Darkness. The thunder of feet, the smell of smoke. A shrill scream. Pather gasped and convulsed, shadow like wraiths surrounding him. They plucked at his body with their skeleton hands, cutting deep scars into his skin. Hooded faces with slits for eyes gazed blankly down at him, and the long scythes they held in their hands gleamed darkly in the half-light.
"Stop! No!" Pather cried, but they payed him no heed. The shining blades rose and then fell, arcing towards his face...
Pather woke up with a start and lay panting in the night. The musty stench of decay was replied by the acrid smell of smoke, and flickering light danced across his shut eyelids. With a gasp Pather sat upright and forced his eyes open. Flashes of motion assaulted his vision as he gazed out wards.
Their small contained fire had quickly grown into a raging inferno, incinerating several trees around the clearing. Burning leaves floated down around him as the heavens rained fire.
Pather shook the blankets off of himself and scuttled backwards on his hands and knees until he was under the cover of a large bush. Branches partially obscured his vision as he stared into the clearing.
Various figures in human and animals forms stood around, gazing with hungry eyes at a small figure. Pather seems to have escaped their notice. A branch fell, flames flowering from one end and the shifters quickly dove out of the way to avoid it. The break in the throng allowed Pather a clear view of what thy were looking at.
A warrior yelped and fell over, and a grey blur slashed at his neck before it was thrown off. Breksha was fighting for her life. So much hate and fear glowed in her narrowed weasel eyes that Pather stood frozen in shock, He watched more and more shifters throw themselves at her, only to crawl away a few seconds later, licking at their wounds.
"Stop." A voice commanded quietly, so quietly that Pather almost didn't hear. The shifters immediately parted, and Breksha reverted to her human form, rising to meet the approaching figure. Her eyes became slits.
"Manin, "she snarled.
"It has been a long time, my love," Manin replied, reaching out to touch her cheek. Breksha recoiled as if she had been struck.
"I told you never to call me that again."
"Why ever not, Breksha?" Manin asked.
"You forsook your right to me the second you raised your hand." Breksha replied dangerously. Manin's cool demeanour fell away as she uttered the words.
"Where's your son, Breksha?" Manin taunted.
"He's yours too." Breksha spat.
"I'm sure he would be far more... Receptive to certain ideas." Manin continued smoothly.
"You'll never get us alive." Breksha said.
"Then I should have killed you when I could," Manin growled, "Rather then let you bring more tainted blood into the world!"
Breksha's eyes flickered, the only indication of motion before she shifted and dove away, but he was too slow. Manin struck out and hit her face. With a sickening snap her neck lolled to the side. She was dead before she hit the dirt.
"No!" Pather screamed, and then quickly clamped a hand over her mouth. Manin slowly turned towards the bush that Pather was concealed behind. Their eyes locked, and Manin pointed to where he lay concealed.
"Dramos. Seize him."
Pather felt his arms be yanked over his head, and he was dragged, kicking, across the ground.
"So this is the boy." Manin said. His eyes burned. He roughly put a finger under Pather's chin and roughly jerked the boy's head upwards. "You favour your mother." He said in a thoughtful tone. "Her eyes, her nose, but it's my face."
Pather shook, fear flooding through him.
"Kill him." Manin ordered calmly, thrusting Pather to the ground. "Do it quickly, and I will meet you in seven days' time back at the nursery." Manin walked into the woods, leaving Pather to in the dirt, ragged blankets still tangled around him.
Dramos is waited until the footsteps had faded before turning back to Pather. He lifted the hem of his shirt and Pather took in with growing fear the weapons belt that hung from his waist. Dramos drew a long, sharp blade, dyed rust red and glinting in the firelight. He slowly knelt and raised the knife. Pather lay in terror, panic freezing his limbs. It was all he could do to wait as the blade fell. The anticipation of the feeling of cold steel sliding through his flesh was enough to choke him.
A second passed. Two. Pather opened his eyes a crack and gazed out. Dramos had his hand on the blankets that had ensnared Pather's legs and was slicing through them with brutal efficiency.
"Get up." he ordered. Pather didn't move. "I'm not going to kill you." Dramos said. If Pather didn't know any better he would've thought that was exasperation in the warrior's hardened voice.
"I'm taking you to a place where you will not be harmed."
"Why?" Pather asked.
Dramos turned away. "I have a son. I could not end the life of a child. Now follow me."
Pather did not question the man. He was young, and he was scared. Dramos seemed to offer freedom, and Pather took it.