Gerald let out a long sigh. He hated being outside at night. The woods looming beyond the fields, home to all manner of beasts looking to sink their teeth into his flesh. The eerie quiet around the village. The wind bringing the sounds of animals, both wild and tame. Recent events hardly improved his mood.
Still, everyone had to do their shift. There were dangers out there, very real dangers with sharp fangs and wicked claws. While the trolls and wyrms didn’t really stray close to the village, there were plenty of smaller and faster critters who loved to make off with a head of cattle. And there was talk of war in the west.
Gerald’s parents had come from the Fallen Lands in the north and they had used to say that war always reaches everyone. You run, you fight, or you watch the world burn. They had decided to run and ended up in peaceful Malqish, where they had built themselves a home. And here Gerald had been raised without having to fear war.
He shook his head and continued on his patrol, stopping to chat for a bit with the other watchman when they crossed paths at the well. He needed to clear his head of all this nonsense about war. Malqish would be fine without having to draft up militia from remote villages like this. And even if they did, the folk of Wyrm’s Edge knew how to fight. The magistrate had made sure of that.
A curious fellow, Aziz. Clearly related to the giants of the west, given his stature. He was grumpy and dour most of the time, but when he was drilling it was like he was a different person. Like he was remembering a happier time in his life. Gerald had once overheard him let slip to a young farmhand that he used to be a gladiator in the pits of the Empire. Whatever that meant.
Tired of being on his feet, he hopped onto the fence and sat there for a while. He probably shouldn’t be lazing around like this, but what was the harm? He could see the edge of the forest clearly enough, with its foreboding shadows that seemed ever deepening. The air was getting chilly, too.
He suddenly became aware of a growing sense of dread. It was too quiet. No animals moving in the forest. He couldn’t hear any braying of sheep from the nearby pasture. No wind rustling through the fields. The scents had faded away, too, and everything seemed much darker and… menacing.
Gerald sat there on the fence. His heart was pounding in his chest, a feeling of impending doom gripping his mind. Yet looking around him, he could see nothing to-
Had that been something? Or was it just his imagination?
He tried to get up, but looking at the shadows at his feet it seemed as though they would swallow him whole if he tried to stand on them. Just like that darkness above him was swallowing the stars and moons; like the shadows were eating the forest; like the night was devouring the world.
The flash of white behind the granary came again, this time lasting a little longer. A sheet hung up to dry, flapping in the wind despite there being not the lightest breeze.
This wasn’t the first time this had happened to him. It was just a dream, a nightmare. The same nightmare that others had complained about, the one that always seemed to happen when something vanished.
It was a quiet enough day, for once. Marcus hadn’t had a calm day like this for weeks, what with the fruit harvest in full force and the stable needing repairs and, of course, the recent strange events plaguing the village. Even his normally chatty wife was quiet today, though it was too bad the reason for her silence was so sad.
Anna, the youngest daughter of Gerald and Trudi, was gone. Just vanished. She had always been one to walk in her sleep, but rarely left the house. But this morning the door was open and…
Marcus shook his head and stoked the fire. The gloom seemed oppressive, yet try as he might he could not get the fire to bring light into the scantily furnished room. Its soft glow should make the dreary room warmer, but it just seemed to make the shadows deeper.
“She was such a sweet kid, that one.” Marcus looked up, surprised at the sound of his wife’s voice even though she had been standing there kneading that same lump of dough for ages.
“Yeah…” Marcus mumbled, turning to look out the window. “She used to bring cookies to us in the fields whenever she helped her mother bake. Tasted awful, but her happy smile was worth it. And she was getting better at it, too.”
Marcus chortled despite himself. “The baking.”
Marcus slowly rose to his feet. “It’s one thing to lose a child to illness or an accident, but this…” He leaned out the window and watched the last stragglers of the search party walk solemnly over to Gerald and Trudi, shaking their heads with sadness in the eyes. The sun was setting and the forest was dark enough during the day.
“Maybe she just wandered off into the forest. It’s a big place, they could’ve missed her.”
“Aye, or a troll could have gotten her. Or maybe the forestfolk took her. They do that sometimes, y’know.” Marcus sighed. Everyone still tried to hope, but her hair… Her long, auburn hair, braided so carefully into a pair of pigtails. One of those locks had been found lying at the edge of a large, strangely rounded dent in the ground. Cut just like the crops that vanished.
“Or maybe it’s the thing what’s stealing the cattle…”