might slip a few through my vantage points.

The air smell’s clean, very clean. The cold sterilizes everything I like to think. If the cold’s anemic, then it’s a very dirty island, especially with all the dead bodies and such. I stare through the snow a little bit harder. It’s a crossbow, definitely a crossbow. It’s grey and has a nice little cluster of gears in its innards where their hands are holding it. It looks heavy and obscene. It’ll weigh them down on this island. It has multiple cords across its firing track. Normally, they just have one. They’re lined up in a way to making firing repetitive. Pretty clever, that’s a new feature for a crossbow. They have a quiver of arrows leisurely strung on their brown belt to reload the contraption.

They have started to move in a horseshoe formation. They always move in the same shape, like some demented routine for every fresh batch of invaders. The taller men take the edges to have a wider line of fire, and to not shoot the other snails. It’s a smart enough tactic. They use the shore as a rearguard; well everything in front of them can be covered by their sights.

They always do that too, the repetition feels beyond mindless.

The monsters in the deep are singing and moaning. Their songs hang lovely and eerie against the woods. I appreciate the monster’s music. It’ll worry them. The wind hits the invaders from between the trees. The lack of a path for them to walk along, forces them out of their formation. I’m not concerned. They will move slowly enough to me. I’m not concerned at all.

Eventually, the absence of paths makes all invaders solitary. Then, I can kill them one by one.

I need to see all their weapons, not just those clumsy crossbows. This might be difficult judging by their body language as they drift in. Very cautious and very professional in their stances and marches, they’re well trained. They’ve come for the Diamond town. I mean why else would they arrive? They always hear of the metropolis. The famous city built in the grey mountains, jammed and stocked with diamonds. I don’t completely remember it. It’s been quite some time since I have been there. Riches, fame, jewels, gold, they come seeking all those useless and vain things.

Death on a cold island might be the bleakest ray of reality to their lovely fantasies. These are already pathetic men.

I’ve set another corpse near the one they just passed. The body was even more decayed than the previous one. I keep them away from the graveyard, which sits in the center of the forest, and marks the halfway point to the Diamond Town. It’s a woman. I’ve made sure the long hair has endured the decay. Barely anything else looks recognizable. She’s a stew of dirt, bone, and strained tissue. They will see it.

I don’t remember when I killed her.

Back to the cold, back to the trap. Next to the body nests a wire. The wire’s attached to a tree I hollowed out a winter ago. Setting traps feels so pathetic and sloth-like. I hate it. I need the traps to judge their abilities, and their priorities. The wires will snag one of the men as they inspect the corpse. It will snare him and absorb the momentum of his struggle. It will carry him into the large hollowed tree adjacent to them. It’s full of long hooks, pronged and clean. They’re coated with a poison. The toxin causes madness, convulsions, and then death. The poison comes from the flowers on the edge of the valley before the mountains begin. When they wilt it kills everything within a strong gust of wind. I melted the pollen and coated the hooks. Only I know the location of the flowers. No one else knows. Not even Blue. Not even Haukter.

I thought about coating my weapon in poison, but it’s just so unsporting, and not a quality I really want to my character. If enemies escape after I have cut them, then I hunt them down wounded. It prolongs the hunt, but at least it’s honorable. Sometimes, the cold gets them after all that frightened energy.

Sunken, unholy, limitless cold—I hate it.

The men are examining her. They look up to the forest. They will not see us, never has anyone noticed us on the first gawk. Blue stirs behind me. I lightly slap his mountain of a shoulder with my hand. He puts up his massive forearms to block me, but he only shields himself a little bit.

He’s smiling beneath the assault.

They can stop inspecting the corpse, nothing has changed. The two men are so similar, it’s ridiculous. They bend down to touch her. That’s unwise. They stop, abruptly, like they could hear my sarcasm. They prod her with their weapons, pigs with sticks, pigs with sticks.

Blue just keeps on growling behind me, he probably figures no one can hear him, but I can hear him. I prod him again. I found him in the grey mountains. His species looks similar to us humans. In fact we’re disgustingly similar. They walk and lean like men. They have five fingers and two eyes. Their shoulders and arms swing like men, but their bodies are covered in long white fur. It’s thin at its ends, but thick when it attaches to their skin. It’s nearly impossible to pierce with metal or stone weapons. I know the marks though, the secret stabs—only I know them.

I found Blue and his father inside the grey mountains when I would wander the tunnels looking for Ills. I was deep in them, too far for the Ills to even wander. I typically wouldn’t go that far in, but I was bored, which happens often enough. I remember them very clearly. He and his father were at the end of the tunnel. I barely saw them. Their snowy coats are mixed with a dusty grey blue that perfectly mixes in stone. The tunnel had no light except the orange beam bouncing off my torch. His father was growling at me and smashing the walls trying to scare me away. I had witnessed hideous things at this point, it didn’t frighten me. I was close to him. His paws and round claws were craving for my heart, for my skin. He charged me roaring and thrashing, even the mountain shook slightly to him.

It was quite the scene actually, rather intimidating.

I crouched down immediately. I couldn’t hope to beat him up high—not a chance. I couldn’t run since he would catch me easily. I couldn’t do anything, but collide with him. I knew his back would be weak. Close to his spine sits a hidden spot to split the steel fur, just a narrow enough target for my sword tip. I let him hit me without sinking his claws in. I used his own momentum as I fell, and threw him over my body with my feet. I followed him as he rolled along the ground stunned and confused. He probably hadn’t known a man to take a hit and not die. I was on his back, my sword was through him, and he was dead before he could roar. I had killed them before. Blue charged me then. He was still so small at that point. He was no threat, not even a hint of one. I smashed his head against the stone wall with my right hand. He was out before he could hit me.

I remember how his father’s blood fell on the walls of the tunnel. It spread wild and wide in arcs, like the wings of an insect.

I took them out of the mountains. His father I couldn’t leave; I needed the fur. When I started this I was given very little equipment. I needed something flexible to shelter myself with in combat. I had relied on my reflexes too often, and any sentiment of luck attached to my physical skills was bound to wear out at some point. I restrained Blue against a huge tree that would take a small army to uproot. I needed fire for once so I built one. Against the orange light I began to skin Blue’s father. He was passed out during the procedure. Even I’m not cruel enough to allow him to witness this process. When he did wake up, I would beat him senseless again. I did this until the morning when I released him. He was not happy to see me, and tried to flee.

I caught him and began the process again.

Now Blue hulks over me twice as big, and twice as strong. His face smiles round and exaggerated like a man, only he has round gnashing teeth and a big round nose. His face shines so blue, it matches the color of the sky with no snow, hence his namesake. His human hands are round and manlike with jagged nails that’ll cut through stone. His long white hair, which blankets him, falls down on his face covering his eyes. Only his smiling mouth can be seen. For so many years I had to watch him behind me. His strength and speed might be far superior to mine, but that’s irrelevant when I know his weakness. Seeing his father’s fur on me sustains his curiosity. It has been awhile since I’ve had to truly, non-playfully hit him. I don’t even remember the last time I did. I cannot be completely alone in this endeavor, the other Guardians before me tried, and they didn’t last as long.

No one has lasted as long protecting the Diamond Town as I have, no one.

Now one invader just walks, the others have stopped and are watching him. They’re suspicious, as they should be. The island’s reputation must leer at them like an actual monster. Men file in on the hill between the trees. Maybe they have realized it’s too easy; therefore, something must be wrong. They file in, and file in. It doesn’t stop. Pretty soon the trunks of the trees are blotted out by their armor. I assume there are even more down on the ships. They wouldn’t expose their whole number immediately. They’re solemn, very solemn. Eight hundred eyes I count, eight hundred. They’re all looking the same, all pale, all quiet, older men. Equal ranks, weapons, armor, all the same. Their lines are clumped and long, a symbol of intimidation.

One fool separate’s from the metal herd. There is always that fool. I imagine he’s a brave man, or else he would not have the position. He will hit the trap soon. They must be expecting some type of trap, some type of ploy. They must have received intelligence about it.

The purpose of the trap isn’t some gory fixation or fetish for me. It’s purely to identify how they will react when confronted with this bloody anomaly. They are all seasoned by their general appearance. Scars decorate most of their faces. So they will be calm when it occurs. But who will take command? Who will try to remove the man from the hooks? That is the most important aspect of this whole grim surveillance. Blue would not wait for this observation, he would run howling in and kill them all, and he might be able to do it. As time goes by though, more and more invaders have tricks beneath their armor, devices for all means. They become more worrisome as time goes on.

I wish the wind would pick up and rattle the tree’s a little more, and make one of them move forward. Blue’s breathing very heavily. I can’t hit an animal for breathing. I can’t hit an animal for breathing.

The scout breaks his solemn stance and approaches slowly. His feet are following empty spots between the trees and branches. He trembles slightly. He knows their landing’s too uneventful.

He hits the trap.

An eruption of snow screeches the air, immediately followed by a smashing of branches. He howls long and agonizing, it echoes across the timber. They invaders don’t move. They don’t move. The wire’s attached to some hewed trees scattered behind the edge of the forest towards the shore. They mix with the other fallen trees sitting like old giants across the island.

The wire whines and snaps as it pulls his ascent into the air. It’s wrapped tightly around his lower leg, enough so a small stream of blood comes bubbling out as he spins. I need him to struggle so the tension opens the door. A few of the men chase after him running gingerly and cautiously. Someone along the line screams at them, but they continue to run. Blue starts to growl. I put my hand on his shoulder—he calms, it’s too early for direct combat.

I need more information.

His body collides with the trunk. The hidden door on the front of the tree falls off in a wooden snap. Dried blood and rotted skin border the edges of it. The heavy door bounds off the tree and lands on one of the men crushing him. I laugh a little, I didn’t expect that. The trap victim swings like a crying pendulum into the black hole of the tree. The angle of this spot isn’t the best. I can’t see him struggling anymore since the back of the tree faces me. The towering beam rattles and shivers under his struggle. The throaty scream thrashes loud and visceral, like an animal caged. The hooks I installed are large and curved. They’re not meant to kill, sever or rip, even if the trapped man struggles. The hooks are too perfect. He will not be able to rip his skin off. I have never witnessed that type of audacity in trying to escape. It’s painful though, the agony echoes across the snow and bounces across the trees.

I think they’re use to this melody.

They’ve pulled the man out from below the door, he’s bloody and broken. His legs are crushed and hanging out awkwardly. One of his arms was in front of him when it fell and has pushed a nice shot of bone through the skin below his elbow. It looks so obscene absent skin, like it really shouldn’t be peaking out. They pull back to where the men have formed on the hill. They look so plain and boring standing on the hill. They look just like the trees.

I hate these boring comparisons to the landscape; unfortunately, I’m too familiar with these images. They mesh with reality over and over again like some demented visual concoction.

I am watching the ranks as the man screams. It does not disrupt my concentration. Not many sounds do anymore. The brown rows of men spread out to where the trap shakes. They begin to part into a valley of armored grunts. A man parts the rows as he walks. He’s very tall. I would only reach his shoulder standing on my toes. His face looks long and clean shaven. His eyes are narrow, blue, and keen. His armor’s deep black. He’s marked, he’s superior. The armor gleams the same as the other troops; round, plated, slightly worn for intimidation, and with no overtly exposed skin. Only his face hangs visible, with cloth or leather filling in each spot between the plates of armor. His helm curves the same as the others, only flat with a slight ridge to block the sunlight. His helm has more of a point to it on top, a commanding sign that could be seen above a metal maelstrom.

Out of his appearance his hair would be the oddest commodity. It’s long and feminine, reaching all the way down to his shoulders. He has earned a sliver of individuality. Sadly, his weapon’s not on him or at least it’s hidden beyond my eyes.

He walks slowly up to the tree. The victim screams; I’m sure he’s stretching out his skin on the hooks. Every sharp movement by him blooms an elaborate synaptic explosion of pain. It’s tedious. It’s annoying. He examines the wire hidden in the snowy eves. He then examines the door to the trap I carved out, including the dried blood and fingernail marks along its round edge. The man who was crushed has been dragged away. He’s dead of shock and twisted tissue. The tall man stares into the quivering tree. Snow falls off the eves as he thrashes wildly. He stares a long time at the man. He calmly grabs one of his cohort’s crossbows and focuses it on the shivering tree. There is a quick burst of rattling, along with a hollow thudding sound. It sounds unnatural and foreign against the quiet snow. The back of the trees filled with points, they must fire arrows rapidly like I first thought. The metal the arrows are composed of must be lightweight for speed, and strong enough to pierce the timber. They won’t be strong enough to pierce my cloak, but I am sure they fire with an elaborate frequency judging by the rattle.

They could knock me out if I stay still long enough. I will have to be cautious.

He was quick to conclude the event. I laugh quietly. His eyes dart upward and uphill towards our vantage point. He’s observant. His eyes sit looking through the trees. Blue’s gone under his emerald gaze. He can crawl across the entire island faster than I can run. His big upper body works well for crawling, but his legs are tiny. I use to laugh at them and trip him at full sprint.

I crawl to my right. I move silently and calmly. If they saw me now it wouldn’t be over, but the mystique would be. There are some thicker needles on a cluster of trees just a little ways away. I crawl up a tree downwind from him. The snow blows hard at me again. The cold always bites more at heights. I brush it away from my eyebrows. The flakes make my forehead cold.

The brown ranks part as he walks back up the hill to the shore. An obscene amount of space widens out around him. He has complete command and fear. He walks to the hill and peaks down to the shore.

A woman waits for him.

She’s watching him return. She has golden hair. It’s long and tied in random spots with black bands. She’s pale and narrow. Her face has quiet features in a soft chin and nose. I’m surprised she’s wearing armor and especially that its pale white. The plated material is sickly looking, just like her. Her piqued skin’s exposed to the cold openly. No extra cloth or armor on her arms and neck. She wears a white cloak of sorts. It’s long with some fur that hides her shoulders.

It’s cold, even for me. Watching her makes me feel colder.

She has a short curved sword tied to her belt. Someone who’s stronger, in a brutish way, typically uses one of those. Giants and large brawlers who don’t want to lose any momentum in a swing would use a short weapon. Not a woman typically. Funny, she has something attached to her belt. It emits a slow blue and green glow. She must have a hidden weapon. Haukter would appreciate it wherever he might be. He’s close at hand no doubt. There’s something in the center of her chest armor glowing a group of blue colors. Some sort of enhancement. Her belt has it too, and parts of her sides. It’s blue and sapphire, and fused with laces of fine gold. She has eyes of the same distant green-blue. They’re piercing, and almost painful to focus on.

I have not tasted the blood of a woman for some time. This should be fun.

I am running away from their landing. Blue’s already far ahead of me, he’ll be heading towards the mountains to hunt Ills. No point in chasing him. We use to race each other across the forest and white hills, and he would always beat me. I can’t beat his muscle and speed, but he doesn’t know that completely. I’m still respected, yes, very respected. That hint of mystery assures my dominance.

The hidden mystery of how I killed his father.

We’ll run towards the grey mountains at the northern tip of the island. They stand over the teeming evergreen trees as dark black giants along the horizon. We will hunt Ills. They’re not ready, the invaders, they’re not ready for us to attack. It would be unsporting to attack them when they’re not at full capacity.

We’ll freshen up first. We’ll warm our fingers on the mountain side.

I can still hear the grinding and roaring of the gears. They must’ve brought some fancy contraptions with them. I’ll pass the graveyard soon. The thousands of corpses, machines, and beasts stay frozen beneath the snow as we run—the vigil of dead cheering us on in their own solemn way.

Let them come, I’ve seen it all. They’re all dead or hunched over, with the frost and flakes singing to them. True art, true living sculptures, a grotesque mural to this island’s livelihood. I won’t stop now, only he and I go to the graveyard. Haukter, he’s a strange one. He probably followed me there at some point, not sure when, but he’s always lurking in my shadow.

It’s tedious.

I’m through the forest now, and into the valley between the mountains and river. I’d find the Shingles if I veered right. I won’t be near those walls anytime soon. I seldom return to them. It’s completely empty, only past the wall and the narrow paths would I even find anyone.

The invaders are petty things. Petty things to come invade someplace they don’t even know. They don’t even know where they are. They don’t even know who they really are. I have seen men and women of all shapes and sizes come through. I’ve seen all the machines and apparatuses stagger against the cold. I’ve witnessed hideous abominations take shape in front of my very eyes. Now, they’re frozen rot back there in the clearing. Let these fresh ones come, let them all come.

I will cut them all in two.

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