Prologue

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They found him sitting on the chest of a stinking corpse, one hand cradling its detached head and the other grasping a gore-covered knife in a white-knuckled grip.

Quietly, they slipped from within the gloomy shadows of the trees and gathered around him. There were three of them; dirty, ragged men who looked only slightly better than the corpse itself. The biggest of them glanced at him, before half turning to keep watch of the surrounding area.

The other two eyed him for a full minute. Then, "Boy."

He jerked at the sudden sound, dark eyes darting upwards before growing wide at the sight of them. It was like a switch had been thrown, turning off the numbness. Emotions rose and swelled in a overwhelming mix, but the one that reigned in the end was relief.

They were human. Living, breathing humans.

He opened his mouth to speak, to sob, to shout, to wail - but nothing came out. His brain couldn't decide on which one.

One of the men pointed at the corpse. He had an unkempt brown beard and the build of a bear, but his gray gaze felt warm. "You knew her?"

He looked down at the mangled head on his lap. It was turned to its side, but he could still see one milky eye, forever frozen in a blank stare. Two days ago, that eye had once been a bright blue and filled with life.

He bit his lip, trembling. Two days ago, she'd been warm and laughing and alive. But today, she was ... he had to ..

"Boy!" A sharp edge rode the man's voice.

Closing his eyes, he sucked in a deep breath. Then let it out with a pained whisper. "Sister."

A heavy silence followed for a short moment, before it was broken by a soft curse. He couldn't tell which of the men uttered it.

"All right." A quiet sigh. "Why don't you come with us then? We've got a safe enough place, with food and water."

"No," spat a new voice. It was a lanky man with a worn ball cap pulled low over greasy, shoulder-length hair. This man stared at him with a cold, cruel sneer that made the skin on his arms prickle. "Bill, we don't need no weak kid dragging us down. We got 'nuff of that with the women. Just leave him. He won't last long anyhow."

Bill levelled a hard stare at speaker. He lifted a hand and pointed at the severed head held on the young man's gore-covered lap. "Does that look weak to you, Jake?"

Jake looked, then looked away with a scowl. He said nothing.

"Okay." Bill gave a tired smile. "What's your name, boy?"

He stared at the head. Its long hair was still wrapped around his hand. "...Ash."

"Ash, huh? I'm Bill." A hand was held out, promising safety, promising hope.

Ash let go of the head, and reached out with a slimy, bloody hand to take it.

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