Fading Echoes
by Katrionah Rosalette in Dark Ages

Dedicated, as all my works are, to Klaudaryn; my love
across many lifetimes, and certainly more to come...

 Author's note: The following takes place in Danaan 1814, during
the Eighth Aeon of Darkness; nine years after the appearance of
the Dubhaimid, and one year prior to the return to the worshiping
of Danaan. All in all, it sets the stage for building climax of the
turmoil and chaos of the time, and this story.

I recommending reading the ballad/poem The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Part I: Discovery

"Mamma... Mamma wake up... Mamma."

    The faintly muttered words had drawn Trynte to that shell of a building. Leading him inside before he realized, straight into the remnants and wreckage of the carnage of the night before. Perhaps in doing so, he had broken the only pact he and his partner thieves, including his own sister, had ever truly kept.
    The pitiful pleading of the soft voice now left him standing before the most woefully heart-wrenching sight he had ever known.

    The child could have been no older than six years; she was sitting there alone, crying amongst the burnt frame and crumbling roof of what had once been a grand townhouse.
    The smell of smoldering wood still hung thick upon the air, stinging Trynte's nostrils with every breath he took. The lurid air was spiced with another odor though. With an uneasy shiver, he noted it was that of flesh, rotted, burnt, or even trampled from the night before. It was the very stench of death and destruction. Yet he already knew it far too well in his journeys and raids amongst these fallen cities. It had been that way for nearly nine years. Still he was not used to it, nor would he ever be.

    All the same, he was surprised to find this child just sitting there amongst the ruins and filth. Her sandy brown hair, which was tied neatly on both sides into curled pigtails, was caked and matted with ashes, and even traces of since dried blood. It couldn't have been her own though; she appeared to be otherwise fine in the weary thief's eyes.
    Looking beyond where the child lay huddled; he saw what she was crying so endlessly over. Rafters from the ceiling had apparently fallen during the chaos of the night, the flames that engulfed the house had just barely seemed to touch the thick wooden boards, but they had singed just enough to cause the entire roof to collapse in.
    The unsettling scene of the fallen boards was only a few feet away from stairs leading down and into the street, which further added to the woefully ironic fact of what lie crushed under those planks. A woman, who looked no older than twenty, was wedged under the massive debris. Both the rafters and the unfortunate lady were lying in a pool of blood, which no doubt had gathered through the course of the night, perhaps even after the fires had died away. Her limp arms were outstretched as though she meant to reach out to the girl. Her gown, once composed of a no doubt luxurious fabric and design, had been tattered to shreds through the course of the fury, and whatever remained of the garment was hopelessly drenched with drying crimson.
    The final expression of the lady's face had been frozen upon her lifeless visage, showing the disturbing reflection of hopeless woe in her features even long after her own demise.
    In a mad rush to escape the doomed house, she had been crushed just a few paces away from freedom. Her young child had obviously seen much better fate, but she was far too young to understand any of it. Distraught, confused, and scared, she had stayed unknowingly weeping by her mother's corpse the entire night. Upon looking at her closely, he saw the child's clothing was a miniature replica of her mother's, if not in far better condition. This had been the home of some wealthy family, or widow judging from the fact the woman was the only occupant to be found. Trynte didn't care what the story behind all this was. The house had fallen in upon itself long ago, and anything of worth had no doubt be crushed or ruined. His eyes, however, spitefully fixed themselves upon the woman's corpse, her child who had hardly a single tear left to shed, and the splendor all around that was now a pathetic mass of rubble.
    He could not tear his gaze away, no matter how much he wanted to. Something deep within him would not have it so. Over time, he felt compelled to even approach the sobbing child, to calm her, comfort her. While a part of him reasoned it was the only thing to do, another said he shouldn't so much as waste his time staring. His conflicting thoughts simply added to his frozen silence, leaving him to turn the reason over in his mind time and time again.

    After a long while he looked at this cryptic picture of woe and gore. For now what felt to have been an eternity, Trynte wasn't sure if he should really bother approaching the muddled girl. He could tell from the exposed walls at the far side of the hall that the morning was already fast upon him, the lurid haze of the day shifting to a brighter hue as high noon slowly approached. He half turned, he could descend upon the staircase easily enough, and once out of the house, he would never have to worry of her ever again.
    She would probably be in too much shock to notice anyway, he told himself. Besides, he had come to smoldering ruins of the village to raid, not to rescue. Her whimpering was insistent nonetheless, and it echoed throughout his ears just enough so that his conscious was able to go to work on him. Poor child, she had cried until she hadn't the tears left to wash upon her mother's corpse.
    And now, even as dawn was slowly creeping in, she was still whimpering and softly murmuring a sad repetition of "Mamma..."

    Why did he have to choose this house to investigate first? He could have just ignored the distraught pleading of the girl, he could have just moved on without so much as another thought.
    It should have been so easy. Waltz into town when the residents had fled, after the fires had died away, take what things were untouched by flame or trampled by the stampede of villagers, then leave with nary a doubt about it.
    The carnage of the previous night meant nothing; it was only a business opportunity for him. The dubhaimid had done a nice favor for him really, they ravaged the town, set fire to the houses, and sent those within the walls of the city screaming and running for their lives. Even if half of those who ran would loose theirs in the rush to save themselves.
    It should have made no difference. He had learned to thrive upon the chaos the age of darkness brought. Just as his sister and partner Talia once told him. "No regrets, Trynte, that's the only way you'll make it."

    Now, he was starting to regret his actions. The words of his accomplice had barely ceased to resonate within his mind, when the child lifted her poor head, and slowly rose to her feet.
    Before Trynte could act, before he could slip away without so much as a word, he found himself staring at the most pitiful sight he had ever seen in his life. Wide blue eyes, stained red from both incessant crying and smoke from the flames, stared up at him with quizzical innocence and curiosity. Her cherubic cheeks, though tinged slightly gray with ash, had clear marks of the tears that had streaked down them for all that woeful night.
    The once thought apathetic thief would have dropped to his knees, so weakened by the sight of this child, had he not grabbed on to rail by the stairs. The wooden railing however, already had it's share of stress in the fires, promptly collapsed under his hands instead, leaving Trynte feeling even more awkward, and the child watching him with even more intense curiosity. Not exactly knowing why, he laughed uneasily. So did the child, though hers was much more airy, genuine. And though it was only an unwitting mimicking gesture, Trynte found it uplifting. He smiled, and of course so did the girl.

    "Mister..." The child finally cooed in her small voice. "Could... Could you help?"

    Trynte hesitated, but crept closer to her nonetheless. "Help with what, sweetheart?" His voice was far from sounding at all reassuring. It wasn't something well known to the thief.

    "Wake Mamma." She replied tersely. Trynte could have broken into tears with that, biting his tongue sharply, he managed against it. The stringing pain that followed the action was enough to keep reminding him nonetheless.

    "Oh... Oh my little dear..." He muttered shakily. "Mamma's... Mamma's gone away."

    "Away..." The girl's soft, shaky voice echoed. "Gone... Gone away..." The tears were already welling up in her reddened eyes.

    "W-wait now!" Trynte stammered, again hesitating to go to her. "No need to cry sweet..." His mind raced for something to say, something to calm her. "Everything's okay. You'll be alright."

    The girl said nothing, the tears overran her eyes and trickled down the now marked pathway down her cheeks.

    "Don't cry, don't cry!" Trynte knelt down quickly beside her.  "I'm here, little darling... I'll protect you..." The rushed words left Trynte's mouth before he even realized he had opened it. Too late, the child's eyes softened, and she threw her arms around him ecstatically. In her eyes, he was all she had left, her young mind couldn't grasp the risk of trusting a stranger. All she knew, all she cared about, was that she was no longer alone.

    What could he do? Trynte could feel the fluttering heartbeat of the child even through the nearly threadbare folds of his raven colored tunic. Her tiny, balmy hands clutched tightly around him, for as Trynte had guessed she had no one else to confide in besides him anymore. She had made her choice, and he couldn't bear to crush the little girl's spirits any further.

    He sighed softly, slowly stroking his hands through the child's sandy colored curls. "I'll tell you what... I'll take you as far to the next town, but then once I find you a nice place to stay, I have to go."
    The child raised her small head to gaze up at him, her eyes, once again looking near tears, struck a blow directly into Trynte's heart. "Can't I stay with you?" She pleaded meekly.

    "N.. No, sweet." The thief sighed. "It's too dangerous, besides, we don't even know each other's names. I'm sure you wouldn't feel safe traveling with a stra--"

    "My name's Shalotte." The girl chimed in, the sad look in her eyes replaced by a mischievous twinkle. "What's yours, mister?"

    He hesitated, but those eyes would not waver from their fixed gaze upon him. "I'm Trynte." He blurted his replay out sharply, if only to get her to stop looking at him so. Shalotte giggled merrily, and threw her arms around him warmly. "See Mister Trynte? Now we're not strangers anymore! You can take me with you!"
    Trynte sighed heavily, returning to the languid rhythm of stroking her hair as he stared up at the collapsed roof of the house.
    "I suppose so..." He finally muttered in agreement, the nagging thought of what he had just got himself into refused to leave him.

Part II: Journey

"Where are we going, Trynte?"

    They were miles from the ruined village before the child asked him this. Or rather, Trynte guessed, before she worked up the nerve to ask him. He uttered a low, if not rueful, chuckle anyway, and answered her with a false tone of airy carelessness. "There's a large city several miles up the road, It's nearly a day and a half walk, but it's the only place around these parts that has the proper... defenses." He hesitated before uttering the final word of his reply, it was far from true to say any town could fend off an attack from the loathsome demons known as the dubhaimid. Trynte had grown to thrive upon the path of destruction the creatures walked, and by the same token, and his sister could easily predict which towns would fall victim to them in their years of careful watching.
    The dubhaimid, after all, were what they thrived upon. They pillaged the salvageable items that remained in the wreckage left by the dubhaimid, then sold them off at bazaars of larger cities. It was far from an earnest practice, living off other's misfortune, but to Trynte and Talia, it was their life, no question to it.
    Yet it was now, carrying this child upon his back instead of a pack of stolen goods, he began to doubt what underlie their methods of survival. It was people just like little Shalotte, who fell victim to these demons, those who survived not only had no homes left to return to, but the shame in knowing they had deserted friends, family, even honor, to save their own lives in a mad rush. And the looting, coming to those villages when the chaos finally subsided, the dubhaimid having moved on after taking their fill of the carnage and gore... did that make him as low as some grave robber?
    No, it couldn't be that low, it simply could not be. The people would never return to their crushed hometowns, and the valuables that remained would just fall to waste amongst the rubble. It was only natural to clear away that left behind, and if it meant it could keep his sister alive and himself alive, so be it. Why worry about those who were already dead, or those alive who'd never dare return. It made no difference. They didn't concern him. They were... strangers.

    He was conscious of Shalotte's warm breath upon the back of his neck for the first time as he walked. It sent a wave of shivers down his spine, and he increased his paced slightly. The child murmured something faintly, but Trynte made no effort to hear her. Best not to think about it. She was only a temporary burden, so he needn't give her much though, and above all, he mustn't get attached. As soon as they reached the northern kingdoms, and the cities within its borders, he would leave her in the care of some kindly resident there. Then, he could rejoin Talia in the wood south of there as planned. With luck, he could have it all done and be there to meet here without being a second late.

    The more he mulled over this plan through his thoughts, the less Trynte took notice of how quickly his pace was increasing. So much so that he was nearly in a full run before Shalotte's small voice shattered his silent planning. "Trynte! Mister Trynte, slow down!" She cried. "I can't hold on!"
    He stopped abruptly not even a second after she uttered the words, the movement was so sudden he nearly threw the poor child from over his shoulders and to the dusty road below. Her grip upon his cloak was firm though, even for a young girl's. Not wasting a second, she straightened herself from where she perched on his shoulders, and even worked up the courage to place her tiny hands near his head. Trynte would have looked back to see how she managed so, but that would only cause her to fall off for sure if he did. Shrugging his shoulders slightly to reacquaint them with her weight, he walked on with a much slower pace. Now that his thoughts were devoid of the dubhaimid, larceny, and other such things, Trynte woefully noted he had nothing about him other than silence and the gentle warm of Shalotte's form above him. She too, was silent, though what the child could be possibly thinking escaped him.
    Did she daydream of her mother, the lifeless woman she had stayed for hours by even after death? It was very possible, that if Trynte had not been led to her by her cries, then Shalotte would simply have remained in that ruined old villa, and eventually join her poor mother in death. And even so, she had rushed into Trynte's arms with nary a sign of hesitation. So perhaps even in her naive mind, she knew she must trust someone in order to survive.
    It was all too bizarre to so much as try and make sense of, but there she sat, awkwardly mounted upon the thief's shoulders, silently watching the darkened countryside as they slowly walked to a destination no doubt unknown to her.
    For a long while there was only silence, Trynte kept his attention focused on the murky haze over the horizon, a sad excuse for day if anything. For the vast majority of his life, that was how it always was. Day was dark, and night was darker, no one paid much attention of which was really which any more. For Shalotte, it must have been all she had ever known, yet all Trynte himself had were fading memories of brighter days, days that had long been crushed since the error of chaos and the dubhaimid's reign or terror. What difference did it make? Life was as bad as death, which meant death was simply an even deeper, unimaginable torment. Trynte didn't care to find out what exactly death led to, not for a long, long time he hoped.

"Mister Trynte?" Shalotte's little voice nearly startled the thief from the sudden utterance.

"Trynte will do." He replied flatly, not once faltering in his pace.

A thoughtful murmur came from over his head. "This is so boring."

Trynte laughed ruefully. "Traveling always is."

"Not if you do something."

"Oh? Like what?" Trynte nearly craned his head around to look at the child, but he stopped short of the action, remembering it would end up knocking her off his shoulders.

There was a short pause, but Shalotte answered, finally sounding sure of herself. "A story."

"A story?"

"Yes. A good one."

"I don't know many stories."

"Then tell me about something." The child insisted.

Trynte laughed, for the first time it was a genuine one. He could feel the girl shifting impatiently from her place upon his shoulders. Pondering her words for a moment, an idea dawned on him at last. With it, a faint smile crept upon his face, an expression he hadn't used for what seemed like ages now.

"Alright." He agreed, making it sound reluctant. "I'll tell you all about the places I've been. The people I've seen, and the things I've found. How is that, my Lady?"

&Shalotte giggled from her perch above him, delighted at being called 'lady'.

"Yes..." Her voice had a mock tone of elegance, mimicking words she had probably heard her mother use so many times. "That shall do nicely."

He laughed once again. And, after a small bout of silence to think, using the rhythm of his footsteps to fuel his remembrance, Trynte began the first of his many tales.


Storytelling was a talent Trynte was far from good at, though as he slowly rambled on about the cities he had seen and the experiences he and his 'friends' as he called them, had, Shalotte still seemed to listen with rapt attention.
    He was always careful what he told her of the great cities he had seen, often describing how they had been known before Trynte himself had arrived in them. After all, his life consisted of following the dubhaimid's trail of destruction, few towns he and his companions passed through were little more than smoldering skeletons of the majestic places they had once been. Trynte had never really given much though to that fact until he began to tell young Shalotte of them, always forcing himself to take care to leave out the little details of how they really found them.
    Talia had always told him it was simply their way of life, and the other thieves that often traveled with he and his sister all agreed to that. It was other people's misfortune, not their own. Thus, as Talia said, it was actually expected that someone come along and pick through the miss.
    As he thought of these things once more, he neglected to keep track of the stories he riled on about to the child, leaving Shalotte often asking him to elaborate or describe something else before she was satisfied with the information his tales gave to her. At that point, Trynte was barely even paying attention to what he said. Absentmindedly, he began to tell of what he, Talia, and their 'friends' all encountered on treks such as he and Shalotte were now on.
    Once in a while, Shalotte would stop him, dully asking how much further it was to the city ahead. Trynte never once slowed his walking as he answered her with, 'just a bit further now, sweet.' every time.
    In reality, Trynte had failed to keep an accurate measure of how long they had been walking, much less how far away the promised city was. It was odd, he realized, that now he barely bothered to call any city or town he headed to or from by name. Yet he knew it was a habit that came from the avoidance of 'getting attached' as Talia called it. It made their tasks to be done within most of the places easier to go about. To never know whose house you were sorting through, whose body you had moved aside, or whose slightly singed jewelry you had just taken. Like Talia always said, it was... easier.

    "Is Talia your only sister?"

    Trynte nearly feel over at Shalotte's simple question. "Is she w-what?"

    "Your only sister." The child replied. "You kept mumbling things like "Talia this" or "Talia that" when you were talking."

    "Oh..." He laughed.  "Oh was I?"

    "Tell me about her."

    Trynte bounced Shalotte upon his shoulders playfully. "Come now, she can't matter much to you can she?"

    Shalotte giggled softly.  "Yes, she does. All you've told me about so far is the places you've been."

    "I suppose you're right..." Trynte reluctantly agreed. "Besides, I'm sure your mother took you on plenty trips before, eh?"

    He didn't realize he had made the mistake of mention Shalotte's mother until the words had already left his mouth,. Silence followed. It could have only lasted for a few moments, but as Trynte focused upon it even more closely, it felt like an eternity.

    "This is the first time I've even been away from home." The child finally admitted.

    Trynte couldn't hide his surprise to her answer. "Ever...?

    "Ever." Shalotte agreed.

    "I would have thought..." He had begun.

    "Tell me about Talia." The child begged him.

    And so, he began the tales and ways of his sister, though Trynte hardly knew for what it mattered. Talia, as he knew her, was a cold woman, though she was barely even of the age to be truly considered grown yet.
    He told Shalotte all this anyway, not bothering to hide the details anymore. If the child truly wanted to know, he may as well tell her that much. He told her of all Talia's schemes, how she planned to eventually live like a queen from all the valuables they stole from the (yet he never mentioned ruined) cities.

    "That doesn't sound very nice."  Shalotte finally mused.

    Trynte laughed ruefully. "You're beginning to understand her after all then."

    "Go on, go on." The child pleaded to him.

    Next came the stories of their childhood together, all the way back to when he was barely Shalotte's own age, and Talia even younger. That was in the days before the darkness reigned in the land, when day and night had some pleasant difference to them, and flowers and plant life flourished across the lands. Unlike now, where forests consisted of the dead skeletons of trees and bushes, and shadows hung around every nook and cranny. Trynte knew he needn't tell Shalotte too much of the world's current state, it was all she had never known, there was no point boring her any further than he need to. Surprisingly, Shalotte never tired of his tales of his own childhood, she pressed him with further questions to describe the days more, or what the flowers were like.
    Trynte described his parents in as little detail as he could to Shalotte, only mentioning them once or twice in the course of such stories. She didn't seem to notice at least, Shalotte seemed more focused on absorbing the thoughts of the days before the dark's reign, desperately focuses on weaving an accurate picture in her mind. It was all the better for Trynte, he never talked much of his parents anymore, not since that day all those years ago. No matter, he told himself, Shalotte never asked, and he never told her.
    Before long, his feet had begun to tire of the unending walking down that shaded road, and as many times as he look ahead to the horizon, Trynte could never make out the outline of the city they were destined for. Yet the more he told the tales of his travels, and the more Shalotte implored him to go on, he began to worry less and less of it.  And finally he found he barely took notice of much more than what he told the child. He rather liked it that way, he silently agreed to himself. So once again, he continued on with the stories now of his own childhood, Shalotte always ready with questions to accompany his tellings.

Part III: Encounter

"Wait, wait!"

    It was the first phrase Shalotte uttered other than a question in  hours. Trynte stopped mid-sentence, slowing his pace for the first time to acknowledge the outburst.

    A definite tone of fear had found its way into Shalotte's voice now. "Did you hear that?"

    Trynte had been in the middle of another tale about he and Talia's childhood misadventures when Shalotte's small voice cut him off, imploring him to halt.
    He stopped entirely now, straining his ears in an effort to pick up what the child meant by the startled words.
Looking around, he saw nothing but murky darkness along the roadside, night was upon them and in Trynte's storytelling he hadn't even noticed it.  A feeling of dread set itself into the pit of his stomach as the thief realized this. Neglecting Shalotte's unstable hold upon his cloak., Trynte abruptly turned his gaze to the near endless stretch of  road ahead of them.
    There was nothing to be seen ahead save the mountains over the horizon, the smoky, clouded haze of the sky above was quickly growing darker still, and they were no where near the rendezvous point Talia had told him of in the days before. It was all due to Shalotte, he woefully noted, taking her along and keeping her entertained had slowed him down to much in the long day's walk. He had forgotten the real task at hand in telling the child story after story about all his travels.
    He could feel her closely now, like a dead weight upon his shoulder. Shalotte's firm grip upon him grew tighter still in the silence. Whatever she had heard had obviously stopped of left, but it gave Trynte the realization of the predicament they were suddenly  in.  Somehow, the child must have sensed his growing anxieties.

    "Trynte... What's wrong?" Her already meek voice came as a barely audible whisper.

    Trynte gave a quick nonchalant shrug of his shoulders, even though in nearly sent Shalotte tumbling backwards to the ground. "Nothing... It's nothing dear... Now anyway, where was I?"

    "Something's the matter." The child insisted, beating her small fists softly on  his shoulders. "Didn't you hear it before too?"

    Trynte took a few steps ahead, turning around several times so Shalotte could see what he meant as well. "It's just these roads, sweetheart." He said. "After a while your mind starts to play tricks on you and..."

    Finally, woefully, he heard it too. A low, from where he stood faint, hissing sound. He strained to hear it as he did before, though this time it came to some avail. It was the sound of a sibilant hiss as before, much like a snake's as he though it.
    Something was different to it however, at first Trynte could not place it. The near silence of where he and Shalotte stood left chance for his own tense breathing to echo in his ears and block out the better part of the noise.
    Now, as he was nearly holding his breath in suspense, he could tell the sound came not from ahead of them, nor behind, but from all directions surrounding. It was a realization that sent chills racing down his spine. The hissing grew louder. Finally, as it now rang haunting clearer than ever before, the thief could see that it was not that of a hiss, but of a guttural, horribly distorted, laughter.

    "Oh... Oh no..." He muttered, glancing frantically about as if that could help place the source of the growing din.

    Shalotte bent low over his head, pressing herself closer to him in an effect to gain some solace. Trynte had almost forgotten her the time he had taken to make out what the sounds really were, but of course she two had heard the rising clamor. Now more than ever, for the demonic laugher had risen to fill, even choke off, the very air.

    "What is it?" The child whispered uneasily, he could feel her small form trembling against his own as she spoke.

    "Get down, Shalotte." He ordered her tersely. She followed the orders, if not reluctantly, with no further question. No sooner had her feet touched the ground Trynte drew her in close to her. Now he could even feel her heartbeat against him, it's rhythm racing with the terror that was no doubt mutual.

    Now clutching onto his legs tightly, Shalotte glanced up to him. "Trynte, what is it?"

    He gave her no answer that time, but roughly pressed one gloved finger to his lips to signal she keep quiet. It was clear even in the growing darkness the child was terribly worried, not to mentioned confused, but she followed Trynte's flustered and silent commands without hesitation. Trynte himself was still uncertain of what exactly was going on about them in the shadows, but experience told him it was far from the usual sounds of the night. Even worse, he was beginning to get a very clear notion of what the mocking laughter surrounding them belonged to. Shalotte pressed herself to him closer still, the thief could barely feel his legs anymore, though he dare not shake her away in such a terrifying moment.

    "Listen carefully." Trynte whispered down to her. "We're going to go... very slowly, very carefully... to that thicket over there. You see it?"
Shalotte, too scared to give a clear answer, whimpered in response. "B-but... what?" She gasped breathlessly.
    "Don't worry, don't worry." He hushed her. "Just follow me closely."

    Cautiously, he took a step forward. Shalotte, falling back to cling to his tattered cloak rather than his legs, followed after him. The shadows surrounding them followed as well. Trynte froze instead of walking onward, silently cursed himself forever letting himself slow down so. Even as he and the child stood perfectly still, the shadows about them continued to move awkwardly, the outlines of warped forms became clear now as Trynte's eyes adjusted to the ink darkness of the night.
    "The dubhaim..." He nearly spat the words. He hadn't meant to utter the words aloud, but the better part of his reason escaped him in all the tension. Not a second after he spoke the short words, Shalotte had slammed herself back to him, nearly sending the thief to topple down to the shaded path below as he had once feared for her. The girl remembered the night before very clearly then, he realized. Working up the courage, Trynte pressed onward for several more yards, Shalotte still clinging weakly to him with every step. The hissing laughter picked up once again, and the 'shadows' surrounding them broke into an odd, nightmarish swaying, or dance of sorts.
    "The trees there..." Trynte whispered hoarsely. "Just get to the trees there."

    Shalotte understood him, and fell back, allowing Trynte just enough to time to grab her by the hand, nearly dragging her behind him as he broke into a full, though tortured, run. The shadowed beings around them feel back in surprise, just as he had hoped. Ducking his head down, Trynte hope Shalotte could do the same as he plowed directly into to the dark barriers that had risen in their path. There was a chorus of low, annoyed grunts as the shadows, now clearly viable as distorted figures, were slammed into the ground. Some of the few Trynte realized he must have trampled over in his mad rush into the cover of the forest.
    Still dragging Shalotte behind him, Trynte made a sharp turn off the road and into the nearest break in the thick wall composed of trees and shrubs. The branches and leaves seemed to reach out to hold him back as they pressed into the thick foliage all around. The thorns and jagged branches surrounding them jabbed forcibly into Trynte's side as he pushed through the dense woods. They had barely made it two yards within the wood, but to Trynte it felt like an agonizing mile as his skin and clothes  were torn into time and time again. Shalotte pressed close to him once again in a futile effort to avoiding being jabbed as they ran on. Inhuman wails and shrieks cried after them as they ran, and an awful din of branches snapped, and leaves cracking underfoot began to chase after them in the darkness. Trynte dare not look back, all he could do was keep running.
    He couldn't begin to imagine how many of the demons now chased relentlessly after he and the child, by the sounds that were closing in them, it sounded like an entire army.

    "Shalotte!" Trynte desperately called back to the child. "Can you see how many are behind us?"

    It was a long while before the poor girl found the breath to answer him, but even then it was little help. "A lot!" She cried back weakly in answer. "A whole wall of monsters!"

    Just perfect, Trynte groaned to himself. He seriously hoped the girl's imagination had ran away with her in surveying their dubhaimid pursuers.

    They ran onward for what felt like hours to Trynte's anguished body. He and Shalotte stumbling further and further into the dense woods, and the horrific demons always close behind them, sometimes drawing close enough so that Trynte could feel their ghastly breath upon him as he ran onward. And finally, when it seemed he could run no further, the broke into a clearing in the wood. Nothing above them but the gray lining of the sky, and nothing ahead but a carpet of grass, and another wall of trees ahead.
    Yet when part of that wall of trees before them began to move, creeping closer, Trynte realized he had led Shalotte right into their doom. He could hold in his frustration no longer, and he openly cursed. Another gale of the demonic laughter followed soon after.

    "Tsssk, Tsssk." A chilling voice laughed. "Sssuch language in a child'ss prresensse?"

    It only took Trynte a split second to realize it was one of the dubhaimid ahead of them who spoke, though never in his entire life had he actually heard one talk before...

    "Heh heh." The same demon who spoke before continued. "We werrre carelesss to let that one sslip away from usss."
One of the shadow cloaked forms ahead of them flickered for a moment. Trynte could then almost make out the twisted hand that pointed down to Shalotte, who was once again pressed against Trynte as if for dear life.

    "Slip away?!" Trynte echoed, though he tried hard to make his tone sound threatening, he could not hide the tremor of fear in it. Again, the laughter rose up, yet this time the unseen speaking raised its gnarled hand up just as before, and instantly the chorus ceased.

    There was another faint movement, Trynte realized the speaker of the group had crept closer. "Yesss..." It said. "Ourrr way is to cleansssse thissss land completely. Those such as herrr.... who ssslip away... Arre a prroblem."

    Shalotte's grip on him tightened still.  She had a strong grasp for such a small child, as Trynte was woefully reminded of from the stabbing pains of her nails digging into his skin, even through the fabric of his already tattered pants. The shadowed form drew closer still, taking sick pity in seeing the growing unease in Trynte and the complete terror in young Shalotte.

    The leader chuckled hoarsely once more. "We take grreat carre in... Heh heh, clenssing  the citiess... The child was left in hopes sshe would die sssoon enough, but perrrhapsss we misssjudge the chancesss of sssome common thief taking pity..."

    "I didn't take pity on her..." Trynte murmured.

    "We beg to differrr." Another chorus of demonic laughter followed. "Now come... Give usss the child, sspare yoursself some of the pain of... mmm, future rrrun-in's."

    Trynte didn't answer, the words of the dubhaimid leader rang in his mind, though he still could not place their meaning. The leader of the group, at no disadvantage in the night's darkness, saw his looks of uncertainly. For once the leader laughed, and it's cronies were quick to follow his lead in doing so.

    "Fool... You think we allow merrre thieves to pick through our careful work? Did you not wonder what became of yourrr... otherrr asssociatess?" The laughter of the demons rose even higher with that, leading Shalotte to promptly burrow her face within the folds of Trynte's cloak as well.

    Still, no words could escape past Trynte's lips. The leader of the group took this as sign to continue anyway.

    "Yourrr ill populationsss are grrrainss of rice to us. Togetherrr, you are easy to crrush." It paused thoughtfully, and for once silence filled the clearing as the rest of the dubhaim all anxiously awaited their leader's next word. Whereas Trynte and poor Shalotte, obviously dreaded it.


Part IV: Chase & Tragedy

"You sssee therre are alwaysss those few grainss that ssslip through... And... Assss I ssaid... We cannot have that..."

    An eerie gleam shone directly in front of where Trynte anxiously stood, only a mere few feet away from him. In an instant he realized what this glare had come from, it was that of the dubhaimid leader's own gruesome teeth, revealed as it drew its twisted lips back into a demonic smile. It had only been in that one moment that the darkness of the night had been somehow brightened. Though Trynte had never known such a phenomenon to penetrate the near pitch black the thick tapestry of shadows the surroundings created.
    This could have lasted only a very short while, yet it was enough. As he quickly glanced around the clearing he and Shalotte stood cornered in, he could now almost take a clear count of how many of the dubhaim surrounded him. He had not been able to make sense of it before, but the shadows of the dead trees that lined the glade had done well to make their numbers seem much greater before. Now, as the darkness lifted, he could see there were no more than ten. That was still far, far too many. Shalotte, as if  Trynte could have forgotten about her even despite the terrified, nerve-piercing grip she had on him, gasped softly as she too could clearly see the hideous forms around them clearly. That including the dangerously close leader of the bunch.
    Slowly, carefully, Trynte took one small, even barely noticeable step backwards. It was incredibly hard to do considering how close Shalotte had pressed herself to him in the midst of her fretting. Tilting his head ever so slightly down towards the child, he only did so long enough to faintly whisper. "Get ready."

    He couldn't hope to know, nor could he afford to ponder, whether or not the child understood what he meant by that. Yet by the time he put it into action, all doubts Shalotte may have had to his words would be dispelled. It was a desperate action on Trynte's part, but to give in without a fight would be a coward's tact. Whatever fears he had in those past tense minutes were instantly dissolved as a surge of reckless pride overtook them,  and in the end drove him, to fully turn, grab Shalotte's balmy hand in his own, and run like he had never run before in all his life. The dubhaim wasted no time in giving chase. And once again, Trynte found himself pushing through the crumbling branches and brambles of the woods as before, though somehow this time it did not bother him nearly as much.
    Soon enough the dead or dying trees became nothing more than a blur of gray and shadows in the corner Trynte's gaze, and the blesséd end of the dense graveyard of plants suddenly drew closer within every passing moment. He vaguely noted Shalotte was being half drug by him as he relentlessly pushed through the forest at full speed, though the outraged howls and curses of the horde of demons behind them was enough to push him on further in spite of it. His own gradually more labored breaths, and even Shalotte's were nothing more than a distant echo in his ears.
    Finally, the hit the forest's end, breaking into a large, long vacant plain. And farther, much farther in the distance, the near exhausted thief could spy the faint, shadowy outline of a city in the distance. He would have stopped right there and cried out with joy in relief, if not for the ever-present din of the dubhaim behind them. Thus, he and Shalotte were running still, though Shalotte was more often than not being dragged.

    Perhaps the endless chase had taken too much out of  Trynte as he ran, perhaps he was distracted by the goal he now held in his sights... Either way, Trynte  didn't see the narrow gap in the path of their mad scramble until he found himself tumbling head over heels again and again down its stretch. And poor Shalotte, whether she had seen it in time or not, had been drug downward with him regardless. It wasn't until they finally reached the bottom, Trynte was left on his back and staring at the dark clouds of the night sky. Wearily, even painfully, his turned his head slightly to check upon Shalotte. She was not there, and as he sat bolt upright in a desperate rush, he saw she was nowhere in the trench at all. As he frantically tried to rise to his feet, a sharp, stabbing that ricocheted through his body was his only reward.
    Silently, he cursed every event they had encountered during that damned night.
It wasn't until he looked up that he saw what began of Shalotte. She was dangling high above him within the air, held tightly by one of the hordes of demons. Trynte had never known one to have wings before, yet seeing it there, hovering so far above, was enough to give him ample realization there were such as the of the dubhaimid as well.
    As he painfully tilted his head to gaze upon where the grounded demons all stood, he saw the leader was still grinning wistfully. Its wry, twisted smile seemed wider than ever from where it stood above at the cliff's edge. It wasted no time in gloating.

    "Now now... we could have avoided all thisss..." It sighed, feigning disappointment. "I hate having to make thisss messier, boy."

    The other of the group all laughed in unison, by now they were a constant, event expected chorus that followed their leader's ever word.

    "Ssso..." The one articulate demon chuckled. "Let usss call it a night with thisss, yesss?"
For once it itself broke into a could laugh.  "Not to worry though, we ssshall handle you ssssoon enough, sweet thief." Its warped smile grew wider smile, and finally it turned its gaze upward, to its waiting accomplice. "Go on...!" It called out.
    Even from so far below, Trynte could somehow make out the look of sheer terror as it crossed onto the doomed child's face. He could do nothing to save her, nothing to stop her. His injuries held him fast within the trench, it had been just what the horde of demons had wanted. He and Shalotte hadn't ran from them, they had been herded by them. Now Shalotte was due to pay the ultimate price for Trynte's reckless misjudgments.
    It didn't matter to any of the dubhaimid what pain he silently put himself, which only doubled the nagging sting of his broken bones in the end. The grim chorus of laughter from the rest of the group gradually rose up once more. The leader raised one twisted arm towards the dark skies, and with a final smile of triumph, briskly lowered it down again in the final word for the fatal action.

    "No! Nooo!" Trynte's cries went unheeded, the leader of the demons gave the final signal, and Shalotte was released. Her screams echoed through the night as she fell downwards, spiraling towards her death. It wasn't long before Trynte's own anguished cries became intertwined with her own. The laughter joined in, filling the night air with a indescribably horrid symphony of strife.


Part V: Reality

"Trynte! You idiot! Wake up!!"

    Talia's own annoyed voice snapped him back into reality before the dreaded action could be landed.

    His eyes snapped opened no sooner had her weary voice sliced through the horrid nightmare. Sure enough, within the second of awakening he found her scowling, obviously tired, face huddled over him.
    They were back in the Inn of Abel, a city that by many standards was a mere 'newborn'. Glancing over from his place in the room's one bed, he saw their other companions sprawled out upon the floor. As always it looked as if they had simply slept were they had fallen in their drunken stupor. Talia gave him no further time to survey the place any longer.

    "What in the world got into you?!" She growled vehemently. "You were screaming like to wake the dead!" She paused for a moment, glancing over to their still blissfully resting 'friends'. "Tch... Still wasn't enough to wake those idiots. Should I start downing seven glasses a wine a day do share that luck?"

    Her frown lifted, if only for a moment, into a playful smile. "It would be nice to have a decent night's sleep for once, brother.

    "Agh... Nevermind it, I'm awake now aren't I?" Trynte lazily muttered.
The grim visions of the dream still spitefully echoed within the recesses of his weary mind.

    Talia punched him briskly in the arm soon after. "Ow!" He cried. "What was that for?!"

    Her smile set itself within her face now. "Just making sure, brother."

    "You really worry me sometimes, you know?" Trynte muttered, turning over and pulling the covers of the bed back of his over his still shaking form. Talia would give him no such satisfaction, he should have known that much.

    She pulled the sheets roughly away from him and back over herself. "I worry you?" She retorted. "Hah! I'm not the one who's screaming bloody murder in their sleep, thrashing about like they're getting throttled to death. Honestly! I'd rather have to share the floor with those morons than a bed with my own raving lunatic of a brother."
    Trynte gave her a rueful smile in reply, rewarding her throwing 'raving lunatic' in for good measure.
Once again, he turned away, taking his share of the blankets over with him.

Talia pulled them back again just for spite. "I won't give these back till you tell me, Trynte." She warned him.

    "Tell you what?" He snapped.

    "Just what it was you were dreaming."

    "Alright, alright." He forcibly yanked his share back over again. He couldn't help but yawn lazily. "I'll tell you tomorrow, after I've had a good rest. Keep this up, and you'll never know.

    "Aww... Tryyynte!"

    "I'm too tired to describe it." He retorted, withholding a yawn even as he spoke. "Tomorrow..."

   Talia sighed heavily, but agreed just the same. Her unending curiosity was a factor that won Trynte many of their battles. Thankfully, a dull slumber began to wash over him once more, taking away the horrid memories of that vivid nightmare with it.
    Just as he was about to drift into a beloved, peaceful sleep, Talia jabbed him sharply.

    "What now...?" He groaned lazily.

    That tone in her voice was genuine this time, Trynte knew it well. "Didn't you hear that?"

    The words had the unmistakable tinge of fear in them.

    "Let's say we're both insane and call in a night, Tal'." Trynte muttered. "Just go to sleep, spare me the torment."

    "No, no, no!" She insisted, tugging on his arm several times. "Would you listen?! I'm sure it wasn't just me."

    "It was one of them then." Trynte muttered, gesturing towards the others.

    "Arrre you ssssure of that, Trynte?" The third voice was enough to prove him wrong. The rasping, sibilant hiss to it, though of course foreign, was familiar enough. And then, as he looked beyond where Talia sat frozen with fear, he could just barely make out the distorted, twisted form huddled behind her. It sat so close that it's hot breaths stirred her hair about in a wild flurry of the strands. Looking once more to Talia, he could see her eyes were wide with terror, reading the expression that had no doubt crossed her brother's face then. The shadowed form behind her was not the only reason for Trynte's horrified expression, for in that moment, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness once more, he saw their companions were lying for too still to be sleeping. It was a fact he had realized far too late...
    Within the instant, he thought of the imaginary child Shalotte, the look on her face right before the final blow, right before he awoke. It now mirrored Talia's own, perhaps even his as well.
    As his sisters wide chestnut eyes glanced over in a futile attempt to make out the figure behind him, her breaths suddenly turned ragged and short. A gleam flashed from just behind her, though only for a split second.
    "No..." The guttural voice finally said with a coarse laugh. "Thissss, issss reality my dearsss." Again that gleam of the fangs, and again that chilling laughter. ""

    "Oh of course..." Were the final words the Trynte uttered before the dubhaim rushed upon he and Talia.
They were far from an honorable statement one would want engraved upon their tombstone.

    Wouldn't you agree?