Chapter One: The Hermit (DRAFT)

She was shadow: at home in darkness yet expressed through light; a grey area, teasing two realms yet residing in neither. She found me on the surface, up to my shins in snow, diligently scavenging from the recently fallen. I had picked over the paramilitia foremost: adrenals, condensed nutrients, journals, and thermal packs; anything worth a shot and easy to carry. I had been deftly removing crystals from the feral hybrids, priding myself in practiced precision – despite my aging eyes! – when I latched onto something too firm to be dying.

“That’s my foot…” she declared.

Her matter-of-factly drawl startled me half to death. I instinctively latched onto the first thing I could get to – the straps of her boots – and pulled hard. Her nimble form tumbled into the snow and I pounced forward, weathered multi-tool in hand with the axe-head deployed. My gut slammed into her knees and I froze there, my face a hair away from the jagged point of a shiv and just below that a set of blue eyes like that of ice.

“You done?” her voice frigid as the air between us. She held firmly onto my outer jacket’s collar imprisoning me perfectly in her web.

I sighed and pulled back, cautiously proclaiming my neutrality and the two of us wearily rose, “what I can’t understand is why you people keep pestering me.” I lacklusterly dusted the flakes from my tertiary layering and adjusted my polarized goggles. “Seems like every other day some twad is ruining what could have been a perfectly nice afternoon –”

“So sorry to hear that,” her wry ebon smile and cocked head were betrayed by the sense of waning life surrounding her. She filled me with supernatural dread, calling to the scar splayed across my temple. I turned my brow down at her and shook off the feeling then turned my attention back to my scavenging.

“I’m looking for your friends.”

“Living ones, I presume?” My mustached grin deflated following the chill of her deadened gaze, “tough crowd…”

“So, if you would just point me in the right direction…”

I posed a pondering look to the sky, “you’ll be passing through The Glimmering Halls,” and scratched at my beard, “I suppose I could show you there if –”

“No, thank you,” she was swift to interject, “you can just tell me how to get there. Don’t worry, I’m quite apt with directions, really.” She flashed another fake smile and I turned my eyes back unto her, my gaze scrutinizing at best yet glad to accept.

“Less work for me,” I shrugged, rekindling my efforts, “so, what’ve you got to trade? And no damned junk either, like adhesives or depleted thermal batteries, I’m not running a salvage shop. Nor do I do I.O.Y’s or any form of gambling.” I stated firmly.

She sighed and graced me with a roll of her eyes, “I don’t have anything to trade…” She flatly claimed while motioning to herself. It was then that I noticed that she was surprisingly under geared, she wasn’t carrying any extra supplies, from what I could tell, and appeared to be only wearing the most basic of environmental gear.

I fished out one last crimson shard and placed the jagged mineral with the rest of the day’s bounty. I then turned my head up at her as I rose to my feet, “sounds like you need to hear out my proposal then,” I dryly retorted and dusted my tarnished gloved hands.

She went to open her mouth again, no doubt to spit at me some profanity or the like, but the sound that followed was not her venomous tone but rather a cold hollow howl which turned the air dire.  My scars pain intensified. Our heads snapped toward the sound and we peered into the winter fog. A second one followed, this one more like a screech, and then a third and still a fourth yet close behind. And when I turned my head back she was gone without trace, not even a footprint left behind in her wake. I grunted in disbelief and scrambled for the nearest snow drift, hurriedly pushing through the ice and pressing my back into the towering dune. My scar screamed at me warning of the danger but there was little I could do; I was more than two kilometers out from the nearest pit and even with a decent head start I doubted I’d be able to out run a swarm of ferals.

I settled into the concave drift, arming myself with my trusted pickaxe and one Abani crystal in case I needed it. Closer and closer they drew, the sound unmistakable – at least fifteen ferals led by one of those deep born goliaths; a freak of nature more than twice the size of any man and intelligent, unlike their feral kin.

Less than ten meters away and vaguely entrenched I watched the ferals scour the deadened field. They turned over corpses first searching for any living then, once satisfied, turned their attention on the dead, tearing them apart and feasting on both human and hybrid alike. I craned my neck, peaking past the wall of the drift to get a head count. Turns out there were twenty-six – or twenty-seven if one were to include the goliath.

I figured then was as good a time as I was going to get. As swiftly as I could manage I crept out of the snow dune and kept my body low to the ice as I crawled out and away, moving to the west in the direction of the pit that I had originally ascended from. I could hear the long hollow wine of the hybrids behind me and the barks and yelps of infighting which only served to ensure me that the swarm was sufficiently occupied with their feast. Between the layers of snow and a degree of caution I continued to trudge along at a snail’s pace and kept my ear out for any change in the swarm’s behavior.

So far so good. Another twenty meters or so and I would take to my feet assuming that the thick fog would cover my retreat. I moved a little more quickly now, crawling with vigor and spitting out ice as it kicked up into my mouth. Even so, I smiled at my luck. I was nearly home free with one of the most bountiful plunders I had managed in the last few weeks.

I took another racey shimmy forward, failing to heed the jagged rock before me. I felt a snag on my jacket and pressure against my leg and then another snag once I stopped and attempted to pull away. The sack of crystals at my side tore open wide, a handful of palm sized minerals falling out into the snow. Not long thereafter my ears were met with a throaty roar and I leapt to my feet, containing what I could from my scavenge and preparing to bolt. I gave one quick glance over my shoulder only to be met with the sight of a creature three times my size storming through the frozen dust straight for me.

There was an echoing crack and then a following boom, snow kicked up in the wake of an eruption strong enough to send me careening into the ice, a massive torrent of frozen dust showering me. Burying me.

~~~~~

Chapter Two Coming Soon

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