The trees around me sway as their branches catch in the breeze. Four fat rabbits rest in my hunting sack, its bottom soaked with their blood. As scrounging for food went, it was a successful outing. We wouldn’t go hungry tonight.
I hike through the forest, making my way home, my fist clenched tightly around the neck of the sack. It’s not like wildlife is hard to come by in Sunnan, but if I had been only hunting for myself, it wouldn’t have taken up most of my day.
From the reactions I usually receive upon my return, I get the impression Herinda and Grinden don’t appreciate the effort I put into making sure they have food to eat. They are still used to everything being provided for them by our parents, but they aren’t around anymore.
Emerging from the shadows of the woods, I see our small cabin resting on a wide stretch of grass, the sky turning red by the time I reach the front door. Made from the same dark oak as the rest of the house, my already tired arm hitches as I heave it open. The cabin may have kept us sheltered and warm at night, but considering the two children I had to share it with, it feels more like a prison to me.
They look up as I enter; the pale, needy faces of my siblings. Although Grinden is eight and Herinda is twelve, I can’t imagine that I ever looked so sickly and drawn at their age. As soon as I enter into the cold, silent living room and catch their eyes, they look away and return to playing with their homemade toys on the floor. Play might have been the wrong word. There’s no joy in their expressions, just a sick, desperate desire for any form of escape.
I look at the dying hearth in the room and roll my eyes. “Herinda, I told you not to let the fire go out.”
Herinda’s gaze drifts to the few remaining embers in the ash-filled fireplace, shrugs, and continues fitting her wooden doll into its tiny dress. I grit my teeth, her indifference to my request making anger boil up inside me. Setting my hunting sack on the kitchen table, I stalk over to the wood stack within arm’s reach of her, grab a log, and toss it on. Hot ashes and embers fly up from the hearth, a few landing on Herinda’s forearm. She quickly sits up and brushes them off, grimacing in pain.
“Maybe if you did your job, that wouldn’t have happened,” I growl.
Grinden rises and walks over to the table, trying to see what’s in my sack, but he’s not yet tall enough to reach it. Pride replaces my anger and I idle over to show him my kills. As I pull it down and open it for him to see, he gives no reaction, not even a thank you. He simply spins back to Herinda to continue playing on the floor.
It rankles me but I bite my lip to suppress my agitation and say, “Herinda, get a pot from the kitchen.”
She ignores me, still looking at the red marks on her arm. The burns aren’t that bad. I wait, trying to be patient, but even after a minute passes, she doesn’t move. I ball my hands into fists hard enough that my knuckles turn white.
“Alright, starve then!”
Their heads perk up and I catch their gazes for an instant.
“If you don’t care, then why should I?”
I storm off to my room, slamming the door behind me. I fling myself onto my bed with a huff. When I was in the forest, all I could think about was getting home. Now I wish I had never come back.
Outside, birds chirp out their last mating calls for the day and the sky darkens into night, or at least what passes for night in Sunnan. Even during the late hours, the sun only circles the sky just below the horizon line, hidden but not entirely gone. This is why the region that Sunnan occupies is known as The Golden Lands. As the background noise fades, all I can hear is my deep frustrated breaths against my pillow. That’s until I begin to hear someone sobbing outside my door. I groan and push myself off the bed. Leaving my room, I follow the noise into the living room. Herinda is crying next to the fireplace, a knife in one hand, a dead rabbit on her lap, and blood everywhere.
“What are you doing?”
I rush over to see that not only had she ruined the meat but she had also slit open her left hand. Her wailing rises in volume, as though giving her attention was an incentive to open the floodgates.
“Quiet!” I snap. “You’ve made a mess of everything. Do you know how long it took me to catch these?”
I snatch the rabbit from her lap and stand over her. She holds her bloody hand up at me, tears still welling up in her eyes as though pleading for me to make the pain go away.
“You think that’s bad?” I steal the knife from her and wave it in front of her face. “Maybe I should skin you instead of the rabbit!”
She squeals louder, but I had heard enough. I drop both the rabbit and the knife and return to my room. Striding across to where my old sword leans against the wall, I grip its hilt and close my eyes, trying to calm myself.
With this blade alone, I could leave this place and never look back. Vestan, Austan, Noroan, I could go wherever I wanted. If only I could get rid of them. The grim fantasies of how I might accomplish this soothe me. My breathing calms and my shoulders relax. I still hear Herinda crying but she didn’t matter, none of this did.
Feeling suddenly tired, I return to my bed and manage to drift off.
I awaken with a start as a high scream pierces the air, followed by the sound of the front door being smashed open. The sound of the oak splintering makes my stomach tighten with sudden panic. Having just been asleep, my heart rhythm hastens from a trot to a gallop and I prop myself up on my elbows, staring at the shifting light under my closed door.
I hear Herinda cry out. Leaping from my bed, I scramble across the room to grab hold of my sword. I whirl about, lifting it into a guard stance, every inch of me on edge. All I can hear are muffled voices and heavy footsteps that cause the wooden boards beyond my door to groan. They pound across the living room, getting closer, but my legs have turned to ice.
Holding my breath, I hear Herinda and Grinden screaming in unison before they are both cut off. I react out of instinct. Before I know it, I’m out of my room, one hand shoving the door open, the other raising my sword to blindly strike at whatever comes at me. I barely get a chance to register a looming form before I plunge my sword into its gut. It makes a wet, sucking sound and the form chokes, blood running from its mouth.
My adjusted night vision makes out a distorted human shape with charcoal skin and a bestial, rotten-toothed visage. The room is filled with them, several holding weapons, two others working to tie up my brother and sister.
Too hideous to be human despite their superficial similarities, it finally dawns on me what these monsters are: Volcryie, creatures from the Darklands.
Binding their mouths with cloth, they drag Herinda and Grinden toward the broken-in front door. My siblings reach for me, their tears shining in the moonlight. All of the anger and hatred I’d felt toward them shatters inside me, and in its place, I feel a burning desire to save them.
“Get your hands off them!”
I raise my sword and charge in. With the Volcryies’ skin being dark enough to blend in with the shadows, I can’t fully make out their movements. In the heat of my passion, I swing my sword with abandon, and despite my inexperience, land blows on two of them. They fall back with grunts of pain and I scan the room for my next target. None of them are advancing on me, but as my eyes flit one way and then the other, I realize I’m now completely surrounded.
A large hand lands on my shoulder from behind. I’m spun about and a cold blade enters my abdomen, driving deep into my stomach. I gasp and time freezes. Despite the steel being frigid, the pain burns like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I look down, seeing the bloody hilt sticking out of my flesh. It slides out and blood spurts from me like I’m some kind of fountain statue. I fall to my knees, thinking I might be able to get back to my feet, but then the world tilts sideways and I feel my head hitting the floor.
Blood that felt so warm before becomes cold as it puddles beneath me. The Volcryie seem to spin around me in triumph, but in my current state, the whole world appears to be spinning. I try to refocus my vision, searching for my brother and sister. Instead, my eyes alight on one of the Volcryie. His dark hair is long and matted, and from his shoulder hangs a cape that appears as red as blood in the moonlight. The others move to his side like he’s their leader or the captain of their group.
Just as my vision begins to tunnel, I watch as the caped Volcryie turns to the door and the rest follow him out into the night. As silence comes over my empty home, all I can feel is the cold blood soaking into my side. Even that sensation fades and all I have left is darkness.