- PROLOGUE -
The human memory can do strange things to the past. It can bend and colour, magnify or minimise, and the memory can alter truth the way that stained glass alters light. But since the past can never be repeated it can never be offered up to our edition, and so the memory, no matter how flawed, remains flawless…
From “The Learnings of Synamus Treacher”, Vol.1
The night smelled of cooling blood. A sour, deathly stench swirled within the shadows like the fetid breath of an underfed wolf, predatory and hungering. The Windchaser paused upon the overgrown orchard path, a silent sentinel flanked either side by scores of apple trees that had long since shed their last blossom. His nostrils twitched as he caught his quarry’s scent; the beast was close, hunkered down in the darkness, watching him, analysing him. The stinking wind tugged at his coat tails as he crouched low and traced his fingertips through the grass, feeling the sickly residue smeared upon the ground by the creature’s passing.
He could feel its eyes upon him but refused to give it the satisfaction of acknowledging its presence. Twice on the trail it had attempted to flank around behind him, but on both occasions he had quickened his pace and almost caught it, steering it towards the orchard. Now that the beast found itself with a river at its back and a Windchaser before it, all that was left was the fight.
Arius wiped the mess from his fingers and looked up towards the Shrine. The cold, grey-white stone seemed to glow in the light of the twin moons, casting long black shadows as deep as the Ulgathan Pit. He touched his fingers to his heart, then his brow, and finally his lips – a salute to the eight Saints honoured by the ancient site.
A cloud swept in, smothering the moonlight and plunging the orchard into absolute darkness. The Windchaser remained motionless, at one with the night, listening above the rustling branches for any sound of movement. As the clouds broke, he narrowed his eyes and rose to his full height. He was tall and broad, clad in charcoal leather trews and a pale shirt beneath a long, double-shouldered greatcoat the colour of rain clouds. A dark sword appeared in his hand, its wide blade a torch of shadow. In the fleeting, sporadic light that dripped down between the storm-blown clouds, he waited patiently for the creature to show itself.
The faintest of noises penetrated the stillness: the slither of smooth skin against grass. The Windchaser cocked his head, attempting to identify the sound. A sudden spear of cold luminescence pierced the clouds, and from beneath the shadow of the old shrine, the daemon crept.
Its body was humanoid; lithe and sleek, pallid green in the pale light and streaked with dark veins. Its face, however, was entirely bestial: the eyes were soulless black slits, the mouth too wide for its skull and filled with serrated teeth. Spines adorned its smooth cranium, shining wetly in the gloom; its muscled arms ended in three-fingered hands equipped with black claws as long as daggers, and its slim legs were built for speed and power.
With hollow eyes the daemon regarded the man standing tomb-still and shin-deep in the long grass, and began to move slowly and deliberately around him. It emitted a low growl, rhythmic and menacing – the Windchaser knew it was speaking but he cared nothing for its sentiments. He had not pursued it for two days to bandy notions with it now. He took one step away, bracing his weight against his back foot, holding his dark blade out to one side. It was an invitation.
The daemon accepted.
It swept towards him with unnatural speed, its wicked claws closing in as its legs propelled it through the grass. The Windchaser reacted with a grace and swiftness that should have been rendered impossible by his build, dancing one step to his left, the sword dragging a swathe of blurred shadow behind it as it sliced the air. He felt the blade bite and tear free, and he spun with the momentum of his strike to follow the daemon’s arc as it hit the ground in a tumbler’s roll, a rising curl of black vapour seeping from its shoulder. Injured now and more cautious than before, the daemon moved back a step.