Princes of the Apocalypse
"I'm a hunter. I think."
Male human ranger. Neutral good.
A thick forest encroached upon the solitary cabin of clay and timber, set beside a slow flowing river in a picturesque valley that would not look out of place in an oil painting. Within the dwelling, a man lay still upon the hardwood floor. Congealing blood pooled from a wound atop his crown, surrounding his head like a sanguine halo.
The man stirred, eliciting a groan as agony wracked his rising consciousness. With his hand, he reached to the top of his head for the source of his pain, finding his black hair thick with matted blood. He placed his elbows upon the floor and, cradling his head with his arms, shuffled his knees forward until he formed a kind of upright foetal position. He opened an eye, squinting out through a gap between his knees to see the lavish room beyond spinning like a top. Nausea threatened to overwhelm him. He shut his eye and remained still, bowed like a man seeking penance, waiting for the dizziness to subside.
When at last his world stopped spiralling about him, he raised his head, grimacing at the pain. Kneeling, he looked about the small but well-appointed living room, seeing aged but plush fabrics upholstering the chairs by the hearth where cooling embers glowed softly. Several tapestries lined the walls depicting lush landscapes and spire-filled cities. A portrait of a respectable elderly gentlemen rested over the mantle.
Then he noticed the disarray. Stools lay tumbled, cupboard doors rested ajar and drawers had been spilled, their contents scattered upon the polished wooden floor.
“I’ve been robbed,” he said aghast as the realisation sunk in. That explained the knock on the head. He rose to his feet on unsteady legs, slowly, to prevent the world from tipping again. His tongue felt heavy, thick and dry, his lips cracked. I need water, he thought. Spying a cupboard, it’s doors flung wide, he began rifling through it’s contents. Linen and towels, once neatly folded had been turned about when a thief had searched for hidden valuables.
“Where do I keep the damned cups,” he growled in frustration, standing again. And why don’t I know where they are? He finally noticed a waterskin hanging on a hook by the door and gratefully took it, drinking his fill.
Glancing about the room between sips, something else seemed amiss. Certainly, his home had been ransacked and was in a state of utter chaos, but there was something subtle that nagged at his subconscious. As he considered the overturned furniture, the pans and plates and cups (there they are!), the parchment and upended inkwell from the writing desk in the corner and the cushions with their stuffing strewn about, he finally realised he was seeing everything with new eyes. It was as if he were seeing his home for the first time.
He found the thought puzzling. He cast his mind back, searching for answers and found… nothing. No memories, not even the feeling that recall was simply elusive, temporarily beyond his grasp. It was like the universe had just birthed him into adulthood, fully clad, and dumped him into the world.
Alarmed, he dropped the waterskin to the floor and raised his fingers to his temple. Even his own identity was missing, his name, his family, everything. Who was he? How was this possible?
He gasped and felt the top of his head, wincing as his hand came into contact with the wound. Of course. Somehow, he knew that most memory loss was temporary, it would likely come back with time. In the meantime, however, there were answers to be found. Not knowing his name was an itch he needed to scratch.
Spying again the papers by the writing desk, he hurried over. Much of the parchment was blank, save for stains from when his uninvited guests had spilled the ink. But he did find a thick, wax-sealed envelope, one that would be typically used to protect a missive from water damage on a long voyage. It was addressed to Seth Blacksilver.
“Seth,” he said, trying the name aloud. It seemed to fit.
Feeling a little better, he left the desk and began picking through the other contents of his home. While it was indeed quite well appointed, it didn’t feel terribly homely. It wasn’t simply his lack of memory, but more that it didn’t feel lived in. The kitchen had only one skillet and a single pot and while they showed signs of age, they were remarkably unscratched. Unused. Two dinner plates, two bowls, a pair of mugs and several cups. A kettle that might have been boiled half a dozen times. The fabric on the cushioned chairs was faded from age but unworn, no pulled threads, no indentations in the padded seating from use.
A holiday home, perhaps? I seem to have an eye for detail, he thought, pleased with himself.
There were two doors in the living area, one was open and evidently lead outside. He opened the other and stepped through. It was a bedroom. The double bed was unmade, recently slept in. Side tables were set on either side and a wardrobe stood against the far wall. Seth opened the drawer on the closest table and flicked through it’s contents, finding nothing of interest. On top of the table was a book titled, “A Drunken Spelunker’s Guide to the Sword Coast.” Next to it was a leather shaving kit. He opened it, testing the razor. It was dry, hadn’t been oiled in several days. He felt the coarse stubble growing on his chin. Seemed about right.
He looked across the bed to the other side table and frowned. A hairbrush rested upon it. He pulled the small shaving mirror from the kit and looked at himself for the first time. Thick, dark hair framed a youthful face with a strong chin. It wasn’t the kind of hair you would brush.
Seth put the mirror down and climbed over the bed to pick up the brush. It’s back was inlaid with mother of pearl and fine blonde hairs were tangled around it’s bristles. This was a woman’s brush. The thought sent a chill down his spine. He was married. He glanced at his ring finger. There was no ring, nor was there a mark or tan lines indicating that he was missing one. A girlfriend then. But, where was she?
He opened the wardrobe. Soft leather riding pants and tunics. He checked the other door and found a travelling skirt, blouse and several light dresses. Shit. He was pretty certain he wasn’t into dresses and the hair on the brush confirmed there had been a woman staying with him. This was a small, two room cabin and there were no more rooms to search, so unless she was under the bed – he dropped to his knees and looked, nope – she was missing.
He ran back to the living area, scanning it. There was nowhere to hide here. Stepping outside, the early afternoon glare from the sun stung his eyes momentarily and he put his hand to his brow to form a make-shift visor. There were several narrow, rudimentary paths criss-crossing the area from the doorway to the small stack of firewood under the eaves, to the slow, wide river beyond. The ground directly in front of the door was scuffed as if something had recently been dragged. Feet, maybe. Fuck.
There were footprints here too, several sets by the look of them. He found an area clear of marks and pressed his right foot firmly into the dirt, then inspected the distinctive print it made. Several of the footprints were his, but he discovered perhaps four others that differed. One was light and narrow, older than the rest and headed in from the river. A pail sat by the door. His companion must have been fetching water.
Of the remainder, there was one that stood out. It was deep and spanned over thirteen inches, by his estimate. A giant of a man. The pattern of his sole was distinctive and would thankfully be easy to track. The kidnappers would likely have several hours on him, so he would need to move quickly. He noticed a hitching rail next to the woodpile, but it was bare and judging by the markings, they’d stolen his horses but they hadn’t arrived with any. That meant they had two horses to share amongst four, one of whom – his girl – would likely be bound. He followed them for a short while. The giant was still on foot, walking. They were in no hurry. Good.
He turned back to the cabin at a trot, and in his haste nearly tripped over something on the ground. A longbow. A quiver lay to the side. Now, that could be useful. But can I actually use it, he mused? He picked up the bow. It fit comfortably in his left hand. He retrieved an arrow from the quiver – there were a couple dozen – and nocked it in the bowstring, then lifted his gaze to the forest a hundred paces distant to find a target. The stump of a branch that had been sawn off stood out immediately, pale and round against the dark bark of the tree. It was perfect. Without thinking, he lifted the bow, drew the string, sighted and fired. It hit two inches left of centre.
“Not bad,” he breathed. He turned the palms of his hands upwards, inspecting them. There were calluses at the base of each finger as one would expect, but on his right hand the tip of the middle finger and it’s fellows on either side were also callused. He ran his thumb over the three fingers, feeling the rough, hard skin. An archer’s hands, he mused.
Seth took the bow inside the cabin and hurriedly began putting together some travelling gear. A small backpack, some rations, a couple waterskins, flint and tinder. He found a well-oiled knife and leather sheath in his wardrobe. It was near new and, like almost everything else in his holiday home, had seen little use. He attached it to his belt, strapped the quiver to his back and slung his bow over a shoulder as if it were part of him.
He shut the cabin door behind him. There was a lock, but he had no key. He looked around at the vast expanse of forest before him and the rolling hills beyond. There was no one left to intrude, and nothing remaining to burgle besides.
Taking off at an easy lope, Seth began following the trail left by the kidnappers. They were simple to follow, even at pace. Just has he reached the tree line, he found the first drop of blood and he turned cold at the thought that his woman had been injured. Hopefully, he had instead managed to hurt one of the bandits. Please let that be the case, he prayed.
For hours he tracked them through the forest, moving at a slow canter though his head plagued him, throbbing at his exertion and occasionally causing bouts of dizziness and wretching. This pace was not sustainable, he knew. He would black out before long. Still, there was little undergrowth in the wood and the trees grew wide-set, meaning there was little to obstruct his quarry and their horses. His horses. With the hours they had on him, haste was the only advantage he had, so he continued to push himself to the edge of his endurance. Then, just as night was falling, a dizzy spell overcame him. He paused against a tree to catch his breath, but stumbled as consciousness fled and he collapsed amongst the soft forest undergrowth.
When Seth awoke, it was mid-morning. He cursed. His ribs were sore from where he had fallen upon his bow shaft and slept. Sitting up, he shrugged the bow from his shoulder and similarly slipped the pack from his back. From within, he retrieved a waterskin and some of the bread and hard cheese he’d taken from home. Feeling refreshed, he continued onwards. The trail remained unblemished.
Within the first hour he came across the remains of a campfire. He swore vehemently. He had been close, so close, to reaching them last night. He approached the camp and noticed a body sitting against a tree several yards to the side. It was clearly a man, otherwise he would have neared with some trepidation. He was still and pale, he’d died where he sat. There was a lot of blood upon the undergrowth and with a tourniquet evident about his thigh, it was apparent that he had bled out.
Looking closer, the man had dark, curly hair that was cropped short. The first signs of a beard marked his unshaven face, where a large, crooked nose took prominence. His brow was unlined and no grey flecked his hair. Seth took him to be around thirty years of age. Pulling his knife from it’s sheath, he cut away the bandage to inspect the wound. An arrow had taken him on the inner thigh and must have nicked an artery. I must have shot him, Seth thought. But if I’d aimed for the leg, it must have been a warning shot.
Two men left, he thought grimly, two dozen arrows and no more warning shots. I like those odds. With nothing else to see, he hoisted the longbow back over his shoulder and continued to follow the trail. He noticed instantly that something had changed. The giant’s footprints disappeared when they left the camp. They were all on horseback now and they would be travelling faster.
“Tymora’s tears!” Seth swore. Then, with no small amount of resignation, he resumed that easy loping gait following the hoof prints along the damp forest floor.
The land soon turned rocky and began ascending into foothills. In the distance he could hear the rushing of white water from the nearby river as gravity pulled it from the hillside and splashed it upon stony banks. At midday, he paused and allowed himself some respite. The tracks now followed the river, so Seth filled a depleted waterskin and took his fill before topping it up again. He chewed some jerky and pulled a chunk of bread off the loaf he had taken before washing it all down with another mouthful of water. Then, he resumed his trek.
When night fell hours later, cloud covered the half-moon causing the land to lie in pitch darkness. The trees had grown more sparse but the ground was treacherous with stones and pitfalls. If Seth was not careful, he would either lose their trail or fall and break his neck. There was no point in continuing, he would need light to continue in their wake and without a torch or lantern, that meant waiting until sunrise. Even though he chafed at the delay, he lit a small fire with his flint and tinder and settled down for the night.
Seth was off as soon as the sun peeked it’s crown over the horizon, once again casting light into the world. Nearing midday, he came across their previous night’s encampment. They had made good time on horseback yesterday, despite the rough ground. The camp overlooked an escarpment where a waterfall crashed into a shallow pool beneath. It made for a charming resting place, so he sank to the ground, exhausted from several days running. At least his head felt better, even though his memory had yet to return.
He raised the waterskin to his lips and from his seat on the ground, examined the camp. The coals from the fire were cool to the touch, even though they had simply let it die out after their morning cook. There was no dirt or gravel over the embers, nor evidence of any water used to extinguish the fire. Two sleeping mats had been placed on either side of the fire. His girlfriend had slept against a tree, no doubt bound to it’s trunk.
The giant’s footprints were apparent again after he had dismounted, and one other, smaller set of footprints indicated that there were only two bandits now. He noted some disturbance in the prints near the tree where the girl had slept and stood to investigate. There had been some commotion here. She must have gotten loose by the looks, probably when they untied her. Must be a feisty thing, he grinned. Yes, she’s on the balls of her feet here and her stride is long, she was running. His heart rose in his chest. Did she get away?
He followed her footsteps like a hound on a scent. She had been fast and unencumbered, she was away and free and… oh gods, no. Her prints ended at the escarpment. She had leaped to the pool beneath, which looked far too shallow to offer any semblance of protection from a fall at this height. She could not possibly have known before she jumped, judging by the speed of her flight. She had been desperate and her luck might have failed her.
Seth scanned the slick rocks surrounding the pool. There was no evidence that she had been there, but of course spray from the water would have washed away any blood. Casting his eyes further afield he saw a fleck of white amongst the tall grass. It was cloth.
With his heart in his throat, he scrambled back down the hillside, back down the way he had come, somehow finding footholds amongst the treacherous ground. At the base of the escarpment, he clambered over the slippery, moss covered rocks and fell into the wide pool at the base of the waterfall. Half running and half swimming, Seth crossed to the other side and climbed over the rocks there to exit the water. He stood and slowly, hesitantly, made his way over to the dirty white linen just visible between the lengthy green grass.
As he got closer, his fears were realised. A woman lay there, broken and wet. Her legs had been shattered by the fall and rested now at awkward angles, with bone protruding from a splintered kneecap. Somehow, with some inhuman strength and determination she had managed to drag herself twenty yards from where she fell in the rockpool before finally collapsing, spent. Her long blonde hair lay tangled about her face. Seth pulled her hair back to see her for the first time. She had been beautiful. He wept, exhausted. He did not know her, his memory vacant, but he knew he had loved her. He knew it.
Soon, anger replaced his sorrow. And then rage, cold and hard. These men had stolen her from me, he thought. They have taken my memories and my life. I will hunt them and I will kill them. They will each take an arrow in the night and in the darkness, as they lay dying, they will see me standing above them. A man they left for dead in a lone cabin in the woods. A man set on vengeance. A hunter.
The twist in this story is that ‘Seth’ was actually one of the bandits who had all been tasked with kidnapping the real Seth Blacksilver, a minor Cormyrean noble, from his holiday home. He had shot the real Seth in the leg as he was trying to flee from the cabin. He’d then dropped his bow and arrow, before going inside to loot and was struck on the head with a hammer by Seth’s young girlfriend.
Of course, when he awakes with his memory gone and he’s abandoned in a cabin, he assumes it was his. No one likes to think they’re the bad guy after all.