If Varin breathed too harshly, the creatures would surely catch him and make him that night's meal. He had been trapped on this branch for hours. The only things passing the time were the idle cracking of twigs as the wind blew them off their bushes, and the leaves that scratched against his face.
This was a lonely job. Normally, he had at least one additional ready-and-able chap from town aiding him in any other assignment that required this level of hunting, but this one had to be done alone. Not because he benefited through independence—not in the slightest—rather, he was the only ‘smart’ one that agreed to do the job.
Nightlings had plagued the woods outside of Yulia lately. They frequented the rural parts of town that held the largest patches of unlit farmland. If somebody was caught on one of the unmarked paths too late in the night, they’d best count their final breaths. It was only a matter of time. Not that Yulia Court did much to warn the folks outside the castle… but politics were politics. Varin did his best to stay away from those topics if possible.
The heaviest thing that weighed on his shoulders was the fact that if he didn’t catch the Queen Nightling, this part of the kingdom wouldn’t be able to supply crops to the neighboring cities. Without food, there would be famine and chaos. Even now, his stomach grumbled because of the already affected markets.
Varin jolted and looked down at the sound of a twig snapping. There was an elderly man who seemed lost, gripping onto each tree that he passed. There was a long, raggedy cape hung over his hunched shoulders and he wasn’t wearing shoes. Leaning over and taking a long look around, he made sure the coast was clear before hissing a psst sound.
He didn’t stop walking. Cursing under his breath, Varin carefully climbed down the tree and paid mind to each noise that came from behind him. The thing about Nightlings was that they crept in the shadows before attacking—what better shadow to move around in than the cover of nightfall?
The second he stepped down onto the forest floor, there was shuffling in the bushes nearby. Varin hurried his pace and unsheathed his sword in case he had to fight one of them off before catching up to the man.
He had no clue how many lurked around him. And the fact that he wouldn’t be able to preemptively attack from the trees made this a much more difficult fight to feat. Supposedly, they were all but blind and listened to the vibrations of footsteps to guide their attacks. Varin bet they could smell fear, too.
Just as he was about to catch up to the old man and grab his arm, a nasty wolf the size of a horse jumped from the greenery. The man flew back and fell to the floor, screaming out in terror. Varin held his sword out in front of him and took a few strides closer to it.
He had yet to fight one of these, but he did know that the queen had red eyes, and her clan had white. Should be easy enough to spot. This one, for instance, had eyes the color of milk.
It snarled and bore his razor-sharp teeth, two extended canines dripping with drool. The fur was poisoned with spikes, and if Varin got too close, those spikes would stab and paralyze him before he could make another move. A wolf mixed with a poisonous porcupine... swell, he sighed inwardly.
The elderly man backed up behind Varin and wept, begging for him to fight off the beast. Without another moment of hesitation, it leaped forward to which Varin swung his sword clean through the meat of the neck. That wasn’t enough to render it dead—in fact, it was just enough to attract one of its friends over from the west.
“Aye, sir, I am not so sure if you can hear me, but I’d suggest you climb up a tree,” Varin said helplessly. He was doubtful that the poor man could hear him at all.
To his delight—and surprise—the man’s eyes widened, and he made a run for the tree before trying to climb it. It was an unsuccessful attempt, but hopefully, he could keep the Nightlings distracted long enough before they deemed that man the weaker prey.
Varin drew his sword back and spun to attack both creatures when they made a jump in unison toward him. The injured one fell, its guts pooling out of the abdomen, while the other stalked around Varin. In the distance, there was a low growl that approached.
Cursing under his breath, he held his sword in a defensive stance. With such a dull blade, he knew it could last this battle and nothing more. Their flesh was easy enough to cut into—if it was any tougher, he would be in an entirely different position. A dead one.
In his peripheral vision, he saw an even larger version of the Nightlings stalking forward. It walked confidently, head hung low, and eyes set on Varin with the ferocity of fire. Those red eyes could be seen even in the darkest shadows.
Varin ran at the weaker Nightling and stabbed his sword into its skull before it could make another move. Now, it was him and the queen. She was taller than him by quite a bit, with those canines reaching past her chin and eyes the size of Varin’s fists. Although he held his sword with such a strong grip, he trembled at the sight.
When the queen struck at him, he instinctively rolled out of the way. The thought came all too late. He escaped with his life but not without injury, for her giant claws tore into his shoulder blade as he tumbled out of her path.
Crying out, he lurched away to create some distance before standing back to his feet. His flesh was pulsating from the gash, and at this point, he couldn’t tell if it was from those monstrous talons, or if one of the poisonous spikes in her fur sliced him. Either way—it was no good.
With a swaying sword, Varin yelled out, and ran toward the beast before swinging at her head. Solid miss.
Not taking another moment to hesitate, he swung again, and his blade sliced right beneath her eye.
It didn’t even make her flinch.
Varin let out a sigh of disbelief and yelped when the Queen Nightling launched toward him, pinning him to the ground. His good arm was up, hooked under her jaw where it met her neck, barely managing to keep her at bay. His sword was within arm’s reach, but the weight of this beast's paws was enough to break his bones if he let off.
Holding him in place with one paw, the Nightling clawed at Varin’s face, and a large talon tore the skin between his eye and cheek. Searing pain blossomed and drew a roar from him. He’d never felt such immense agony in his life. Varin’s entire body was trembling, his arm starting to slip from the chin of the queen, but he still had the energy to try and reach for his sword before collapsing entirely.
Varin groaned as he strained out with his fingers and slipped them around the handle of the sword. Struggling, he forced his elbow under her jaw and pushed back with all his remaining strength and shouldered her to pull back momentarily. His screams bellowed into the forest as the wound on his shoulder tore, but the shove earned him enough time to get a better grasp and push his blade through the heart of the Queen Nightling.
His vision was blurring in and out, and he started to wonder if it was from blood pooling in his eye socket or from the dwindling adrenaline. That wasn’t his greatest concern right now, though.
His concern was this Queen Nightling who laid limp over his body, sword shoved straight through her chest and out the back of her spine. If it weren’t for the frantic efforts of the old man pushing her off him, Varin would have completely forgotten he had been previously scrambling to get on a branch above ground. Varin pushed with his good arm, helping to roll it off, before dragging himself from under her and staggered to his feet.
“You saved my life,” the man said too loud.
“Why are you yelling?” Varin asked, pressing his hand over his eye to ease the bleeding, but it didn’t help with the pain.
The man tore off a piece of his cape and gestured to wrap the wound on his face. “You must forgive me, for I am a bit hard of hearing. My daughter’s dog ran out into the woods after supper, mister.”
Varin hummed. It all made sense now. He winced when the man first wrapped the fabric at an angle around his head, but soon enough, the pressure helped alleviate the stinging sensation. “You know, old man, you’re stronger than you look. You shoved that beast off me like it was nothing.”
To this, he laughed. “I cannot tend to my farm if I am frail. My name is Poloris, and I will make sure your name is spoken across the entire village. What should I call you, sir?”
Varin smiled weakly and stood, removing the sword from the chest of the queen. “Varin. I think it’s time you went home, Poloris. I don’t know if there are any rogue Nightlings left crawling around looking for their queen.”
“Where are you off to, then? Do you have shelter?”
Varin winced, flexing his shoulder experimentally. It screamed with each movement. “Well, I’m off to serve this monster’s head on a platter for our king. I think they should be able to provide enough aid and shelter until I can make it home.”
Poloris laughed and nodded. “Well, do be careful, warrior. These paths are a nasty thing to trek at night.”
As if it wasn’t apparent enough. Varin simply smiled and nodded, watching him disappear back toward the local village before he went to slice the head off the Queen Nightling.
After ensuring there were no more beasts hunting in the woods near town, Varin tied the head of the queen onto his horse’s saddle and galloped back into the political district. He was dazed from the blood loss, and to top it off, he wondered if he would be able to see out of his eye at all if the fold over his eye flew away.
Since his vision was so blurred, he made a note of everything that was clear to him. The flickering flame of the lanterns, he could still see that… but only when they were within arm’s reach. There were also the nearby taverns that had people coming and going as they pleased.
Nearing them, Varin squinted at the stables outside the city’s most popular inn and tavern. There was a group of men surrounding themselves around one of the village whores, but what intrigued him was not the mindless and inappropriate mumblings they hollered to her, but rather the distinct coat of arms on their back.
Even as a half-blind man, he could recognize it anywhere. Varin clenched his teeth in disgust, and for a second, his rage was enough to distract him from the venom that surely pulsated through his blood. The fabric of his shirt stuck to the gash on his shoulder, itching and poking at each nerve. It wasn’t enough to distract from his resentment.
Those men, with their coy grins and leathery skin, were the scum of Denzethea. Often recruited former for-hire assassins and banished Court Guards, these militia soldiers were raised on the idea of protecting a crown tainted by something more sinister than blood.
Here, in Yulia, there was this pact of peace. All walks of life could exist in harmony—from elves to dwarves to satyrs—but where they came from, peace was nonexistent. Axulran was a name to be wept, not cheered, and those sour excuses for soldiers were to be feared. King Airen of Axulran held the blood of thousands in his hands, and he did so proudly.
It was enough to make Varin sick to his stomach. That said, his own opinion on whatever political disruption that was happening on the other side of the world wasn't of concern now. Once he passed the inn and approached the intricate iron gates that stretched all the way to the shoreline, he sighed in relief.
In this part of Yulia, there were no concerns of Axulranian militia guards. No creatures in the night threatening your children. No thoughts of war brewing on the horizon. Here, with the Elvenesque structures that rocketed into the sky like fine art, and pathways paved with brick that led you to safety, he knew he was right where he belonged. The second he entered the Political District, he was greeted by the arms of maidens who wished to tend to his wounds, and the guards who sought only the head of that monster. To his right was the Yulian castle, the king and queen standing at the bottom of the stairs waiting for him.
To be honest—Varin hadn’t the slightest clue how he got his feet planted on the ground without falling face first. It took two of the maidens to hold him up as he let his head hang low. The sensation of whiplash, along with however much blood he was losing, was enough to send him to his knees the second the ladies let go of him.
With his hearing going in and out, he mumbled inaudible responses to the maidens and soldiers when they asked him if he was alright. If he had been levelheaded and sane, he would have told them with all the venom left in his voice that he was, in fact, not okay.
Varin always seemed to forget just how comfortable the beds in the royal infirmary were. He shifted, groggily waking up and reached up to touch the patch that covered his eye. When he tried to sit up, there was a bolt of pain that shot through his shoulder blade.
“Easy, Varin,” a kind voice said. Varin looked to his right and saw a woman with curly black hair that fell just above the center of her back. She was stirring a concoction together before dumping it into a teacup to hand over to him. “Drink up. This will heal your wounds.”
Varin did not accept the cup, to which the woman smiled and set it on the table alongside him. “Who are you?” he asked.
“Adeline, I am the court mage. I’ve been instructed to tend to your wounds.”
Varin hummed and tore his stare away, now focused on the drink that he had just refused. “What did you make?”
“Ambersage Tea. It has some of the most beneficial herbs in all of Denzethea mixed into ordinary tea. That, along with my magic, will heal your ailments.”
Varin sighed and accepted the cup this time when she offered it again. Luckily, it tasted sweet and warmed his throat. “The crown sends their mage to tend to visitors' injuries?” he asked.
She gestured for him to sit up straight, her fingers grazing against the skin of his shoulder blade after lifting his shirt. Adeline laughed at his remark. “I am no seer, Varin. I am mostly here to heal their ailments and enchant their weapons. After what you did for them, it was the least they could do to thank you.”
Her palm flattened over his wound, and what first started off as a harsh sting was quickly replaced with numbness. Within a few seconds, she dropped his tunic and stood in front of him now.
“Now, your eyepatch,” Adeline said before removing the patch with steady hands. Varin hissed when the cool air touched the gash, and in response, she, too, made a face of disgust.
“That bad?” he asked between clenched teeth.
Her face quickly relaxed before shaking her head. “Not at all, Varin. Nothing a little magic can’t fix. Though, I fear you will still be scarred.”
She grabbed a green paste from the table before returning to him, rubbing it on the skin around his eye. “These are Evergreen leaves crushed up and combined with some water from the Emerald Sea.”
Varin winced when she rubbed the paste into the wound. “I can still feel the sea salt.”
Adeline smiled and backed away when the paste had been fully incorporated into his skin. Varin closed his eyes to ease the searing headache onset by the magic and pain. He had known many mages, most of which always ended up being a trustworthy companion, but he had never been healed by one.
Got to say, it was less ethereal than I would have hoped, he said to himself. The tingling sensation trailed behind each soothing rub, and once the skin lost all sensation, the headache grew worse.
“It is no easy feat, fighting off a queen Nightling and her cubs,” she said as she rinsed her hands off in a bucket of water.
“You don’t say.”
Adeline snickered. “You’re in a sour mood, Varin. You should be glad you didn’t lose that eye of yours. My magic may not heal all scars, but it saved your eyesight.”
Varin squinted the open eye toward her before resting his back against the headboard. His shoulder was still numb, and he wondered if she had managed to close the wound completely. “Forgive me, Adeline. It’s not every day that I agree to a suicide mission.”
“But that is the key, isn’t it? Agreement?”
“Agreement in exchange for bread.”
She hummed and sat at the foot of his bed, tucking one of her loose strands behind her ear. “The sole provider, are you? I have trouble believing that Varin. There are much easier ways to make do and get food in a place like Yulia.”
“What are you implying?”
“I am implying that you are a warrior through and through. You want to protect your own, I’m guessing. Family first. Can’t protect your kin if there are Nightlings multiplying in the woods.”
Varin shrugged and tore his stare away. “This is a peaceful place, and it is my home. Nobody else was man enough to take it on. The king promised a bountiful reward, so it was an easy decision.”
Adeline took a moment to drink him in, those meadows of green in her eyes reminding him of the rolling hills he would run around in with his sister when they were younger. Now, they were littered with the king’s guards ensuring nobody was attacking from the North.
“If I may be so bold, Varin, I would say you desire more. Adventure, risk, and the possibility to be a part of something bigger than yourself. Those creatures are magic, you know.”
“Yeah, an awfully evil mage created those things then. Nothing but parasites.”
“Their magic is rooted in our world, Varin. No mage could create something like that, not without raising the awareness of our creator.”
He scoffed. “Let me guess—you believe that the Firstborn should rise again?”
“Just as much as our king, yes. My point is, I think magic runs through you, too. I see that fire in your eyes.”
Varin’s eyes widened, and he looked back at her. “What are you saying?”
“I am saying that magic comes in mysterious ways, and that journey is not always clear. But, when I look at you, I see this energy that exudes from your soul. It is powerful—and it is untapped. There are places that can help you.”
Varin shook his head. “I am twenty, I would have noticed if I was like you. I’ve been around mages in the past—all as outspoken and daring. None of them had told me of my magic.”
Adeline stood and shrugged, grabbing some of the bowls from the table before sauntering toward the door. “Doubt me all you wish, Varin. Whether your destiny involves the magic I know is in you or not, you have done Yulia a great deed. And, something tells me that you would do it again, if that time came. I will let the king know you are stable.”
And, with that, the mage exited the room with her hands full of supplies. The door swung after her as if the wind had blown them shut, but when he looked toward the window he saw it latched tight.