Tyos stood on the hills, his grey eyes sweeping the lush, grassy knolls that stretched from his homestead toward the town of Adclif. He leaned heavily on his staff and frowned in puzzlement. “Where are they?” he muttered to himself. He took a deep breath and sucked in his lower lip to loose another piercing whistle that echoed loudly through the air. Still there was no movement on the horizon and frowned even harder.
The mountains loomed overhead, casting a long shadow over the green land that stretched as far as he could see. Behind him, he could hear his wife, Hilda, playing with their two children, their voices raised in laughter. He turned and watched as they dug into the garden with muddy hands, giggling madly. It was always a competition to see who could pluck the most weeds from the loamy black soil.
He smiled softly at the sight, but his brow furrowed as he turned back to the rolling hills. Tyos boasted a tiny flock of three sheep for his wife to use to spin wool for their clothes. The sheep wandered during the day but normally returned when he whistled, eager for the safety of their holding pens. He tightened his grip on his staff and heaved a deep sigh. He would have to find the wayward things.
Tyos walked down one hill and over another, searching in gullies and crevices. Still there was no sign of his animals and he began to worry. The nearest neighbors were half a day’s walk away and the nearest town was nearly twice that distance. Tyos and his family lived in relative seclusion, occasionally going entire seasons without seeing anyone beyond their closest neighbors. They felt safe here, safe enough to let their animals roam freely and let their children frolic across the hills. In all the years he had lived here, never had his small flock not returned at the end of the day.
A skittering rock caught his attention and he crouched down. Within a nearby ravine there was a small overhang, almost a cave. Something rustled inside. He sighed, irritated but relieved, and he chuckled to himself for being so worried about a silly sheep stuck in a hole. He lowered himself down into the small ravine and ducked below the low hanging ceiling. He stood stock still for a moment, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. Horror swept through him as they focused at last.
“By the Blessed Writ,” Tyos gasped. His sheep lay on the ground, all three of them dead. Their bellies had been torn open, their intestines looped around the rocks, the thick, bloody ropes forming an intricate web of gore. Their eyes were fixed and unblinking, covered with small flying bugs. The smell was horrible; maggots had already dug their way into the flesh.
Tyos stumbled back up the hill, dropping his staff to crawl on all fours in his desperation to put distance between himself and the tableau of slaughter. As he reached the top of the hill, he looked over the darkening hills with a sudden apprehension, his skin crawling with revulsion. No wolf could have done that to those sheep. It had been human hands. Or worse. He quickly moved back to his cottage, cursing himself for abandoning his staff, his old bones moving as fast as they could.
The sun seemed to sink beneath the horizon faster than he had ever seen and he broke into a jog as he neared his cottage. His wife and children were still in the garden, throwing out the last of the weeds. He could see his wife put a dirt covered hand over her eyes, shading them from the last few rays of the sun as she watched his hurried approach.
She pushed herself to her feet and reached out for him as he slammed the garden gate. Her sharp eyes took in the look on his face and she caught her breath. “Tyos, what is it?” she asked, taking his hands. The children looked up, their eyes wide at the sight of their frightened father.
“Get the children inside,” Tyos gasped out. “Something got at the sheep.”
“What, a wolf?”
“No, Hilda. Get the children inside. Hurry!”
Hilda grasped the now frightened children with her strong hands and pulled them into the cottage. Tyos slammed the door and threw the bolt just as the sun sank fully below the horizon. Darkness spread across the land like a disease and fell across his home, plunging them into darkness. He lit a lantern to ease his passage through the house as he checked to ensure the back door and windows were securely locked.
“What is happening, Tyos?” Hilda demanded as he made his way back into the kitchen, her weather worn features wide with fear. For a moment he ignored her to stare out the window, entranced by the shadows that seemed to dance across their front yard. The quiet wailing of his children pulled Tyos back to reality and he shook his head, forcibly tearing his gaze away from the encroaching darkness.
“Something killed the sheep,” he murmured, stepping close to Hilda and speaking quietly into her ear. “They…played in the sheep’s intestines. Whoever did this, they were human. Or Fay.”
Hilda’s eyes opened wide with surprise and she clutched her children closer. “You think the Fay are raiding again? But it’s been years since we last had an attack!” she whispered urgently.
“I don’t know,” Tyos admitted, shaking his head.
Hilda knelt before the children and tried to calm them before sending them down into the cellar to hide. “It’s a game,” she reassured them, but the children knew better. Their mother wouldn’t have tears in her eyes over a game. They hid, obediently hunkering down quietly as Hilda lowered the door over them, leaving them alone in the dark.
Tyos grabbed a sword from the wall and hefted its familiar as he gripped the hilt with both hands. Rage filled him. He had moved his family to Adclif in search of a peaceful life. He would not let a group of murderous Fay destroy all that they had worked for. Hilda grabbed her axe and held it to her shoulder.
“Do you remember how to use that, old man?” she asked with a warm, teasing smile despite the anxiousness belied by her tense shoulders.
Tyos scoffed as he rolled his eyes dramatically. “I could always put you on your ass, old woman,” he answered. She punched him lightly in the shoulder and they shared a grin. They had spent years in the Erihill army together, since they were practically children. Hilda had quickly rose through the ranks to become a captain while Tyos had been content with his rank of sergeant. Friendship had grown to fondness, then to affection, then love.
They had left the army to eke out a simple existence together but they had never forgotten what they had learned. The years of careful training and drill came back to them as though it had only been yesterday that they had stood on the training field, shoulder to shoulder with the rest of their unit.
Something rattled outside. The gate to their rickety fence slammed open then shut and they froze, setting their feet in a combat stance, all jokes forgotten. There was silence, and then a thump. An eerie creaking filled the air as something jiggled their doorknob. The lock held and the thing outside began to beat ferociously at the door. Tyos clenched his teeth and Hilda gripped her axe tighter as the doorframe creaked in protest.
The banging increased until it was almost unbearable and then it abruptly stopped. The creaking picked up again and this time they heard footsteps on the roof. The footsteps stomped up and over, then they disappeared. Tyos held perfectly still, his ears straining to hear.
Whatever the thing was, it was gone now. The only sound he could hear was his children whimpering in the cellar below. He let out a pent up breath and looked over at Hilda in relief. She smiled shakily as she lowered her axe to the ground.
“I think they’re gone, don’t you?” a childlike voice whispered in his ear. A chill ran down his spine as he whirled, raising his sword as a twisted imp swung its claws out, catching Tyos in the belly. He fell to the ground, blood rushing from his side as the house shook violently. He looked up, his mouth falling open in horror as something forced its way into his home.
Wood cracked with a thunderous groan and splinters rained down onto Tyos as a chitinous beast dug its way into the house. It threw aside a chunk of the roof, leaving the interior house open to the sky. Tyos felt his eyes immediately drawn to the moon that hung low in the sky. Where usually it spread its silver beams over the land, tonight, it glowed a blood red.
The children shrieked with terror as the beast reached its clawed hand down toward them, its jagged teeth gleaming in the moonlight. Hilda abandoned her husband as he struggled with the imp and ran to the defense of her children. She brought her axe down on the beast’s arm as hard as she could.
The blade shattered as it struck the thing’s armor uselessly, sending pieces of gleaming basanite into the air to scatter on the floor. Hilda stumbled, then straightened, still grasping the hilt of her axe as though she meant to club the creature into submission. The thing grunted and turned its massive head toward her. Multiple eyes flicked over Hilda as it began to lean down.
Tyos held his sword sideways over the imp’s shoulders, one hand on the hilt and the other on the flat of the blade, holding it back as it leaned forward, its teeth gnashing toward his throat. Pinned as he was, he could only scream out in sorrow as the monster in the roof leaned in and bit Hilda in two with its massive teeth. The lower half of her body collapsed, spewing blood across the floor.
“Hilda!” he screamed as tears streamed down his face. He spat in the imp’s face and glared as it loosed an ear-splitting cackle. “What are you? What do you want?” he demanded as it leaned in on him even more, pressing his blade into his chest.
“You,” it hissed, its stinking breath caressing the side of Tyos’ cheek. It inhaled the sweat from his skin with a shuddering breath and sighed happily. “You are the first. The first to feed the Nexus. Consider this an honor.”
It gripped his wrists and squeezed with impossible strength. Tyos shrieked as the bones snapped, his wrists shattering and his hands falling limp. The imp knocked his sword away, sending it spinning across the floor. Weak from blood loss and pain and mad with grief, there was little Tyos could do besides hold his hands up in front of his face uselessly. The imp raised its clawed hand, drawing back for the death blow.
The children wailed as the creature in the roof reached down to grab them both in one massive, clawed hand. Their little feet kicked frantically as the thing raised them to its mouth and tossed them in, its eyes closing in ecstasy as it bit down. Blood ran down its chest as it chewed the children to pieces and it swallowed before grinning down at Tyos with bits of his children’s flesh caught in its teeth.
Impotent rage overwhelmed Tyos, blocking out even the agony of his wounds as he watched his children’s grisly demise. Tyos looked up at the imp, his face pale and teeth clenched. “Someone will stop you,” he promised it firmly. “You will pay for this.”
The imp cackled, throwing its head back with mirth. “I look forward to it,” it chuckled. It finally swung its arm, sending its claws ripping through Tyos’ throat. Tyos gagged and his boots beat a frantic tattoo against the floorboards as his lifeblood spurted out into the air. His vision slowly faded but not before he saw the imp once known as Ila lowering its face to the spray, opening its mouth to lap at the puddle of blood gathering there.