COLD OPEN: An eight-year-old Ayla runs through the Ackerly Wood at the southern edge of Anahearth. She is searching for her friend, but he’s nowhere to be found. Though young, she follows the gently sloping ground to running water, where she spots someone sleeping by the stream. She sneaks quietly up to it, grabbing a stick to defend herself… but it’s not her friend. It’s an old man, whose eyes are open. Suddenly, someone grabs her from behind.
A twelve-year-old Nero laughs as she jumps, but then quickly becomes fascinated with the corpse Ayla has found. There is a gaping hole in the man’s torso, and all of his organs are visible and seem intact. He grabs Ayla’s stick and starts poking at it, naming the organs as his father taught him, in turn teaching Ayla. “Liver, kidney, lungs and heart,” he sings. He holds out his hand. “Scalpel, nurse,” he says, mock seriously.
“I don’t think we should touch him,” Ayla says uneasily.
“Don’t be a scaredy-pants, Ayla,” Nero replies. “I thought you wanted to learn this stuff…”
Ayla thinks she sees something slither in the cavity of the corpse, but there doesn’t seem to be anything there. Finally, Nero grows bored and decides to go home… letting the young Ayla lead him out of the forest.
When Ayla returns home, she overhears her father arguing with an old man he calls “Hybrassil.” Her father is trying to refuse a gift, but Hybrassil insists – thrusting the bottle of Doxlyn whiskey into his hands. Her father argues that he only did what anyone would do, but Hybrassil calls him a selfless hero who will receive no coin, medal or commendation.
“Ren, your bark is thick but you have no wounds to give you colour. I can see in your eyes he will haunt you until you die so take this – and drink deep. There’s little enough of it left in the world. It will treat such wounds that Robert could not.”
Ayla grows bored and reveals herself. Her father picks her up and spins her around. Hybrassil looks out the window and goes pale. “Go into the basement, Ren, and lock all your doors. The Torch is out.” Ren argues that now is the time, an opportunity that cannot be ignored. Hybrasil ignores him. He pulls up his hood. “Your life is your own. I cannot be responsible for it,” and he leaves.
Ren tells Ayla to go into the basement, and not to leave until he comes back. Ayla tries to convince him to stay, that he told her they’re not allowed to go out when it’s dark out. He hands her a stuffed animal and says to her: “Sweetheart… there is what is allowed, and then there’s what is right. I’ll be back soon.” He leaves.
Ayla goes to the basement, but there finds an old, diseased looking woman crouching warily on the wooden steps. She speaks quickly to Ayla, warning her of events to come. She advises, “If you become lost, follow the cold wind, or running water. It will keep you safe.” A loud crash comes from outside the house, followed by a chorus of angry voices. Ayla glances away; when she looks back, the witch is gone.
Bishop Walkyn stands in the open doorway to Thonius’ safehouse and finds Mad Martin still tending to Larry the goat. He hears cries coming from behind him, and turns to see four residents walking slowly towards him. “Help,” one of them asks. “Something is happening to me…!”
Walkyn watches them cautiously as the man closest to him, dressed in a bathrobe and slippers, gets closer to him. There is nothing awkward or off putting about his motions, but the look on his face is one of panic. “Help, please,” he pleads. “I can’t… I can’t move my body,” he explains. “I think I’m going… get out of the way!” he helplessly yells, before taking a wild swing at Walkyn. The Bishop easily sidesteps the civilian’s attack, crouches low and with quick precision cuts the hamstrings on his attacker’s legs. The man falls screaming in pain. “Why did you do that!” he cries.
The others trailing behind him shout in agreement. “Stop it!” a man in silk pajamas yells. “Bill’s a good man!”
Martin peers up and notices Walkyn. “What in the Table are you doing?” Martin calls out. The Bishop takes one look at the open street, and steps through the doorway. Bill’s hand snakes along the floor and catches Walkyn’s ankle.
“Please,” he sobs. “I don’t know what happening, and it hurts so much…” Bill’s is viselike. Walkyn, without a word, slams the door shut onto Bill’s arm with such force the crack of splintering bone is heard. Blood spills onto the floor and a wet, jagged fracture breaks through Bill’s skin. “Gods! Let me go!” he screams, and with uncanny strength he pulls at Walkyn’s leg while pushing with other arm. Walkyn kicks him off and slams the door shut. He turns to Martin and raises an eyebrow. “Mind telling me what’s going on?”
The pounding of fists accumulate on the door, until Bill’s screams fill the air. “What are you doing?!” he screams, muffled by the door. Chewing sounds slip under the crack, and voices cry and apologize in disgust.
Martin turns and sees silhouettes gathering at the windows in the other rooms. “Get Petey,” he says, before he picks up Larry the goat and runs upstairs. Walkyn hoists the sickened Petey over his shoulder, taking the steps two at a time – just before the door to the house bursts open… revealing the devoured remains of Bill, and his tearful, angry, blood-splattered friends. Their arms raised up, their mouth gaping, their eyes lost in despair.
Several blocks south, Kragyn and Thonius watch Helgana rise from a crumpled, bloody heap to stand glittering in the moonlight. Helplessly, she cries out for them to leave her, but when Ayla tries to hold her still the barmaid’s iron-cold arms smashes away Ayla’s hands with strange speed and inhuman strength. Kragyn moves into the narrow alley to block off her exit. “We won’t leave you alone,” he tries to comfort her.
Thonius moves into the alley as well, before noticing on the wall behind him is the Carrier – the chalky white man who had taken Helgana, drank her blood, and escaped by crawling the walls like a spider. Then, he sees a dozen residents beginning to swarm the opening of the alley – their arms raised and voices crying out in panicked distress.
Looking back up to the Carrier, Thonius sees his wide mouth open. His jaw distends far beyond what should be possible, stretching his caulky cheeks taut and widening the space between the jagged rows of his yellowed teeth. His serpentine tongue lolls out, and with an exhale of relief, he releases in a rolling stream a heavy cloud of green smoke. The smoke falls thick and viscous, running like a waterfall over the wall of the alley, drifting down and gathering around Thonius’ feet. “Kragyn! Watch out for these gaffs over here!” he shouts, before grabbing onto the brick wall opposite the Carrier and beginning his ascent.
Kragyn pushes Helgana back with the butt of his spear into Ayla, and turns to face his attackers. The first of the swarm is a young boy, his eyes and nose runny with tears. Uncomprehending of his situation, he wails for his mother. Though his mother tries to console him from behind, he wets his trousers as he approaches Kragyn, dripping with blood. The boy lunges forward, as if to chew on Kragyn’s leg and he instinctively thrusts his spear in his attackers chest. With a kick, he slides the nine year old’s limp body off his weapon, his eyes wide with conflicted emotions as the boy’s mother wails in horror.
Children’s fables of demons and dragons in the forms of men in the Tilling times run through his head.
Ayla grabs onto Helgana, pinning her arms behind her back. Helgana struggles, throwing the pair into one brick wall, then the other. Helgana’s muscles are as hard as stone but her voice becomes more and more fragile as the reality of her situation dawns on her. “I’m sorry,” she sobs as she breaks Ayla’s grip. “I can’t control this!”
Then he breathes in the smoke. He feels it creeping into his lungs and is hit with the sensation of being eviscerated from within. He begins coughing, but is given no time to acclimate before Helgana attacks him from behind, sinking her teeth into his neck. The mother surges forward over her son’s body and bites into his spear hand, convulsing with grief.
Martin and Walkyn quickly realise that the mob is attacking from every entry point on the first floor, and they are now trapped on the second. Petey wakes up groggily while Martin looks for a way to leave, finding only a second floor window with a two story drop. The sound of shutters and windows being broken as the mob of residents climb in after them creeps up the stairs. Walkyn steps out to the top of the stairway to hold them off.
He cuts one down, but another – one that has eaten the flesh of another – bites into his shoulder and tears out a squirting chunk of flesh. Walkyn dispatches him with his good arm and watches uneasily as the swarm of distressed attackers begin to devour the body that tumbles to the bottom of the stairs – devouring him while retching vomitously, praying and and crying that they could stop.
Rosemary squeaks into action, taking advantage of the distraction. The rat darts into the swarm, biting at all the ankles around her, bringing down several more attackers before she realizes she is surrounded and can’t escape. A dozen feet stomp down around her; one crushes her tail and the other almost breaks her spine. She squeals for help as she scrambles like a rat in a maze.
Walkyn slices his way through two attackers remorselessly and barrels into the crowd. He rescues Rosemary and lifts her onto his shoulder where she whimpers, wounded. Walkyn begins to back up off the stairs as the mob begins to focus their helpless anger on the Wilder for so callously killing their friends and neighbours. He closes the door and puts his back to it. “We need to get out of here, now,” says Walkyn.
Thonius vaults onto the the rooftop opposite the Carrier. The demonic man snaps his jaw shut, and puckers his lips, blowing a ring towards Thonius. Thonius chokes on the disgusting smell, trying hard to keep his stomach from emptying. He sheathes his dagger and pulls out one of Martin’s flame pots. Taking aim, he throws it across the gap of the alley. The Carrier steps lightly, dodging it, to Thonius’ frustration. From his perch, he turns his gaze to Ayla.
Narrowing her eyes, Ayla latches onto the wall beneath Thonius and begins to make his way up.
Beneath them in the alley, Kragyn becomes overwhelmed with helplessness. With a horde of attackers swarming in at the mouth of the alley and Helgana repelling every attack, he follows Ayla and begins to climb as well. A blur of motion cuts him off and causes him to slip, but he manages to claw into the crumbling brick ledge of the wall. With a sigh of relief, he looks up, only to find himself staring in Helgana’s bloodshot eyes, eyelashes trembling in fear, muscles and limbs hard from their spider-like perch on the wall. A tear drips from her face onto his. “Please…” she whispers.
In three motions, Martin ties his rope into a loop, secures it onto the wardrobe, and tosses the other end out the window – the heaviest anchor in the room. “This should do,” he answers Walkyn, and the two of them hoist a weakened Petey up to the window ledge.
Petey slides his feet onto the wall outside, and puts his weight onto the rope. It holds. “Hurry up,” Walkyn urges, as fists begin to pound at the door of the bedroom.
“What is this tied to…?” Petey wonders, and pulls hard on the rope. He drops out of view with the sound of wood dragging across wood, and Martin and Walkyn turn to see the pulling across the floor to crush them against the wall.
“Gods damn it, Petey,” Walkyn mutters. He and Martin dive through the window.
As Thonius tries to hold back the flood of attackers, Ayla rushes to Kragyn’s aid, grappling Helgana so he could clamber onto the rooftop. As Ayla and Helgana struggle, she feels the gold necklace she retrieved from her father’s hiding place begin to grow warm and hot, as if agitated.
Across the rooftops, the Carrier stops smiling and takes a long running jump across the space between. He lands in a cloud of dust and his green stench knocks Thonius back before the pale smiler stiffens his long-nailed hand and plunges it toward Ayla like a dagger.
She catches it in her hands, but his yellow smile widens as he pushes against her failing strength, sinking his long ragged fingernails knuckle-deep above her breast. Ayla feels his fingers wriggle inside the wound and tries not to scream.
Her father’s necklace grows hot against her chest, and a grimace sprouts on the Carrier’s face. She clutches the winged medallion in her fist, gold and silver cutting into the calloused skin of her hand and thrusts it into the pale chalky visage of the Carrier.
His knife-like hand slips out from her chest as he recoils. Thonius is waiting behind him and slices at him in a wicked dance of moonlit razor, driving the white man stumbling to the edge of the roof. Even as he turns, Kragyn is already striding forward. His spear held like a battering ram in his hands. The whole weight of his arm on the butt of the spear, and the pivot of his hips behind that. Driven forward by the twisting of his thick legs supported by the spin of the world driving the spear into the Carrier’s heart.
The Carrier makes not a sound as Kragyn’s spear pierces his chest. His mouth agape as slow black blood bursts from the wound over where his heart should be. As he falls, he grabs onto the shaft of the spear, holding himself aloft over the weeping hordes below. A thin tentacle of green smoke begins to escape from his now pursed lips…
…Until Kragyn puts his boot against the Carrier’s chest, and shoves. Eyes wide, the Carrier falls to the alleyway below, a trail of inhuman black viscera streaking through the air. As he strikes the hard ground, his body bloats then bursts like a balloon, scattering slime and thick gas through the narrow alleyway.
Before the breath of relief can leave their lungs, something slithers cockroach quick up Kragyn’s spear, twisting in spirals towards his arm.
The creature slithered whip quick across the ground. Thonius’ dagger plunges into the ground behind it, missing it by a hair. Before they could move, the chitinous creature – the dragon, Kragyn remembered – was forcing its way into Helgana’s screaming mouth.
A cloud of dust sprays up as Walkyn lands solidly. He rises to his feet and immediately slaps Petey upside the head. Martin picks himself up, having landed less gracefully, and brushes himself off.
Figures appear in the window of Thonius’ safehouse, crowding at the window. Martin pulls two ceramic pots from his satchel and tosses them with uncanny aim into the window. Flickering flames backlight the cluster of grabbing arms.
A scream sounds again, down the street. Walkyn’s face pales as he hears Helgana scream. But even worse, when he hears her stop. He begins sprinting towards the alleyway.
Ayla grabs hold of it, trying to pull it from Helgan’s face, now stretched to the point of tearing. Ayla’s necklace grows warm. She hears a click, then several others, the whispery sound of a switchblade. Ayla looks on Helgana’s face in horror – the dragon had extended it’s insect-like legs, hard and sharp and dark, like crab’s legs cut from obsidian.
They had pierced through Helgana’s cheeks, and were pulling the creature deeper in… deeper in… And Helgana’s eyes grew wider, and redder…
The razor flashed twice between Ayla and Helgana’s faces, and they both fell backwards away from each other. Walkyn stood, eyes crazed, backlit by moonlight, his knife dripping black blood.
They all gathered to watch Ayla press her father’s amulet against Helgana’s face and chest, hoping to drive out the halved dragon receding slowly into the barmaid’s mouth. But inch by painful inch, it buried itself bloodily into her throat.
All eyes were on that scene, save Thonius’. He watched the other half that Walkyn had severed from Helgana’s lips. He watched its blood stop dripping, and two oily claws erupt from its gruesome wound. Before it could skitter away, Thonius drove his dagger into it, pinning it to the ground. When it goes limp, he surreptitiously stuffs it into his bag.
With the Carrier dead, it seems that the residents had regained control of their bodies. Petey and Martin pull up next to the alley where the fight had taken place, and the crew load into it amidst the anguished wailing of the gore-covered residents.
With a gasp, Helgana wakes up. “What happened?” she asks.