The fields roll on endlessly, pockets of fog coursing like rivers through the deep pathways that are the lows of the rising hills. The sky is a white canvas, a monotone light grey, that is both unbearably bright—the eye squinting to see—and yet casting a darkness on this paltry morning. The dead sound of silence embraces the land. No birds, no life, resides here.
To the west the marshes, their sinking mud a grave for many, await hungrily for the desperate flight, the mad hope of escape. There lies a blackness to compare with this bleak grassy plain, and yet, through it a maybe sanctuary, a ship, an island, a city. The story changes, but never ceases, like the grasping hands of death.
What dread, that those hands are no metaphor, no mere allusion exemplifying some poetic point, but the cursed remains of men whose hollowed bodies wander endlessly through all seasons, times, and places, stopped only by the sinking sands of the marsh, grasping always to choke away the light of life.
The old texts spoke of their genesis:
Hollowed, that is their word, their description. The skin, shrunken around the skeleton, tanned like leather, contains the rotting emptiness, the inner black bile of their bellies. It is a poison they have for blood, an acid digesting those once human organs.
Suffer no ending of warnings: let not that seeping sickness—pouring from them liberally—touch you, for it is their sperm, and fertilized by it, you shall be the mother to these hollowed creatures, giving your very body for them. Your eyes will grow dark, your breath foul, and vomiting your heart, your lungs, and all the inner workings of a body, shall you shrivel around thin bones, your flesh compressing like a collapsing tent.
And speaking of the marsh:
An overturned wagon, its wood made soft in the ever-present salty mists, and covered by continually encroaching green moss, rests a landmark in this featureless world. You’ve made it farther than many, should you come to it. From there you will first be given sight unto the tree-line, should the fog not be so thick as to impede your bright eyes, and thus know yourself almost to the worst of it.
For the marsh is more deadly than these. Sometimes the hollowed wander there, without vision they wander, and shortly sink into the depthless mire, a drowning abyss, a Tartarus from which is no escape. That you must pass over, if you are to find the way out. The path cannot be easy, or else the hollowed would traverse it, and finding sanctuary devour.
And, coming out of the shadows cast by those gnarly twisted trees, standing a moment in that boarder between a passive danger and an active threat, a stranger enters this dreadful world. Exiting the marsh, he climbs, stepping his foot onto the steady green grass. A hat, its brim nearly as wide as his shoulders, heavy with the morning dew, flops low, covering his face so that only his clean shaven chin greets this new world, and, with it, the hint of his frown.
The train of his cape hangs heavy, soaked by the mud of the marsh. The garment comes over his shoulders and hides his arms, cloaking him in blackness. The only other color he wears is the bright red sash, tightly tied about his waist. Protruding from this, tucked away securely in the crimson folds, are two curved handles, one of ivory, the other made of walnut wood. By material only do they differ, but in form and purpose, they are twins.
Walking out under the overcast skies he seems a shadow escaping the deadly marshlands, like a specter, the spirit of one of the many who’ve therein died, finally freed from the treacherous sinking sands. Alone he traverses the gentle slopes of that grassy plain, making no sound.
Yet it is not sound by which the hollowed hunt, nor sight, nor smell, but merely they know the presence of life. They see its light with their skulls empty of eyes, hear its breath without ears, and follow its scent though they have not noses nor lungs to sniff with. And so they come for him, shambling from miles away, even from a day’s journey they sense his intrusion. An hour does not pass before they meet.
His hands, gloved in thick leather, reach for his belt, curling around the twin handles. The measured pace of his footfalls does not break as he closes the distance between him and the two thin creatures bleeding black bile from their eyes and mouths. Peeping under his hat, his growing smile broadens to an animal’s snarl, something of a madness, joy and terror married in one expression.
Leaning, he sprints forward, clumps of grass flying into the air behind him. Yet still he draws not his weapons. Ten yards close to five, his pace has only increased. Five becomes one. Time slows, his beating heart filling his ears like a war drum.
Bu-dum, in unison the silver and obsidian blades glide out of their sheaths. Bu-dum, spreading his arms wide, his cape flutters open, flapping like an eagle’s wings. Bu-dum, the long knives effortlessly slash through the thin necks of the hollowed.
His world snaps back into focus, time running pace with the slow path of Helios. Behind him, the two figures collapse, their leathery hides dissolving into black pools of acid. He slows to a jog, and a trot, and then back to his earlier uninterrupted trek forward. To his right, three more mount the crest of the nearest hill, stumbling after him.
His undeterred path, like the sure ticking of a clock, carries him into the wispy tendrils of an approaching fog bank. In the corner of his eye, he watches the three hollowed fade from sight. Pressing forward, he returns the twin knives to his belt.
Inches from his face, five shriveled fingers reach for him. In the blink of an eye his silver dagger flashes, slashing through the invading digits. Pulling the curved obsidian blade from his waist, he stabs forward, penetrating the unseen skull. His weapon sticks a moment, caught between the cleaved bone. With a twist, he pulls it free, and walks around the collapsing body.
A fresh gust of wind lifts the oppressing fog. Glancing over his shoulder, he sees the three hollowed stumbling in his tracks, shrinking into the distance. In this moment of clarity, he studies the wide plain, spreading out infinitely, its uncountable recesses hidden to his searching gaze. Undaunted, he marches on.
For a day and a night, he keeps this unbreakable pace, passing through countless valleys and over numberless hills, muddying the occasional creak under his heel. Behind him, the mob only grows, the lines of hollowed increasing tenfold.
As morning dawns on the second day, the gently falling mists transforming into the soft splattering of rain, he mounts a little knoll, and, peering into the distance ahead, spies the lofty walls, huge beams of cedar bound tightly side by side like centuries holding their impenetrable shields together. Encircling this battlement, this fortified city, is the ground speckled with diminutive black figures, the unmistakable image of hollowed tirelessly struggling to invade the city.
Marching down the slope, five of the ghastly monsters climb up to greet him. Leaping high into the air, he flies towards them, his cape outstretched, covering the murderous crowd in his shadow. The man’s heavy boots, falling on the first one, crush its head, snapping the twigish neck under the blow.
Swinging his curved blades, the silver slices through another’s neck, but the obsidian falls short, only scratching the face of one of the hollowed. It grabs his arm with an unbreakable death grip, and, pulling on this, drags him to the ground. Letting go, the three converge over him, crying their black tears. With his hands free, he crosses the daggers over his face.
As the twin weapons touch, the one dark as night and the other brilliant as day, a swelling force, like a building torrent of wind, explodes, knocking over the three grim creatures. The stranger lies there a moment, letting the rain wash his face. He feels every wearisome step of his journey crushing him, drowning him in the waters of sleep.
Over the knoll, the first vanguards of the pursuing horde stumble, and beside him, the three hollowed climb to their feet. But he stares up into the grey sky, fighting away the dreams threatening to overtake his mind.
Such a pleasant memory tempts him from wakefulness, from facing the nightmares. There she is, she could be with him now, if he would merely close his eyes. The rain makes him blink. Fighting, he opens them. He blinks. A little slower, he peels his eyelids back. Again, they close. There she is, waiting for him.
As his hard panting gives way to measured breaths, and his clenched fingers relax around the ivory and walnut wood handles, he hears in the distance, the shouts of men.