Isolation 

BY Anton Vellon

 

         The town of Kore.

         Its name came from a mythological spirit that once resided in the nearby forest, the Great Forest of Pan. It was said to be sacred ground protected by the spirits, and as such, evil creatures such as goblins, trolls, and ogres had never shown up. Provided for by the bounty of the forest, the humans there had truly lived alongside nature in peace and harmony.

         Little over a month later, the entire world had changed. That was around when they began showing up.

         Nobody really knew exactly what they were, or where they came from. They suddenly struck, without warning, and while they were mostly active at night, there was no point in time where anybody was fully safe.

         As for the people of Kore, when they were faced with this new threat, some of the residents retreated into the forest to seek the protection of the spirits, while others had for one reason or another, stayed in town, holed up in their houses.

         The Kulik family fell into the latter category. The small family of four had once been a family that generally got along with everyone else in town. Now, just like the rest of those who were still inside Kore, the prisoners in their own towns, they struggled to make a decent living, having to go out on runs for supplies in the abandoned homes, risking their lives for crumbs of food.

         Underneath the dark night sky, a hooded figure weaved through the nooks and crannies of the alleys, only barely illuminated by the moonlight. He made sure to move swiftly and quietly, careful not to draw the attention of the lumbering silhouettes in the streets where they were shambling about. He didn’t even look at them, afraid to grab their attention, and kept his head down until he reached a house and tapped on the door lightly.

         The door creaked open, and on the other side of the door was a tall bearded man in a dustied shirt, with a partly rusted axe in one hand. Behind him at the far end of the house was a dark-haired woman in a dress, holding onto a similar-looking little girl who took after her.

         “Norman, you’re safe!”

         “Oh, thank the Gods…!”

         “You’re back!”

         “Mom… Dad… Laura…!” A collection of hushed voices whispered their relief. The father of the household, Hugh, ushered the hooded figure indoors, where he could finally breathe freely as he took off his coat, revealing the face of a young man who was quickly approaching adulthood in a world his parents never wished for him.

         The family quickly wrapped their arms around each other for a brief moment, their warmth reminding them that they had all gotten through another day.

         “I didn’t get much, but it should last us for the next day or so.” Norman quickly released himself from the hug and quickly shrugged off his cloak before he began unpacking the bag hidden underneath, dumping out its contents. It was all made up of fruits, vegetables, and bread from what was once the market that hadn’t spoiled yet.

         A son putting himself at risk each day while the rest of his family could do nothing but wait, coming back at the end of the day with barely enough food to last them the next. They were definitely less than ideal conditions, but their family had quickly learned not to complain about what they didn’t have, as had the few other survivors that remained.

         But this day was different than the previous ones.

         All of the Kuliks’ danger senses flashed blood red as they heard an unnaturally loud sound, like pounding against a wall. Hugh silently gestured for Isabella, his wife, to bring Laura to the kitchen on the far side of the house, even if the distance between there and the door was easy to close. He then peeked out the window to see the black shadows, pounding against the door of the house across from them until the door gave way, and the tall, lumbering figures crouched down and entered the house.

         In the next moment came unbearable screams of pain.

         “The Taylors…”

         Norman gritted his teeth in frustration. Being that the town was moderately sized, he more or less knew most of the people that. as he helplessly heard the sound of his neighbors, whom he had known as a second family of sorts, falling to the darkness of the shadows. He dared not probe further into it to see what happened next.

         “Why… why are they active this time…?” he muttered softly, fully expecting no answer. Because of their self-isolation, no one really knew much about what these creatures were, or what their habits were, or what they did to their unfortunate victims. Did they simply kill them? Did they eat them?

         Or in the worst possible scenario, those monsters transformed their victims into more of their brethren?

         That was the most pressing question on everybody’s mind. It made sense, too, since there was never a single trace of those who had fallen to their claws, and more of these shadows seemed to show up everyday.

         But their minds desperately rejected that. They prayed to whatever gods they believed in that horrific monsters capable of such atrocities could not exist in this world. In the end, however, they never knew, because they did not have the courage nor the means to find out, locking them in the perpetual fear of the unknown.

         Then, the shadows turn around to look at them, although the word demon seemed to not be too far off the mark. The dark, wispy figures that seemed to literally be made from pitch-black shadows towered two to three meters high, and had long, lanky arms that ended with razor-sharp claws that could easily pierce through flesh with naught but a simple touch. Their heads seemed almost bird-like, with blazing white sharp eyes and a beak-like protrusion that could pass as either a nose or a mouth.

         They’re getting closer! Closer!

         Both father and son glanced at each other, fully knowing that they could —no, they would— perish if they fought back. It was a 100% That was the difference in strength between humans and monsters that allowed them to cripple Kore. The men, however, would not allow them to slaughter the women they loved.

         Hugh’s grip on his hatchet tightened, and Norman took deep breaths to stop his arms from shaking. It was the most they could do to prepare for what would be certain death. From the window, Norman could glimpse one of the creatures rearing back its claws, ready to cut down the door to pieces and let itself in...

         All of a sudden, there was a flash of white, blinding light from outside, as if a star had descended. The temperature instantaneously dropped to a frigid cold reserved for only the cruelest of winters, the ground began shaking violently, as if the very foundations of the world were crumbling.

         Laura held on tightly to her mother, her screams of fear drowned out by the deafening sound of crystal shattering echoed throughout the streets. She opened her eyes some time after the sounds stopped, but she realized that the sound was not the shadows. They had not broken down the door, nor was her father and brother slain by them. In fact, the terrible darkness and howls they let out were no longer present.

         “Stay back, girls,” Hugh warned as he glanced out the window at the street, having to wipe through the newly-formed ice that clung at the windows, and was awestruck by what he saw.

         Ice.

         The entire street was covered by a thin layer of ice, and even though it was only the beginning of autumn, snow was descending from the skies, as if to soothe the scarred and wounded earth. The remnants of frozen icicles sticking out of the limp bodies of shadow and the ground slowly began rising into the sky as it dissolved into light.

         Looking out the window behind his father, Norman saw a figure standing amidst the cold and icy street. Much of his body and his face was shadowed by a cloak, but he could clearly see it was wearing glistening armor with a crest that he could not clearly see. He seemed to be the kind of hero spoken of only in legends, the kind the young man once aspired to be as a child.

         For a brief moment in time, Norman’s dark brown eyes met their savior’s. His eyes seemed to glow with icy blue light, and although his gaze was sharp, he did not feel threatened at all. 

         And then, once that moment was over, he was overtaken by the mist, and in the span of a few seconds, the frigid cold, the ice, the bodies of the monsters, and the figure disappeared as if he was never there.

***

         “Amazing…”

         The young woman partly covered in plate armor could not help but gawk at the sight before her. She stood atop a hill overlooking Kore, giving her a clear view of the brilliant flashes of blue and white that engulfed the streets. Giant icicles formed from the ground and seemed to pierce through the sky, taking several shadow demons at a time.

         Micha clenched her fist, lamenting her helplessness. She wanted to go forth and save them, but she was hardly capable of defeating a single monster. Compared to her, the young paladin walking up the hill to her seemed to be worlds above her.

         “I’m back.” His voice, cold as ice, had as much mercy as he showed the monsters he faced. His dark hair flowed with a cool night breeze, and the parts of his silver armor that were not covered by his beaten, ragged cloak glistened in the moonlight. Dragging behind him underneath his cloak was a longsword, blackish tar clinging to the blade.

         “...You finished up sooner than usual, Sir Felix.” The female knight wanted to say something, anything to the one in front of her, but those words were all she could muster.

         “If I had come any later, they would’ve broken the doors down,” he said. “...Let’s go now. We’ve done what we can here.”

         “Are you sure you don’t want to rest for the night, at least?” Micha asked.

         The boy simply shook his head. It was the same response when he saved the town before this one, and the one before that, and the one before that.

         “The longer we stay out here, these monsters will continue hurting and killing people. It’s best if we get to the Tempest Mountains as soon as possible to put an end to all this.”

         “Are you sure it’s not because you don’t want them to feel indebted to you?”

         “...”

         Micha smiled to herself. She had a feeling that was the case, and she had traveled with the paladin long enough to know that he went silent when he didn’t know what to do or say. He still remained her idol, but his flaws kindly reminded her that he was human, too.

         “Ehe… I thought so. My apologies, Sir Felix.”

         “Not at all. Besides… if they have the money to repay me, they can afford the resources to rebuild.”

         “You’re very kind.”

         He found it irksome that his partner could easily see through his intentions, but somehow, he didn’t hate that.

         “...Let’s continue. We still have a five-day walk from where we need to be.”

         “Right!” Micha replied enthusiastically, walking behind the boy with a smile.

         Thus, without so much as a word, the unsung heroes continued their trek into the mountains in the north and vanished into the moonlit wastelands ahead of them.