Barlow knelt down to the child that cowered before him, the boy’s words resonating in his mind. For a moment, they carried him away to a time long left forgotten, one locked away in the recesses of his memories. A time when everything he knew had been stripped away, and he had prayed to a godless world to be saved. The survivor of a war in a land he no longer knew the name of, far enough from here that no soul would recognize it even if he did. On quiet nights broken memories moved like shadows beneath the light of awareness, fragmented and unclear…violent. As he looked down at this small pleading figure, pieces of the past arrived with icy clarity. He remembered being pulled from the grips of his weeping mother in her last desperate moments. He remembered being taken with the other boys from his village and beaten and beaten…and beaten. They were given weapons, taught to use them, and taught to be cruel. So they could do what was done to them. Each night he prayed to be saved, to be taken home, and each night he was reminded he was alone. A child’s heart can only take so much, and finally, it shattered shut. If nobody would save him, he would save himself. In the depth of the night, as the darkness of a new moon filled the sleeping encampment, he drew his blade and quietly dispatched the night watch, just as they had trained him to do. Next, he made his way to the tent of those who had taken him from his home and did what they had trained him to do. Finally, he crept into the tent of those in command and did what they had trained him to do. Barlow was efficient, even at a young age, he had been terrifying. However, it didn’t take long for the slain guards to be found, and the alarm was raised. The encampment flew to life, and a young Barlow found himself hunted by a small army. He ran for two days without sleep before collapsing by a small creek. Since that day, he had been on his own. Had it not been for the cover of darkness and his own resilience, a darker fate would have awaited him.
Now from the steeled scarring of his youth, he felt an indignant rage burning up through his calloused soul.
He untied a massive felling axe from the side of his pack, revealing an elaborate three-headed wolf carved into its handle. Taking it in both hands, he stepped to the center of the ruins, standing like an immovable wall as the treeline broke with fire and fang. A hunting party, six men strong, walked out led by three vicious-looking hounds.
As they crossed the threshold into the clearing, their torchlight revealed Barlow’s imposing form, his eyes alight with rage. The group came to a full stop as the party reacted with a start, only the two at the front maintaining their composure. The dogs went mad, barking and snarling, but unwilling to move towards Barlow. The party stared at his enormous figure in uncomfortable silence, his menace eclipsing any courage they might have had.
Finally, the man at the front of the hunting party spoke, clearing his throat, he said:
“Clearly, we’ve disturbed you, we mean no intrusion, but a child from our village has gone missing. He fled after an accident, and we desperately wish to get him home.”
Barlow stared at the group unfazed.
The men shifted uncomfortably. As their leader began to speak again, Barlow interrupted.
“Do you always arm yourself so heavily when searching for lost children?”
He said brashly.
The man’s jaw tightened as he let his right-hand brush against the hilt of his sword as if he had forgotten it was there.
“Ah…yes.” He replied coyly, “These woods can be dangerous at night. You never know what kind of wickedness you might run into.”
The man let the emphasis fall on the last part.
Before Barlow could respond, there was an uncomfortable shuffle from where the boy was hiding, one that caught the ears of the hunting party. Barlow also heard it, twisting his oak axe handle so hard that it creaked.
“Isaac.” the leader of the party shouted. “Is that you? Why don’t you come out, the priest has changed his mind.”
Slowly, from behind a small structure in the ruins, Isaac emerged tattered and muddy. He glared at the man speaking.
“You’re a liar.” Isaac hissed.
The edges of the man’s lips curled into something akin to a smile, and all pretense slipped away. Vitriol seeped into each word.
“Oh good, there you are.” He sneered. “Come now, you wouldn’t want to get anyone else hurt.”
Inching forward, the men were now amongst the enormous ruins with them.
“You hurt people!” Isaac screamed,” you did!”
Now Barlow stepped forward. The boy’s words dredging up a forgotten agony from his very core. He could feel his humanity slipping away.
“Yes, Isaac, because good men must keep wickedness at bay. You have been marked by something unnatural, something wicked. For the good of the village, you have to be…purified. Your parents had already been tainted…we had no choice.”
The man replied coolly as if speaking of things with little consequence. Isaac shook with rage, not noticing the runes on his arm beginning to shift and change.
Barlow’s ears rung as he felt himself losing control, he tried to speak but the words caught in his throat. What escaped his lips sounded inhuman.
The hunting party thought he was instructing Isaac, looking at the boy expecting him to flee. Not understanding he was trying to warn them. The dogs understood, though. Barking had ceased, and the three had slowly backed behind their owners. What the hunting party saw on Isaac’s arm, though, left them too dumbfounded to notice. Every rune now glowed with an otherworldly aura extending from his arm like some ethereal hologram. The men watched, frozen by the extremes of fear and wonder, as the stones on which they stood…responded. Symbols emerged from nothing as a strange vibration slithered through the ancient structure, the ruin's stones beginning to shift as a bizarre mist seeped from each rocky crevasse.
The dogs fled to the woods, driven by instinct and terror. A panic arose amongst the men, their eyes growing frantic and uncertain as they desperately sought orders.
Roared the leader.
Each man snapped out of it, drawing their weapon and charging.
They acted too late. One by one, they found themselves engulfed in the strange mist as it seeped into their pores. Their eyes blackened as a child’s terror filled the hearts of men. Minds cast into purgatory; each saw the truth of his actions. A lifetime's worth of suffering is compressed into a single moment. Undiluted by self-deception, they saw their actions from the eyes of those they harmed. The men lay in shambles, weapons strewn on the ground, the will for violence purged from their souls by the sight of their own dark reflection.
The leader, however, was left standing, for no heart was left to fill. He ran headlong at Isaac, sword raised, eyes fixed with eager anticipation. The gap between them closed quickly, and the man knew his holy duty would be fulfilled. Bringing his sword to bear, the flash of metal flew in front of him. A triumphant cry escaped his lips, but it was short-lived. The boy stood unscathed, staring at him defiantly. Confused, he looked to where his weapon should be but found it was gone. His forearm now ending where his hand once began, and a dark liquid soaked his sleeve. He stared at it, struggling to process it. It was only when he looked up into Barlow’s hollow gaze and heard his words that he understood what had happened…and what was about to.
“Look away, boy.”