MIRA checked the saddle’s fastenings on her horse and the provisions in the saddlebags while her mother and father, Ann and Virgaard Greenheart, bade her little brother, Isaak, farewell.
“We shouldn’t be gone for much more than a week, like usual with these patrols,” said Ann as she hugged her son. “Just mind Genna and Uld, okay? They’ve stood in for us before when we’ve both gone out, though last time we did that you were just a baby. I know you get along very well with Kahle, so listen to what they say if they ask you to do something, alright?”
“Yes, Ma,” the nine-year-old said obediently, but sullenly.
Virgaard picked up Isaak and hugged him tightly. “In just a few more years,” he said comfortingly, “you’ll be old enough to go on your first patrol, and we’ll both come with you then.”
“I know,” said Isaak, “but I’m going to miss you now.”
“Sure,” said Virgaard, “and we’ll miss you. But we’re going to do everything we can to be careful and be back soon.”
Mira, seeing that all her things were ready, patted her horse and joined her family at the gates. She hugged her brother as the other villagers joining in the patrol rode out a little way before stopping to wait for their chieftains to lead them.
“Uld and Genna are really nice, though,” she said, “so hopefully you’ll feel like you’re still with family. I know you haven’t really seen Uld much when not working his forge, and he certainly is big and tough-looking, but he’s nowhere near as mean as he looks. And Genna, I know she can seem a bit bossy if you’ve only seen her when she gives out medicine, but that’s just her being a doctor. Well, that and I suppose it’s also just her being a ma. Not yours, true, but you know how mas are.”
Mira yipped and giggled as Ann playfully flicked her ear.
“And like Ma and Da said,” she continued, “you’re best friends with Kahle, and she’s their daughter, so if nothing else makes you think they’re nice, that should.”
“Okay, okay,” said Isaak, smiling. “Just come back soon, okay?”
“We will,” Mira and her parents said in unison.
Mira and her parents left Isaak at Plen’s gate once Uld, Genna, and Kahle Tillok arrived to take him in. They then mounted up and rode out to the head of the patrol. All present quickly checked their supplies one last time, then cantered swiftly into the green depths of Santaru.
Four days passed without incident, during which the patrollers conversed with each other over numerous things as they rode. One subject of particular intrigue for Mira, grim as it was, was a review and greater elaboration of the fell creatures they might encounter in the forest. Knowing the talk was for her benefit and that of the handful of other youths in the troop, the thirteen-year-old listened intently and asked what questions she could think of.
“So ... are there any in particular that are common here?”
“Well,” Virgaard answered, “I’d believe, and hope, that none of them are ‘common’ here anymore. I doubt we’ll ever be completely rid of them as long as Fidonhaal still stands, but we’ve been weeding them out for four thousand years. That said, any of them could potentially be found here, as is the case for anywhere other than Karzynhaal.” Plen’s patriarch laughed lightly. “I will say that since the forest isn’t burning down, there shouldn’t be many, if any, Bralaks in the neighborhood.”
Mira nervously fiddled with the reins in her hands at the thought of the potential destruction that could be wrought by such creatures, composing herself when her horse fidgeted uncomfortably in response. “H-how do we deal with creatures like that, monsters made by Raakaru?”
“Well, it depends on a number of things,” Virgaard explained. “It’ll depend on what type of Lakon it is, how many there are, and what the surroundings are. Thankfully, while there’s certainly more effective ways, like magic if one is versed in it, none of these creatures are immune to a well-placed arrow or blade. If it ever comes to you being against a Lakon, know that you can kill it; it’s just a matter of knowing what’s best against the creature given the situation. And of course, whether there’s only one of them or more, there’s always a strength in numbers when it comes to your side of the matter. That’s why we’re all in this troop together.”
“I see,” Mira said somberly.
“So listen, Mira,” Virgaard said in a tone of both loving care and decisive authority as he pointed to the other first-timers, “and you lot as well. If we should encounter any sort of Cursed One out here, wait for one of us to see how things are, if possible. If it’s something we think you can manage, we’ll have you deal with it while we watch and help if needed. Or, at the very least, we’ll have you close enough to watch how we handle those sorts of beasts. But if it looks to be too much, and if it can be helped, we’re going to have you hang back with the bulk of the patrol and stay out of it until it’s taken care of. We want to give you all experience in keeping Santaru as safe as possible, but we won’t have you fighting an ogre or a big pack of Qualakars on you first patrol, alright?”
“Yes, Chief Virgaard,” the youths said dutifully.
“Yes, Da,” said Mira.
“Remember,” Virgaard continued, “these sorts of creatures aren’t like the other beasts of the world, which might turn violent to get food, or to protect themselves or their young, or anything like that. A wild beast might attack if provoked, and whether or not it was intended on your part, you may have to kill it to survive. But with Lakons, they were made ... twisted ... by Raakaru to destroy us and spite Onu. Your very existence, if they notice you, will set them into an awful, hateful bloodlust. For your own sake and that of your fellow Fidon, as well as all else good in this world, you must kill them if you can, or otherwise get someone who is skilled in the task, for they will kill you if they can. Hatred of us and all the rest of the world is what drives them, not the simple drives of life and nature that other creatures live by. Got that?”
“Yes, sir!” the youths shouted.
“Very good. Now, any other questions?”
A young lad, raising his hand, asked if they could have more thorough descriptions of the various Cursed Ones and their appearances, along with advice on tracking and dispatching them. The rest of that morning passed peacefully as Virgaard and Ann imparted their knowledge of the Lakons to the future keepers of Santaru and Plen, with several stressed reminders of why all the cursed beasts bore some resemblance, however twisted, to the Fidons. They descended from Fidons who were molded by Raakaru’s foul craft into mockeries of their form and, for those also sharing the visages of certain other beasts, of the creatures with which they were conjoined.
It was just past noon when the company stopped for a light lunch and a brief rest. Mira, having eaten and obtained permission from her parents, went off to walk a little way about the forest within sight of the troop. As she passed a cluster of undergrowth, she heard a light grumbling that seemed to come from the ground. Pricking up her grey ears for a moment, she also caught the sound of irregular shuffling. She hesitated at first, worried at the thought of how irritated the company might be if she reported the noise and it ended up just being a badger or some other burrowing creature. She was still on edge from the morning’s lecture and didn’t want to give a false alarm and seem like a scared child. She wrestled with her self-consciousness only briefly, however, recalling her father’s age-old maxim of it being better to be safe than sorry. She took a deep breath and went up to the patrol, where her father stood, and called him over.
“I think there’s something over there,” she said in a low voice as she pointed to the distant shrubbery. “It seemed to be in the undergrowth there, maybe even in the ground. I didn’t really go over to get a good look, but I figured ...”
“Of course,” Virgaard said understandingly. “Come with me. Let’s see.”
The chieftain then called for two of the other youths to follow them, along with a handful of adults, while the others held back, watching and ready just in case. As they reached the bushes, Virgaard pricked up his ears and listened carefully for a moment. His eyes widened, to Mira’s alarm, and he took a few careful steps closer to the cluster of foliage. He signaled to his daughter to step in alongside him, and to those with him to have their weapons at the ready. The two then crept quietly into the undergrowth, rustling it as little as they could, until they found a small recess in the ground. Virgaard, gesturing for Mira to stay out, crept up to the little hole and peered down. He then turned his head to face his daughter, his face one of grim duty, and beckoned her to quietly come over to him and take a look as well. When Mira crept over and looked, she gasped, sharply but quietly, at the sight.
Three little creatures, like the cubs of bears or mountain lions, lay in a small pile, sleeping. However, unlike the young of such beasts, the short fur these creatures had was a splotchy, sickly looking pale brown, and the flesh was leathery and warty all over. Their heads, from ears to muzzle, bore a revolting resemblance to those of small Fidon children, and their tails, a touch shorter than that of a proportionate Fidon, resembled more of a rat’s tail than a Fidon’s for its lack of a sufficient fur coat. Mira looked morbidly at the sight, unable to speak. Her father leaned closely to her.
“I take it you know what these are, since we covered them this morning?” he whispered.
Mira nodded. The description she heard that morning left no mystery.
“They’re Qualakars,” she said quietly. “They’re Qualakar young.”
She turned to face her father. “I heard how all the Lakons reproduce and have young. It’s in much the same way as all the other creatures of Fidonhaal ... like the bear and the deer, the fish and the birds ... like some of the Angelborn ... like us. I know what you said about how they were made and how they live to destroy us and the world. I understand that ... these little ones here, if they saw us, would want to kill us, same as if they were fully grown, but ... I just ...”
Virgaard gently patted his daughter’s shoulder. “I know,” he said softly. “It’s hard to swallow.”
“Maybe not as hard as the reason they’re here, though.” Mira whispered grimly. “We let them happen, long, long ago ...”
“Yes, that we did,” Virgaard said solemnly.
“So, we’ll need to ...”
Mira sighed deeply. “Okay, then ...”
Virgaard patted her shoulder again. “It’s part of the bed we made.”
Mira nodded, readying the spear she brought along as Virgaard, leaning out of the undergrowth, signaled for those following to join them. When all had gathered and observed the situation, two others stood beside Mira, spears readied alongside hers for a swift downward strike into the hole. They awaited Virgaard’s signal.
The chieftain nodded. “Quick and quiet,” he whispered, “then we’ll all go over this area carefully and see if we can find out where–”
Virgaard, staring wide-eyed into the recess, froze in mid-sentence. Mira looked again into it, and felt her blood turn to ice.
One of the monstrous whelps was awake, staring at the petrified group with its shining eyes of black and red. The eyes shone with a light of hatred and contempt that Mira simply could not imagine a young creature being capable of having, regardless of what it was. And it was smiling. A heinous, fang-laden grin spread across its little face, one that clearly showed the atrocious delight that it felt at seeing the terror it invoked in the creatures that it, and its ancestors, were twisted into hating more than anything else in all of existence. It locked its stare onto Mira. The grin grew wider. Mira began to shake in horror. The smile was now abominably wide, seemingly unnatural. The creature shook a little. It was laughing. Silently, but it was laughing. Then it stopped, and, eyes piercing into Mira’s, it wheezed slightly as it slowly drew in a deep breath.
Seeing the creature inhaling was what finally broke Virgaard’s spell of stupefied terror.
“NOW!” he yelled. “IT’S GOING TO–”
The little Qualakar opened its fanged maw and let out an earsplitting scream. Mira and one of those beside her quailed at the sound as the third managed to slay one of the monster’s siblings as it was just starting to wake. Mira dropped her spear in fright. The hunter beside her recovered from his shock and skewered the other Qualakar that had just awoken. The last one alive, the one that screamed, scurried out of the pit with shocking speed. Mira scrambled for her spear. She grabbed it. The young monster reached her and leapt onto her outstretched arm as she was picking up the spear. It set its fangs into her arm. Mira screamed. Virgaard drew his knife, grabbed the Qualakar by the waist to steady it, and plunged the blade into its skull. The monster’s bite slackened, and in its last breath the horrid beast stared into Mira’s eyes. It managed to grin again, and the hateful fire in its eyes slowly faded out. Virgaard unhinged the horror’s jaws and pulled it from Mira’s violently shaking arm, from which blood
was trickling steadily. Mira couldn’t stop crying, not from the pain of the bite, but from the horror of encountering a creature that, no matter how young, lived and died to carry out Raakaru’s hatred of Onu’s creation. Such evil seemed impossible to her until this moment. She also wept from shame, feeling that her wound was something she brought onto herself for hesitating out of fear. Her father wrapped his torn shirtsleeve around her arm and hugged her close.
“I-I’m sorry, Da!” she wailed brokenly. “I-I didn’t kill it soon enough! Thi-this is m-my fault!”
“No, Mira, no!” Virgaard insisted as he patted her back and kissed her cheek. “We were all scared stiff, too!”
All the other patrollers concurred, gathering close and commending Mira for still trying to fight the monster as well as telling the group of her findings in the first place. Ann and a few others came crashing through the bushes, with Plen’s matriarch crying out in alarm at the sight of her daughter’s arm.
“It’s alright, Ann,” Virgaard said quickly. “She’ll likely have scars, but we’ll put something on it and she’ll be fine.” He then turned to Mira and kissed her. “That is the sort of evil we allowed to be made here long ago, Mira. Thousands of years have passed, but still we struggle with the evils within us that let such things come to be. Remember that, Mira, whether you’re hunting down creatures like this or defending yourself from another Fidon who’s fallen one way or another into the darkness.”
Mira nodded fervently. “I will, Da. I will.”
The ears of all gathered in the undergrowth shot up in alarm as they heard a distant, rapid thundering of large feet barreling closer and closer to them from behind. An unholy growling soon became audible as well. Then a horrid roar sounded just a short way off, where the remainder of the patrol was waiting. Many alarmed voices cried out, and a horse shrieked in terrorized agony. Bowstrings twanged. Blades pierced and cleaved. Silence fell.
Mira, her parents and the others with her, hurried out of the shrubbery. Mira, clutching her throbbing arm, looked in horrified awe.
The patrollers had gathered around a dead female Qualakar. It was about the same size as the dead, gutted horse that lay beside it, but with greater bulk in its chest and forearms than in its hindquarters, which still had the girth of a horse’s middle.
“Well,” said Virgaard at length, “I guess we won’t need to look for the mother. Mira, go with your ma and get medicine on that bite, then we’ll make the rest of our patrol go slow and steady. We need to do the best we can to try and figure out if there are any more out there. It’ll take us a bit longer and there’s a fair chance that we might not find much else, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Mira took her mother’s hand and went to the horse with the medicines in its packs as the company prepared to continue the patrol.
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The novel is titled "The Saga of Fidonhaal - Daughters of the East," and its story is set within the world of Fidonhaal, a wondrous world inhabited by creatures known as the Fidons. These beings, from our perspective, appear as anthropomorphic wolves, and the name of their race translates from their language as "Faithful One(s)." These people, and the world they live in, have endured ages of conflict and peace, triumph and tragedy, and good and evil, these times involving both the mortals and the supernatural, divine and unholy alike.
The events told within this novel are but one part of this world's saga.