Prologue

Zaile Avarion pulled his brown shawl over his head and ducked behind a boulder. Whilst it didn't spare him of the chilling wind, it afforded him sanctuary from the swirling ashes. As soon as the wall of dust passed him by, the boy peered out the side and surveyed the narrow strip of land below.

This particular hillside was his favourite spot. Here, he was close to civilisation and could survey the spike pits he had laid from relative comfort. More importantly, it afforded him cover from the many dangers that prowled these parts.

He looked to the crimson sky and found that it was almost noon. Just yesterday, his traps had already netted him a couple of kills by this time. It appears today was not going to be one of those days. Irritably, Zaile tore off a chunk of bread and placed the remainder back into his pouch. This loaf would need to last for the rest of the day. Eyes trained on the earth below, he shoved morsels into his mouth, careful not to drop a crumb. Though fragrant, the pastry was as dry as it was flavourless. He decided then that if he did not snare a Freak by the end of this meal, he would move into the open.

Though he has fought Freaks on multiple occasions, the prospect was never a welcomed one. Their nightmarish appearances, inhumane strength and insatiable bloodthirst meant Zaile would much rather have them tumble into his holes then to face them directly.

Once fed, Zaile checked his equipment. Without means to hire a bow, he settled for a leather sling and half a dozen jagged rocks. His longest weapon was a stick, better suited to fend off wild dogs and pesky children. The only steel in his arsenal were a pair of throwing knives. With his poor assortment of arms, he would have to be creative.

The sun now above him, Zaile lifted a shielding hand and surveyed the horizon one last time. No movement. Cursing the ill fortune that forced him from the high ground Zaile began gathering his things.

Where others would climb down clinging to the cliff face, Zaile descended in a controlled jog. Over the years, he had mapped out a path to condense the lengthy journey into a short walk. On firm ground again, he marched towards the open plain.

The narrow strip led into barrens smothered by a sheet of grey dust. The boundless earth, without a single blade of grass, offered no cover. Feeling exposed, he pulled a rock from his pouch. With his free hand, he readied his stick, knowing full well that if he ever had to rely on this length of wood, he was dead.

A stirring in the distance caused Zaile to freeze. He studied the silhouette but even his keen eyes could not make out what it was. Taking a deep breath, Zaile begun twirling his slingshot and trotted towards the target. Abruptly, his prey straightened and displayed outlines belonged to a man with his back turned. Zaile however, slowed to a walk. While the figure was far outside slingshot range, he could see something was not right.

This man was too tall.

Then, as if sensing his approach, it twisted its neck around to face Zaile. Standing on two legs, with two arms and a head, Zaile could see how he almost thought the creature human. This resemblance however, did not withstand close scrutiny. From top to bottom, its white skin glowed like ember in a furnace. Rather than hands and feet, its limbs ended in sickles. Its eyes, as red as the sky, swirled with a hateful and crazed light.

It was a Freak.

Zaile began winding his slingshot faster and faster while tightening his hold on his stick. Usually, times like these, a skilled hunter would draw upon their Curse, bringing forth super strength, impossible agility, blazing fire or other fantastic powers. Unfortunately, Zaile was only granted a disfiguring scar that covered most of his left torso in white scales and a head of silver hair. He would have to depend on cunning and wit instead.

Casually, he traced arcs with his sticks. Sure enough, the Freak's eyes followed it with intense interest. Then, Zaile lifted it as if to perform an overhead strike. Lunging forward, Zaile came within five paces of the creature and unloaded a fist-sized rock. Immediately, the boy spun around and fled. As he ran, he began reloading his slingshot. With a second round ready, Zaile turned to confirm the results.

The creature, instead of giving chase, was studying the stone now lodged in its elongated torso. Some say Freaks could not feel pain, while others believe they have a much higher threshold. Whichever it was, Zaile was certain he had not done sufficient damage.

His prey distracted, Zaile forwent feinting and slung his second rock at its face. The Freak, who had just removed the inconvenience from its ribcage, ducked with inhuman speed. Snarling, it leapt into the air and descended on Zaile with slashing arms. While strong and swift, the telegraphed movements posed little problem for the boy. Swerving behind the beast, Zaile went into a lunging thrust and struck it square in the head.

The Freak shrieked in dismay. Where a lesser hunter would be tempted to go for the kill, Zaile leapt back in retreat. Just as he took to the air, bladed arms descended in a backstroke motion, ignoring all anatomical limits. Grazing Zaile's forehead, the misshaped limbs sunk into the earth and sent up a wall of dust. While humanoid Freaks were the easiest game, hunters who treated them as ordinary men did not live long.

Forming a bridge, the Freak leered at Zaile, its high-pitched cry replaced by a low growl. Zaile welcomed its combative stance for its head was now an easy target. Producing another rock Zaile lowered his hips and braced himself. He might not have a chance like this again.

As soon as the Freak charged, Zaile hurled his rock at its face before throwing himself aside. His attack broke the beast's jaw just as it pounced, its outstretched limb catching Zaile's calf. The hunter hit the ground, rolling several times before scrambling to his feet. He looked down to inspect the damage. The arm had cut through his leather boot and drawn blood. He tested the foot by placing his weight on it and was glad to find he could move unimpeded.

If the Freak was angry before, then now it was frenzied. Limbs thrashing erratically, it writhed on the ground. In quick succession, Zaile slung his remaining ammunition at it, finding it skull, chest and stomach. Dropping his stick, Zaile drew his knives. It was time to finish this.

The wounded Freak, not as mobile as before, was still dangerous. Zaile circled it as fast as his injured leg would allow him, probing for an opening. Shuffling, the hunter made an abrupt change in direction and charged in. Two swinging arms cut off his advance. Zaile ducked. Wind rustled his hair. Any later, the top half of his head would have been shaved off.

Perhaps urged by adrenaline, or simply his warrior instincts, Zaile felt a sudden surge of power. Like all his close brushes with death, it purged his mind of all distractions. Unleashing a savage roar, Zaile leapt at the exposed neck and traced an arcing cross, slashing its throat open.

The Freak staggered back, fighting to stay on its feet. Breathless but triumphant, Zaile watched its flesh turn to red dust, leaving but its skeleton behind. Quickly, the boy unfurled cotton sheets and swept up its remains. Despite the Freak's size, it yielded little reward. Zaile shook his head. Without a team, this was the best he could do and even then, he almost died.

Carefully, Zaile separated the bones from the ashes. While the coloured dust was a valued ingredient amongst healers, the bones were the real prize. Imbued with malice and harder than steel, they made excellent weapons. So highly sought after, the Divine Blade purchased them from hunters and executed those not prepared to accept their price.

With his trophy now tied to his sash, he bounded back towards the Settlement. He wanted to get away from this spot as quickly as possible. The cries of a Freak often attracted others. Injured and tired, he would not survive another battle.

In the homeward journey, Zaile had to stop twice, once to stem the bleeding from his leg and the other to catch his breath. By the time he got to the Settlement gate, he had to join a lengthy queue. Some were hunters, huddled in their packs. Others, escorted by warriors in white, had returned from a day of work in the nearby Finnardian city, Vangard. The only thing they all had in common was exhaustion.

These were his fellow Fallens, people who have been touched by the Curse to varying degrees. The most fortunate folks were those with a dusting of grey in their hair. The majority had disfiguring scars, though none were as serious and extensive as his. One girl further back in line came close, her pretty face ruined by two jutting horns on her forehead.

Zaile dozed off a few times before he was summoned by the pair of swordsmen. Dressed in Finnardian white with a sword buckled to their hips, they were members of the Divine Blades, warrior priests of the Mercy faith who served their patron god, the Divine Finnardi of Boundless Mercy. While referred to as Blades, many older folks of the Settlement knew them as the white reapers.

As usual, Zaile unfurled his pouch on the desk for the Blades. While they allowed him to keep the red powder, they offered but two copper coins for the bones. Zaile knew better than to argue. He can already see the disdain beneath their indifferent facades and did not wish to incur their wrath.

The Blades, more doorman than guards, murmured a prayer. The Settlement fortifications were not of stone and wood, but rather, Finnardian blessings that reduced all cursed things to dust, Freaks and Fallens alike. Not prepared to test the barrier, Zaile waited till the two nodded for him to go through.

Sahjax was the largest Settlement in the eastern parts. Like other towns designed to hold the Fallens, it was an overpopulated slum drowning in poverty, disease and crime. Within the first stretch of the muddy street, Zaile had to hit three filthy children who tried to pick his pockets. To make an example of them, Zaile cracked the third thief hard, breaking the boy's nose. The last time he got careless, his brother went hungry for a week. That was not going to happen again, ever.

The narrow alleyways twisted and turned like a labyrinth. Even Zaile, having grown up in Sahjax, had not fully grasp of its layout. Fortunately, he knew its outer layers well enough. It was dark when he arrived outside a desolate building with no windows. Impatiently, Zaile drummed the burly door with his stick.

The man who opened the door eyed Zaile suspiciously and muttered something about a damn Freak scaring off away his business. With no stomach for nonsense, Zaile pushed him aside and stepped into the dimly lit premises. The first thing that hit him was the rancid smell of Sandfire, a popular drug derived from the dust he had in his pouch. Zaile has never tried the substance. Rumour has it that it robbed the user of their senses and there was never a shortage of Fallens with such demand.

Zaile stepped around the addicts and made straight for the back office. Fortunately, they were so deprived of their senses that they did not have the energy to mistake him for a Freak. Here, all three afflictions of Sandfire were on display. The sleepers, as the name suggested, snoozed on the ground. The lookers stared at the ceiling with lifeless eyes. The thrashers, by far the most animated, flailed about like a fish on land.

Inside the small chamber lit by a candle, sat an old man. Known by his associates and clients as Don, he ran a tavern by day and come night, the placed transformed into one of the most popular Sandfire pits in Sahjax. Not much else was known about Don. Rumour has it that he lived in the inner circle. Other stories told of his connections with various criminal elements in Sahjax. Zaile cared for none of those. He was here because this man paid silver for red dust.

Zaile tossed Don his bag of dust, which the man weighed on his rusty scale. Neither his tattered coat nor his patchy fixtures befitted a man of wealth. Save his guard at the door, Don operated alone and always, in silence. Zaile appreciated the absence of conversation for his guttural voice sounded too much like a Freak.

After scratching something into his ledger, Don ran a finger through the powder and brought it to his nose. Nodding, he tossed Zaile two pieces of silver and pointed to the door. Zaile, more than happy to escape the stench of drugs, promptly complied.

Taking a detour through the bazaars, Zaile discovered again that there was little worth buying. Without the Finnardian blessings, Settlements had no means to purify ashes for farmlands. Food was imported from Vangard and as such, greens were traded in gold and meat a fable.

The armouries were just as poorly stocked. The only metal item Zaile found were a pair of rusted greaves that two hunters were fighting over. Zaile however, had no such needs. Being small for his age, he could but watch with envy as others donned on their mails, gauntlets and bucklers.

His hopes of finding more light steel dashed, Zaile began his homeward journey. With no wood to fuel the sconces and no moon to light his way, Zaile travelled in darkness. He scaled uneven staircases and jagged rooftops. With nightfall, he preferred the perilous terrains over braving the streets below. A stab in the back was harder to ignore than verbal abuse from angry residents.

The orphanage that Zaile called home was built on old burial grounds, land that Sahjax folks did not miss. Four long blocks of houses surrounded a yard filled with children. Some were sweeping up leaves while those too young to work crawled in the mud. Many more were busy inside, folding away laundry, washing dishes and cleaning sheets.

Zaile's sudden arrival caused the children to freeze. Some of the toddlers broke into tears and sought out the embrace of their brothers and sisters. An older boy shot him a dirty look. Zaile, muttering an unintelligible apology, quickly pulled up his shawl to conceal his Freakish features and made his way indoor. Waving away a thin stewed offered to him, he tossed his money onto the table made straight for his room.

With no boy prepared to share a room with Zaile, he was housed in the attic. It was a dark confinement without bed, curtain or even sheets. The only comfort it offered was keeping out the rain – most of it. Rolling his cloak into a makeshift pillow, Zaile collapsed onto the floor. There was more to do but he was too tired to worry about them. They can wait till tomorrow.

Shortly after closing his eyes, Zaile felt the fingers of darkness creeping around his neck. He grumbled, moaned and rolled but could no longer stay awake. Slowly, sleep tightened its grip until it strangled the last bit of consciousness from him.

It was time he faced his demons.