Prologue: Flight

Ananir 9th, YED 4068
THE BOYS OF Duron had always said that beasties lurked in the woods. In the night-dank hues of the shadow-drowned woods, they painted the picture of glowing eyes lurking in every tree hollow. And in black-deep pools, still as they are perilous, they told of awful crawling, slippery, slithering, creatures lurking just below the surface in wait. And how evil magicians laired in the forest, waiting for the unwary, who they would spirit away to cast awful curses upon. But Cashel had lived in a woods a long time, far from Duron, in that little hut with his father, and he had never really believed such stories.
The Starwood had danger enough, of course. Even this far south it was dense, tangled, full of poisonous, savage, cunning life. Life to which the beasties of boyhood tales paled in comparison. Once or twice a year they would even sight a griffin, and once Cashel had witnessed one at battle with a flock of ikar. The proud beast fell beyond the treeline, its attackers went after it, and he saw no more, but Cashel wondered at the grandiose monster's fate now and then for years after.
But for the wary there was little enough to fear. A beast - like a man - merely wanted to be left alone. And few truly savoured the taste of man-flesh except as an alternative to starvation. And the Starwood might be a place of danger, but it was also one of plenty. Later in life, Cashel wondered if it wasn't rebel complacency in the face of his father's agonizing caution that led him to think so. But in those early days in Duron he always felt that the world held no dangers that a wise and prudent man could not overcome.

Through ragged, light-bleached grasslands it goes. Skirting their edges. Finding that place between sky and soil, where the shade of hillside and canopy shield against the day. It travels in the seams, where it is neither day nor night. Below. Around. Through.
It slips through the grasslands on swift feet when the moons light the sky, and crawls with the passage of the day in the wake of the mountains when the sky is lit by the sun.
Where it begins, the days are long. The land waves and shifts at the whim of the air.
It has many names, and yet prefers none, and yet it shies away from those who might start at its presence. Name it.
It looks out from behind sightless eyes that are not its own, and it cringes from the lantern-light glow that marks a traveller, or a home, or a town.
It tasted the acid-dry taint of anticipation. It was the hunter. It would run down its quarry.
The nights are short.
Time is abundant. Virulent. Unreal.
It slides under the mountains. Slipping into the secret and ancient places as if it knows them. As if they are destined to engulf it. And the shadow fits its form - not its borrowed form but its true form - like a cool skin. Like it has been meant to find these places. Like they had never been apart. And they never have or will, and yet it goes also.
And as it rolls and curls and surges through the tunnels it forgets itself for a time. Loses itself in blackness.
The darkness is old. It has been here since an eternity before the light. The light owns so little, and the dark possesses so much.
The old dark knows secrets. It keep its secrets. It will never reveal them. Never betray them.
And yet its prey is not here, and it emerges after an instant-eternity beneath the mountains to again surge into the night.

Dale, Cashel's father, was a well respected man. A quiet and gentle man, soft spoken, and unlike the gruff and proud fathers of Duron. There was space in his heart of sentimentality, or sadness, or joy. A cooper in the free hamlet of Duron, his workmanship was second to none, and though his trade was not a celebrated one, people prized his life-devoted skill, and his devotion to his trade. If they thought it strange that a cooper would live near an hour's walk from town, or that his hair and eyes were red-chestnut rather than the hue of other Ralstaans, similarly no remark reached the ears of his only son. And isolated though they were, a wagon would make a trip out to their cottage on the day before every market day, to take Dale's goods, and return with those things he had requested, and whatever small profits remained.
Now and then Cashel had been permitted, in his adolescence, to join the wagon and spend the market day in town, and was even given a coin or two now and again for his leisure. This was usually wastefully spent either on the exotic foods of the market, or sometimes to see a travelling mummer's group or minstrel. And when, bashfully, Cashel told his father how he had spent his coin Dale would laugh his quiet, fatherly laugh, and shake his head.
But aside from the odd visit from a passing caravan, or someone who wanted specific work done (and of course those glorious sojourns to town) Cashel and his father seldom left their cottage, by a nameless stream, with it's ornately decorated door and shutters, and its enormous fireplace, and masterfully crafted furnishings (all the work of Dale's skilled hands). Cashel's mother, Isoulde, passed not long after his birth. Before his memory was his own. Dale spoke of her little, but it was clear that her death was a wound that would never fully heal.

It slithers through the dusty roads of their cities. Basking in the shadows of the buildings. Looking them in the eyes as it passes and gloating as they pale, and moved on, unknowing why. Look away. Sense something. Something wrong.
Behind its borrowed eyes it watches the city. It likes the city. Acrid brick dust. Tasting the bitter purple stain of life.
There are places in the city where the light never falls, unless it is carried there. Escorted by fearful hands. Trembling, wan beams penetrating ancient, patient, devouring darkness.
It tastes that place's corruption. Its hidden desire. And savours the blue-gold flavour of its secrets, and the crimson sensation of its lies.
But its quarry is not here.
And with hateful thoughts it turns again towards the rising run. And it is gone. And the cities stir and once again rest easy.

Every few years an uncle, Marak, would visit the cottage, and though Cashel was never entirely clear on the nature of their relation, his seemingly random, and always wholly unexpected visits were always a source of excitement, for as long as Cashel could remember. Dark - darker even than Dale - Marak was something of a traveller. A trader and vagabond who went wherever there was coin to be had, and opportunity to be seized. And when he came he would bring trinkets or food or drink or clothing from distant lands as gifts. And the three of them would stay up late into the night, by the big hearth, while Marak shared stories of his travels, and laughed, and ate, and made merry.
And so life was for Cashel for seventeen long years.
Until the early days of autumn of his eighteenth year, when the Starwood turned to a riot of deep evergreen, flaming yellow and orange, bloody red, and shadowy-dark. Creatures stirred in the flame-littered undergrowth, seeking shelter as the evenings cooled. The skies became darker, the nights longer, deeper, more still. And though Cashel had been a man for more than two winters now, he still lived in that cottage with his father. At Dale's behest he had remained - become his father's apprentice - though part of him ached to see what lay beyond the agonizingly tiny part of the world he knew.
All of that day Cashel found his father more sombre than usual, quiet in his work, and less attentive than his exceptional norm. The wagon had been by the day previous, and the young apprentice wondered if it was bad new that had come with their monthly supplies. But he knew better than to ask. And so the day passed in near silence, in the little lean-to by the waterside that was Dale's cooperage.
That night father and son took their meal in silence.

The woods are dim, and deep, and quiet. They whisper their silence, and they tell nothing that is not theirs to tell. They are tangled, choked and ravenous, but though they see its borrowed form - now so wan - with hungry eyes-that-are-not-eyes, and crawling graves of soft seclusion welcomed, it glides through the wood as if it were illusion.
It does not know when it shed its borrowed form.
At one moment-aeon it looks out past borrowed eyes, tastes with borrowed tongue, and then the next its senses are its own again, and it exalts, and sweeps like a foul wind into the treetops, and surges and broils under the glimmering night sky. And though the stars are many, and the white-blue-gold warm, the darkness has won the night, and its territory shows vast, while the light's is dwindling.
And it howls in a voice that is the wind, and it reaches out with its edges, and gingerly touches the fringes of the wood, and it senses a new flavour.
Soft ocean-salt white.
It draws closer. Slowly.
Time is its ally. There is no time. Only space, eternal.
And the growing dark.

After they had eaten Dale sat, staring into the fire in the big hearth for a long time. And though Cashel made him his pipe for the evening, he left it untouched. And so Cashel sat, content to be left to his own thoughts. And the night deepened. And outside the boughs of the trees lowed and ached, and the spring wind carried the promise of rain.
Cashel had drifted into a state of half sleep, when his father finally spoke.
"What did you say?"
"It will need cleaning."
"The hearth?"
"Yes-" he sighed "-Divh forbid I leave it like this."
"I shall see to it in the morning."
The silence descended again, but not for long. Dale rose, and went to the narrow door that led out to the cooperage.
Cashel watched the door open onto scarcely penetrable gloom, and despite the growing warmth he felt a chill as his father stepped out, without need of a light, into his familiar workshop. Dale could have navigated the cottage blind. The narrow door swung shit behind him, and the crackling of the fire grew unnaturally loud in the noiseless void he left behind.
Cashel waited, obedient.
Somewhere an owl cried out in triumph - sure seizing its tiny quarry in its powerful talons. Fleeting, false rodent hope dashed in a moment of terror that meant less than nothing to the ghostly predator. Death to one just another in the long line of meals that mark the passage of life to the other.
The door banged again, and Dale re-entered, with a bundle wrapped in sacking in his hands. Narrow enough to hold in a hand, and taller than he. Bound with hrid-hair twine. He returned to the fire, and sat, with the bundle laid across his lap as best the small room would accommodate. Cashel looked on with wonder that something such as this could be concealed from him in the home he knew so well. And he waited.
Dale stared again into the fire, his round face was brought into sharp relief, the lines of care worn around his wood-coloured eyes picked out sharply. His broad cheeks, with their careful beard cast hollow. Eyes sunken in dancing shadow. Wooden hair still tied back neatly. The warm rose contrasts of his cheeks and nose softened by the red firelight. And in that moment he seemed old.
"No, it won't do for it to stay like this."
Dale turned, smiled his thin-lipped, tight smile to his young son, and held out the bundle.
"I had meant to give you this for some time now."
Surprised, Cashel accepted the bundle, hesitating before peeling back its crude wrappings with cautious fingers. Within was a stave, perhaps six feet long, or the ilk a herdsman might use to guide his flock or a traveller might employ as a walking stick. Stout but not heavy, it would have been an unremarkable gift but for the wood from which it was made. Jet back as if blasted in a furnace, and yet not ashen but supple. The very weight of the thing spoke to its strength. The surface had been worked with great care - stroked smooth over countless hours, until it shone. And here and there some smooth, cool, stone like veins showed through shallow gashes in the wood, in a pattern around either tip, like some kind of black-amber. Impenetrable and near mirror-dark, like some stygian pool of shimmering quietude.
It was at once a marvel and a oddity, for he had little need of such a thing, but a knight or king might desire no finer walking stick, if they desired any at all. The attentive care of his own father's workmanship was written on every inch of its surface.
Cashel looked up to find his father studying his face intently.
"It's very fine." he offered.
Dale smiled "It is at that, I admit a certain pride in it."
"What is the wood?"
"In truth I do not know. I have had it many years, since before your mother passed on, and I had always meant to fashion something of it. It seems right that it go to you."
Cashel could not help but feel touched, though the gift, like the elder's mood, was an odd one.
"Thank you father. I am grateful. It is generous indeed. I shall have to range into the wood to make proper use of it."
Dale only smiled a distant smile.
"You may have need of it sooner than you think my son."

Through the woods, where their density thinned, and their tangles unravelled, to a little brook it comes. From remote fringes to known extent. From lost realms to familiar mundanities. Through the barrier of mystery it oozes and bubbles and crawls and creeps. With grasping stride and hushed stealth, it passes the barrier of the unknown as a man might a line in the dirt.
And beyond, in the careless and indiscreet known, it finds what it searches for. A lone structure.
It tastes victory, shiver sweet, and it creeps forward. A carved door.
There is time. Painted shutters.
For truly there is no time. Only dreadful, onerous inevitability.
Dark as the soot in the hearth.

Cashel was not entirely sure of the events of the rest of that night. Dale began to regain his spirits, as if his resolution to clean the hearth had exorcised whatever burden he had carried earlier in the evening, and the two had talked as they usually did, and Cashel had shared the events of his last trip to Duron, and of how Londy, a lad of his age, had happily told him that a knight had stopped in the hamlet for supplies. And he described the warrior word for word as Londy had to him. His streaming golden hair. Shining armour. His belt of woven hair. His heraldic banner mounted upon his back. And his impossibly keen sword. Londy had not know the man's business, nor heard his name, but he toured the town with the elders of the lodge, and left with dried meat, and the hearts of no few of Duron's young girls.
Dale listened with patient interest, indulging Cashel gladly, and so it was that neither noticed the fire in the hearth darken until it was nearly quenched. And the first Cashel saw of it was an inky blackness positioned, almost as if squatting, watching them, as the edge of the fire. And then, just as he turned full to it, to try to perceive what trick of the light he was seeing, it lunged at him, with a bellow like a thousand-thousand sheets of ancient parchment rubbing against one another, and he was struggling on the ground, and the smell of ash was in his nose, and its taste in his mouth, and his lungs screamed for air, but their was none, and his eyes screamed for light, but there was none, and were it not for the feel of the cold flags pressing into his back so hard he feared he was being crushed he would swear he was dead.
And then there was a blinding flash, almost as bright as the ashen nothing was dark, and heavy hands had him, and he was hauled onto dirt, and when the whisps stopped dancing in his sight he was outside, and between where he lay and the house stood uncle Marak, a strange orb both scintillating and black in his hand, and at the cottage door it squatted, bellowing its deafening whisper, and though formless it was also at once poised to strike. To leap upon Marak as it had Cashel, and pour itself into him like poison ink.
And he cast about, and found the jet staff his father had given him clenched tight in his hand, though he had not consciously taken the thing, and leaning on it he staggered to his feet, and falteringly charged the thing.
Faintly aware of Marak screaming his name, begging him to retreat, he charged the thing, and as it lashed out he swung the staff at it with all of the strength he could muster, and it fell back (perhaps more from surprise than harm) surging in on itself, back in through the door, into the now pitch black building, and as it receded Cashel glimpsed, just within the door, the face of Dale. Ashen. Cold. Dead eyes staring from a face that moments before had worn a gentle smile.
The shock was such that Cashel staggered, then fell back, landing heavily on his arse with his feet splayed out in front of him, staring at his father. And an instant later it surged forward again to claim him, and he saw Marak hurl the white-black globe into the doorway, and the burst of light was blinding, and then he was up and he was running, and Marak's shoulders were under his arm, and the staff was still somehow clutched in his hand, and behind him the paper-rasp had turned into a dry howl of pain and frustration.

It watches them go from inside the cottage, the stark bilious taste of fear in it's mouth, and it vents its frustration into the night, sending it out the ruined windows, and up the bleak stack, and over the body it does not want to borrow, and it knows something new. It knows hurt. The things had hurt it. And hurt is new, and terrible, and frightening, and galling, and though it is beyond such emotions, it also is not. And for a fleeting instant it knows fear.
Let them go then. Their destruction is inevitable. It is merely a matter of time.
And there is no such thing as time.

Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2