The Wilds. Eder. The Game of Fate.
The Aevalorn Wilds existed as an untamed forest to the south of Gaelwyn. It stretched inland from the western shore of the Fathoms for six hundred miles to meet a hilly plain dotted by steep, rocky mountain peaks. A rhododendron forest, most of its trees hugged the earth, and their trunks grew twisted, curled, and knotted, as their limbs were prone to creep sideways, horizontally to the ground. Seen from a distance, its rolling green canopy was marred by ruddy patches of rust-colored blossoms, and over the spring, it sported vibrant blotches of pinks, reds, and purples.
To Man, the Wilds was a realm of dangerous contradictions. Breathtakingly ancient and beautiful, the forest was dense and easy to get lost in. Home to rare herbs and abundant wildlife, it was also said to be the den of many things frightening and horrific. The Wilds were the place parents warned their children not to go, yet, folklore spoke so frequently of its treasures, it lingered on the tips of greedy adult tongues eager to taste fortune and fame. Countless Gaelwyn tales recounted the lives of lost souls who - upon entering a precipice like a shady road, or a covered bridge, or a misty grove - were never seen nor heard from again.
The Wilds were where monsters lived, and very few dared to enter without a guide.
It was the height of summer and just before dawn when Eder Bahlod, an eighteen-year-old Gaelwyn man, hesitantly crawled out from underneath an overturned wagon.
Eder’s breath was erratic; his body shook, his hands quaked, and his face was pale with fright. Eder crawled on all fours, pensively, like a scared dog, and his weary eyes scanned the campsite for movement. The dark, mangled trees of the Aevalorn Wilds bordering the site harbored deep shadows that played tricks on Eder’s terror-stricken mind, and he cringed at the slightest of movement.
The remains of the campfire gave enough light for Eder to see eight bloodied, gruesome bodies. The corpses of his compatriots were strewn in pieces about the camp. His company’s tents were ripped and tattered, their possessions ransacked, wooden travel chests smashed, and gold, copper, silver coins, gems, and jewelry littered the ground. And nearby, the wagon’s horse lay gutted in a pool of its own blood.
Pairing the deathly reek with the sight of the horse, Eder heaved, sending vomit followed by a trail of spittle from his mouth to the earth.
Scrambling to an adjacent body, Eder drew a sword from the dead man’s scabbard to hold it defensively before him. Frightened and sleepless, Eder could barely lift the blade, so it dangled, limp-wristed from his center.
Diving for a burlap knapsack filled with travel gear, Eder grasped at clumps of spilled coins and jewels to stuff them into the pack.
“I had hoped for better,” said a low, grainy voice lingering in the trees.
Surprised, Eder fell back to his rump and feebly presented the sword to defend himself. He turned the weapon to his left and right, squinting to penetrate the darkness. “Who-who’s there! S-Show yourself!”
A smallfoot draped in a battered, threadbare cloak emerged from the trees. At four feet, he was taller than any halfling Eder had ever seen, and his gray skin bore an even stranger blue tint. He wore a ruined pair of trousers supported by suspenders running up a ratty pullover shirt. His fingers were elongated and sharp - more like talons than nails - and stained crimson with the blood of his former companions.
Weakly waving the sword before him, Eder backed against one of the wagon wheels and breathed, “You … you stay away! Keep away from me!”
Pausing to bring his cowl down to his shoulders, the stranger revealed an angular face with a mouth of white, wicked teeth; two canines protruded from his upper lip. He crouched to place his palms flat against the ground, squatting with his knees out like a bat, and the halfling admired Eder with haunting blue eyes. “Very well,” he whispered.
“W-Why?” Eder choked. His eyes darted around the campsite for an exit, a weapon, shelter - anything - to potentially escape this creature.
“Hmm,” the halfling shrugged, using one of his nails to push a green gemstone around in the dirt. “That’s complicated.”
“Take it!” Eder pleaded, shoving his pack at him. “I-I don’t need it!”
Admiring the emerald between his fingers, the halfling grinned a mouthful of jagged teeth and said, “Only a moment ago, these treasures seemed exceedingly important to you.”
Shaking, Eder gripped his weapon with both hands to keep the blade tip trained on the halfling. “It-it was a mistake! I don’t want it! Take them! Please, let me go!”
“Let you go?” the halfling whispered, and his eyes drifted lazily to the Wilds. “What an intriguing albeit naïve idea.”
Sweat raced down Eder’s panic-stricken face. “What did I do? Wha-What - why?”
At that, the halfling grimaced and fell serious. “A full moon ago, your merry band of mercenaries entered the Wilds. Your adventures took you to the ruins of lost tribes, peoples who once called these forests home. You plundered their remains. You raided their temples. You stole what was sacred to them.”
Eder swallowed and waved the sword from the treasure to the halfling. “Well, I - go on, then, you can have it all back!”
The stranger’s dead blue eyes glared contemptuously at Eder. “Stealing. Taking. An enduring preoccupation of Gaelwyn Men, regardless of the centuries you’ve had to correct your failings. Your race is as the magpie, perpetually fascinated by shiny things, and as selfish as the raven, equally prone to hoard it.”
Disinterested, the halfling cast the stone to the ground. By the light of the dying fire, Eder saw dried, matted blood, caked across the stranger’s neck and face.
“What are you? Wh-What do you want?” Eder demanded, raising his weapon higher. “You’re a-a halfling-”
“Unlike any you’ve ever met, boy,” the stranger hissed, scowling at him. “At birth, I was named Skyer Dannon, a son of the hamlet of Amberglen. But at death, I was dragged unwillingly into a frozen pond and made vampire.”
Upon offering a name for what he was, Eder’s blood ran cold. He trembled, feeling the vampire’s fearful presence weighing on his arms and chest. His sword became weightier and unwieldy. Staring helplessly into Skyer’s dead eyes, Eder’s arms weakened; his skin went clammy; his mouth dried; his resolve diminished.
“And your name?” the vampire asked, tilting his head slightly.
“E-Eder,” the boy whispered, unexplainably compelled to answer. “Eder Bahlod, of Caerleon.”
Leaning in, Skyer slunk forward on all fours to lock eyes with Eder and allow his sway to overcome the boy. Eder, trapped aside the wagon, squirmed, incapable of escape, and several uncomfortable moments passed before the vampire finally spoke. “For an age, I’ve wrestled with a matter of conscience, a persistent question about my being, Eder.”
“What is it?” Eder asked, his eyes narrowing so completely that the only thing he saw, the only thing that mattered in the world, was Skyer Dannon.
“Fate,” the vampire whispered, drawing closer.
Eder, relaxing, did not struggle, turn, or shy away, and his breathing slowed. “Fate? What about it? Can I help?”
“Possibly,” the vampire said, smiling pleasingly. “It is true I consumed your companions, but you - so young - I admit I succumbed to pity and spared your life. As a test.”
“A test?” Eder asked, lowering the sword.
“Yes,” Skyer growled, pausing inches from Eder’s legs.
Skyer could sense the blood pumping in the boy’s heart. He could smell Eder’s musky perspiration. He could hear the whooshing of air filling Eder’s lungs. Regardless of how docile and submissive Eder would become under Skyer’s sway, he was still prey, and it was necessary for the vampire to actively suppress his hunger.
“I wonder,” Skyer pondered, “if this is all I am, all that I am to be.”
“How so?” His body relaxed, Eder no longer trembled or quaked.
Skyer Dannon rolled his head, almost annoyed that he would need to explain himself. “Cursed with intellect, memory, and cognition, I plainly see what I’ve become. I am a murderer. A fiend. But is that the whole of my fate, Eder? To be a ruthless predator? Or can I be … more?”
Eder sat up to lay the sword beside him and engage Skyer in polite conversation. “Well, er, alive, I’m proof of your kindness-”
“Now isn’t relevant,” the vampire interrupted. “I am satiated. I am in control of my nature. But that will not last. I may resist feeding on you now, Eder, but I question my conviction. Thus I ask, can I rule my hunger, instead of it ruling me?”
Eder smiled and said agreeably, “Oh, I see. Fate, yes.”
“I waited all night, in the trees,” Skyer continued, glancing at the forest behind him. “Knowing you took refuge under the wagon, I permitted you to remain there. All the while, I’ve resisted my compulsions. I’ve controlled my hunger.”
“Well then,” Eder said with an outstretched arm and rolling up his sleeve. “If you’re hungry? Please, I won’t struggle.”
Skyer Dannon grinned and turned to meander into the forest, saying, “Eder, you are a test, in the least, my gamble, and I am not without a sense of fairness. Therefore, I wish to extend you a chance to live, to escape the cruelty of your fate. We will make a game out of it.”
“A game?” Eder asked, genuinely confused, and rose to his feet.
“Yes,” Skyer said, placing his clawed hand against a crooked tree. “Dawn approaches, and soon, I must take to hiding and sleep, where I’ll dream of lost loves I cherished lifetimes ago. And when I wake, I’ll be famished, racked by an insatiable hunger. I may hunt you. I may find you. I may rend you limb from limb and feed on you, but - then again - maybe not. Fate is fickle, Eder. Let’s allow the game to decide.”
Skyer Dannon glared wickedly at Eder and growled in a way that could only be interpreted as an order. “You will run. There is a river, thirty miles to the north-”
“I know it,” Eder said compliantly, picking up his pack.
Skyer Dannon wrapped his cloak around his shoulders and brought his cowl down over his eyes. Embracing himself as if chilled, Skyer continued speaking as he slowly crept into the forest. “I cannot abide it. Meet the river, cross it, and you will survive. Further, you’ll have the privilege of daylight to escape these woods. Never let it be said that I was ungenerous.”
Eder prepared himself to go. “Okay, but, will I see you again, Mister Dannon?”
Fading into the darkness, his hollow blue eyes peering out at Eder from behind his hood, the vampire breathed, “Run, Eder. Pray you make the river’s periphery by nightfall.”
* * *
The next day, twilight descended over the Aevalorn Wilds.
Skyer Dannon slept in the hollow of an old oak - a halfling corpse stuffed into the dark recesses of a dead tree.
Stilled by rigor, Skyer’s hands rested over his shoulders, his body upright and contorted in a peculiar way, and his dead eyes were closed to the waking world.
Overnight, once-living plants and leaves surrounding the tree had blackened, shriveled, and curled, and the tree’s decay had accelerated to turn its wood frail and brittle.
Nearby flowers had wilted. An exsanguinated squirrel, its body decomposing and covered in maggots, created a terrible, noxious smell. A colony of deathcap mushrooms crawled out of the soil to open their caps at the vampire’s feet.
All around Skyer Dannon, death surged, and, when the sun had disappeared behind the tree line and the first star was visible in the heavens, the halfling’s blood-rimmed eyes shot open, and a murder of crows gathered in adjacent trees took flight to escape into the nighttime sky.
The vampire burst from the tree in an explosion of splintered wood. He ran like a jackal: on all fours, his back haunched, his hind legs pushing him faster and faster until, rebounding against a flat rock, he propelled himself twelve feet into the air to grasp the low-hanging limb of a rhododendron tree. Raking the branch with his claws and thrown forward by his momentum, Skyer shot out over a clearing - his body sailing over a grassy glen backdropped by a purple night sky - until he slammed into the ground to race into the trees, snarling like a rabid dog.
As he approached, birds squawked in terror and flew away, burrowing mammals retreated into their earthen dens, snakes coiled up trees, and a herd of elk darted away, bounding into the forest in fear of the passing apex predator.
Skyer Dannon could still detect Eder’s scent lingering in the forest. The smell burned in Skyer’s nose. Bloodlust honed his mind and drowned his senses, sapping all of his conscious awareness of the world around him. Although he rushed through the Wilds in a blur, Skyer keenly tracked Eder’s footprints in the soil and instinctively measured Eder’s pace, gait, and strength based on the distance between footfalls.
Howling, a viscous slick of drool escaped Skyer’s mouth, and he dashed through the woods in pursuit of his prey.
* * *
It neared midnight when Eder closed on the banks of the river. Shafts of moonlight backlit the trees to cast ominous shadows ahead of his path. A night fog settled in, and Eder felt the coolness of the river’s lowland on his face and forearms. Elated, he heard the sound of flowing water.
Eder hacked madly through the forest overgrowth, his tunic and leggings saturated in the day’s sweat and grime. Earlier, he’d dropped his pack to free up his arms and lighten his weight in favor of retaining his weapon. Exhausted, his lungs burned, his muscles ached, his senses were dulled - floaty and heady - and he gulped at the air.
The vampire’s sway had long worn off, and now fully in command of his faculties, Eder knew he was being hunted. He knew survival meant crossing the river. He knew the vampire was coming. His heart raced from fright. And Eder glanced behind him in terror, hearing the distant cry of wolves.
And as Eder shambled to the riverside, weakly stumbling from his ordeal, he could see the white crests of the choppy river and the shadows of trees lining the opposite shoreline. Relieved, Eder extended his arms, laughed, and cried joyfully as his legs kicked at the water's surface. Eder counter-balanced to high-lift his knees just as Skyer Dannon’s talons raked his back, sending him sprawling face-first and bloody into the river.
The vampire had lunged at Eder from the shoreline - throwing himself into the air - and, with nowhere else to land, Skyer careened into the river. Submerged, the running water burned him like an acid bath, dissolving Skyer’s skin and eating his muscle. And when the halfling’s face broke the surface, he screamed in a gurgly, unhinged rage.
Eder flailed and gasped for air, fighting the searing pain burning from the gouges across his back. He staggered to his feet, unbalanced by the river’s current pulling at his legs, and tried to distance himself from Skyer, only to be seized from behind by the slack in his clothes. Forcibly dragging Eder back to the shore, the flowing water inflicted unimaginable suffering upon Skyer, causing the vampire’s flesh to blister and sluff off his torso, legs, and arms.
Clearing the river, Skyer threw Eder to his back along the shoreline. Badly burned, his body coated in a glossy tar-like substance that was his blood, Skyer snarled viciously and leaped on Eder to straddle him. Struggling for his life, Eder screamed, writhed, and bucked, feebly trying to push Skyer off of him, but he was no match for the supernatural strength of the vampire. Putting a restraining hand on Eder’s throat, Skyer returned his arm to prepare an ending strike with his claws.
Suddenly, Skyer was stabbed by a memory.
“You are a test, in the least, my gamble,” Skyer remembered himself saying, and his eyes narrowed suspiciously at Eder’s panicked, horror-stricken face as if he were causing it.
Then skyer winced, recalling, “... can I rule my hunger, instead of it ruling me?”
Choking under Skyer’s grip, Eder trembled, waiting for the vampire’s death blow.
Hesitating, Skyer paused to make sense of the memories asserting themselves into his consciousness.
“Never let it be said that I was ungenerous.”
And as that memory painfully flashed across Skyer’s mind, temporarily disorienting and confusing him, Eder heaved to shove Skyer away, sending the halfling rolling in the sand.
Bolting to his feet, Eder frantically ran into the river with long, lunging strides.
Laying on his hip, too weak and burned to pursue, Skyer Dannon could only watch as Eder took to swimming the width of the river and drifted downstream.
Resting, the vampire’s flesh began to reconstitute and rebuild connective tissue and sinew. Gnawed by the intensity of his hunger but once again lucid and comprehending, Skyer braced his elbows against his knees and dipped his head forlorn.
“A visual mnemonic,” he muttered, thinking of the experience. “Yes, of course. Patterns. Faces. A disruptive … trigger. A means of control.”
Patiently waiting for his body to heal, Skyer Dannon angrily lifted his eyes to glance downriver. He saw Eder crawl onto the opposite shore and limp hurriedly into trees.
“Albeit greatly unsatisfying,” the vampire admitted, settling under the starry night sky and wrapping his arms around his legs, “it would seem fate was kind to us both. Ironic. Safe travels, Eder Bahlod of Caerleon, and I beg you never stray into these Wilds again.”