Skin Deep Damage

The moon, a swollen silver bauble in the velvety sky, sent the shadows scudding over the rutted surface of the road beneath, chasing each other like kittens. The trees that crowded close to the thin ribbon of the cart-track sighed and waved their branches gently in the breeze, as though they held languid conversations about nothing in particular. And a dark-clad figure made its way slowly along the pathway, heading for the town.

It was a male figure, clad simply in black; not the elegant black of a nobleman but the dusty, dull matte black of one who wore it because there was no other option. The night wind was not strong, gusty but no obstacle; the figure moved as though walking against a gale, as though any moment he would be swept off his feet and sent somersaulting head over heels like a feather in a hurricane. Every movement seemed an effort and he did not carry a staff or anything that could aid him, almost as if he sought to make his life difficult.

Eventually he reached the solace of the little town that crouched at the edge of the forest, marking the boundary between the wilds and civilisation. It was a nondescript little place, the only distinguishing feature a hefty, almost fortress-like building built of black stone that squatted just inside the gate and from which the scent of blood wafted; not an overpowering stink, but still enough to disquiet most of those who passed it by.

The figure gave it not a glance. Now inside the town, he seemed almost at a loss; his step lost what purpose it had had and he wandered vaguely down the street before pausing outside a building from which warm light and the sound of voices spilled. The sign, dirty and requiring repainting, proclaimed it to be the Pig and Bee; the figure stopped outside and stared at it for a while before finally stepping forwards and pushing open the door.

The patrons already inside spared him little more than a fleeting look as he quietly made his way to a corner. The light made it clear how lank and ragged his shoulder-length brown hair was and how dirty and stained his clothes, as though he had put them on months ago and not changed them since. He selected a spot the firelight hardly touched and seated himself, silent and unobtrusive, just another face in the busy tavern. The serving-maid passed him by; the men who watched every single face out of fear or malevolence did not see him. He merely sat, and became part of the scenery.

After he had sat there for perhaps two hours, a man in black priest’s robes entered, hood drawn up against the wind which had turned chill. There was immediate silence, and every pair of eyes turned to the newcomer, who paused in the doorway. The landlord leaned onto the bar and cleared his throat.

“There’s only one Priest of the Red Goddess allowed in here, friend, and I doubt you’re him. Find somewhere else to drink.”

The priest tilted his head, and then laughed and swept the hood from his head in a deliberately dramatic gesture.

“What, you don’t recognise me?”

The tense, fearful silence immediately disintegrated into a babble of jeering welcome. Removing the hood had revealed a smiling, boyish face topped with blond curls, evidently a face that was known and welcome. He was swallowed up into the noisy crowd and plied with ale, but surprisingly soon he expertly slid out of their company and wandered back into the darker areas, evidently heading towards the table where the stranger sat. He seemed surprised to see someone already there.

“Hello there,” he said, not unfriendly. “Who are you?”

The stranger did not answer. The priest pulled up a chair and sat down opposite him.

“My name’s Inordain. Who are you?”

The stranger, who had previously been examining the tabletop in minute detail, raised his head and the priest found himself fixed by a pair of jet-black eyes set in a face so pale it looked as though it had never seen the sun. The skin looked delicate, almost papery, and the eyes were dull.

“Ah,” Inordain breathed. “You’re an Empty.”

“Yes,” said the stranger, and his voice was curiously lacking in emotion; he did not sound scared, or even slightly curious. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Oh no,” Inordain said cheerfully. “My Goddess isn’t at all interested in Empties. You’re about the only people who she doesn’t want sacrificed to her. You’ve got no worries there.”

The Empty’s black eyes dropped back to the tabletop.

“That was not what I meant.”

“Oooh; you were wondering if I’d kill you for being an Empty, huh?”

A faint answering nod from the young man. Inordain grinned.

“In that case, you’ve still got no worries. I’ve got nothing against you lot, and besides I’ve heard you’re hard to kill. It’s not often we get one of you seeking out company, though; you don’t have the interest, do you…”

Raising his head, the Empty fixed his dark gaze back onto the priest with sharp intensity; Inordain’s grin faded a little.

“I have to find my name.”

The End

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