The longest night had come. Puck ran, ran as fast as his legs could carry him, ran until he felt as though his chest would collapse. It was difficult. The year had been hard on him, had been hard on them all. His hands were calloused and aching from the never-ending work. Puck didn’t need sleep, a fact his captor knew well and exploited, working him and his friends relentlessly, breaking their will, restraining their spirit. Puck suspected that of them all, he was perhaps the only one with the strength or desire left to escape. At the beginning of the year, some of the others had tried, but none had succeeded, and soon after their captor had demonstrated the consequences for trying to leave. The screams seemed to echo in the workhouse for weeks afterwards. The memories tore at Puck’s mind, clawed at his body, weighing down his muscles with dread, but he pressed on. It no longer mattered. He knew what awaited him if he stopped running, and it was no better than what lay ahead if he were caught.
Escaping the warehouse where he and his brethren lived had been surprisingly easy. The letter had been right. On this night, their captor was distracted with other matters of great importance, and was relying on his slaves being too broken and tired to try to escape. After all, there was no reason for them to suspect this night would be different from any other. Except for Puck, because he had found the letter, and he understood what lay ahead.
Outside, the cold bit at his flesh, and the snow was so thick it seemed to fill his lungs. Puck pressed on, though the harsh weather eventually slowed him to a struggling walk. Even then, he knew he couldn’t allow himself to stop. Soon, the Master would be back to check on his captives, to prepare them for what lay ahead, and even though their numbers were many, he would notice Puck’s absence. Puck tried not to think about what would happen after that. His only hope was to get away, to try and find shelter and safety from him. His body felt as though it were freezing as he moved, his ragged clothes beginning to make cracking noises with each step. Tears ran down his face, only to turn to ice. Puck tried to think warm thoughts to stave off the cold. He remembered the old days, before they were taken, days of warmth and sunlight. They had lived in the forests, though they were a secretive folk, and kept mostly to themselves. Long ago, they had been more open, walking with confidence throughout the world, but they had been feared, and slain, and driven away by beasts. And then, after all that, there were the rumours of the Red Man, the one who would take you and bind you and force you screaming into a nightmare. Puck had always been skeptical of those stories, but now he understood all too well that they had understated the true horrors that awaited them.
He stopped. Just then, had he seen it? A flash of red against the white? This was too soon. The letter had promised him more time! Panic bred in the back of his mind, frantic and screaming. Puck almost screamed himself, but the ice and snow had rendered his lips numb and his voice useless. All he could manage was a low hum of terror. He began to move with much more purpose through the snow, ignoring the pain, ignoring the fear that threatened to hold him in place, ignoring the occasional flash of red in the depths of the blizzard. He would find shelter! He would find safety! He would-
“Stop.” A single word, so harsh and devoid of warmth that it cut far deeper than the blizzard ever could, echoed from behind Puck. He stopped. There was no point running. It was over. He felt a heavy hand settle on his shoulder, and turned to face the Red Man himself. He was smiling, but the smile was predatory, terrifying, like that of a beast who has cornered his prey, and his eyes were ancient and filled with rage and untold horrors, and standing before him, Puck felt his mind shatter. The looked at his shoulder. The Red Man’s hand, normally clad in thick leather gloves, was bare. The skin seemed white as parchment, but as Puck watched, it slowly gained colour. He felt his own body tremble, and he saw his own flesh slowly becoming paler, until it was whiter than the snow all around him. This was it. This was what he had feared all along. Tonight was the longest night, and nobody could survive. All these thoughts went through Puck’s mind in an instant, and then he crumbled to dust. The Red Man stood there for a moment, then walked away. It was his night, and he had business to attend to. It didn’t take long for the wind to scatter what remained of Puck, until all that remained, slowly being buried beneath the snow, was the letter he had clutched in his hand. This is what it read:
To he who may find this letter,
I pray that you find this before the Red Man breaks your will, as he did that of my brothers, and as he shall do to yours. I wish I could tell you that they could be saved, but I fear that would be impossible. Perhaps you may be able to save yourself, however, and it is with this hope in mind that I write this. Perhaps if I can save another I can atone for leaving my brothers behind.
I shall confess, some of the things I shall tell you I cannot know with complete certainty, but before I was taken I spent some time looking into the Red Man, and I learned many things. He is not like you or I, or like the beasts who inhabit the world. He is a god, of sorts, though a weaker one. For the most part, his powers are limited to his own realm, where you currently dwell, but on his night he is free to go out into the world. Like most gods, his power is tied to the belief and worship of his followers, and so on his night he gives gifts and trinkets to the beasts of the world, and in exchange they worship him. You should now these gifts of his well, for you and your brethren will spend a year as his captives, building them for him. Sadly, I do not believe you can escape that fate, for while he is trapped in this realm the Red Man permits nobody to leave. However, on his night, his realm will be open to the world and his focus will be shifted. On this night, you will have your chance, and you must take it, because it will be the only chance you will ever get.
The Red Man may be a god, but he is subject to time just like any other. Because he only has one night to try and gain power, this is understandably a considerable obstacle to him. But he has found a loophole, and it is because of this I must try to escape, and so must you. It is not simply for labour that he gathers our kind. We are blessed with lengthy lives, and it is for this reason he gathers us, and on his night, he shall drain us of our years, our future, our time, and use it to slow the passage of time in the outside world. For any others, time travels as normal, but for him, it becomes the longest night of the year. He will travel the entire world, offering the beasts our gifts and growing in power, and when the night draws to a close, he will hunt more of our kind down and take them back with him. There is nothing you or I can do to stop this cycle, but perhaps we can try to survive it.
On his night, you must try to escape, just as I shall. His realm is small, and with luck, it should be possible to reach the crossing point back into the mortal world. It will be difficult, and I pray for us both. You must not stop, you must not let him catch you. You must survive.
The snow had buried all traces of the letter within moments, and from far away there came the sound of screams, and then silence. The longest night had begun, and in the morning the people of the world would rejoice and praise the Red Man’s name.