One Arm and the Nightwolves

Introduction

This scene is one of my oldest cuts, dating back to 2004 or so, as you can tell from the writing style, which is considerably looser than my current prose. It takes place after the night when Arlen is first injured by One Arm, but before he is found by Ragen on the road. In the earliest draft of the book, Tibbet’s Brook and Sunny Pasture are not visited by Messengers at all; they are totally cut off. Arlen had to walk for over a week through wilderness and ruins before he came to a Messenger route.

The scene below was designed to address in part the question of how nature had evolved since the Return to withstand the depredations of the corelings by showing how all the mid-sized wild animals are pretty much extinct, and the animals that remained were either small and quick heavy breeders, or massive beasts that could make the corelings think twice about attacking them when there is easier prey around. Those predator animals evolved quickly in this environment, becoming omnivorous and several times their “natural” size. Hence the lion the size of a cow, and the gigantic nightwolves.

Why It Was Cut

Lots of reasons, the first and foremost being that the section did nothing to advance the story. All it did was give me a chance to take the stage and say, “Hey! Look at this world I created! Isn’t it neat? I spent time thinking about how the ecosystem has adapted!”

Bully for me. Every writer does that. But a good storyteller doesn’t waste the reader’s time with needless minutiae. You thread in the worldbuilding elements that are pertinent to the story you are telling, and let the rest wait until they’re needed. No one needs to read Leesha’s dissertation, “Wild Hogroot, and its Effects on Coreling Activity”, unless a wild hogroot patch is going to play a pertinent part in the story to come.

There’s also the fact that Arlen is supposedly severely injured at this point, and I have him running around like young Indiana Jones. Not to mention the fact that he’s twelve, and documenting the natural world like Stephen Jay Gould.

So I cut it out, and no one ever missed it, except for a handful of people who have complained that there wasn’t enough detail in The Painted Man to explain how the Return affected wild animals and vegetation.

This scene is for you guys. I have others, too.

Scene

Arlen collected a few more stones from the streambed, and then moved on. He would paint them when he made camp that night.

For two more days, Arlen walked on, resting only from necessity, making two circles each night. Though he spotted birds from time to time, Arlen saw few other animals. Those he did were only glimpsed before vanishing under cover.

His skin grew hot and his wounds screamed, but there was nothing for it. The terrain grew rockier and hillier as he went on, and as he rested on his fifth day out, pretending that the bit of hard cheese and the crust of bread he allowed himself could be considered lunch, he saw why. Not too far in the distance was the first in a series of mountains.

The mountains were still some ways off when Arlen saw the lion. It was resting lazily atop what looked like a stone outcropping, overgrown with vegetation. He froze at the sight of the great beast, but not soon enough. The lion did not rise, but its eyes met his, and he knew that he had been spotted.

Arlen had never seen a lion, but he had heard of them in the Jongleur’s stories. The tales never told him just how big they were, though. This creature looked much like the common house cats on Arlen’s farm, with short, shiny fur colored a deep russet, but it was the size of a cow. Its tail waved back and forth as it considered the boy.

Hardly daring to breathe, Arlen took a slow step back, then another. The outcropping ran along to his right; to his left and back there was open land. He had no doubt that the lion could outrun him.

Looking at the outcropping more closely, Arlen spotted a gap in the stone. He had missed it at first, so thickly was it grown with vines and brush, but he could see a shadowed opening that looked just big enough to squeeze through.

When he looked back at the lion, it had risen to its feet, bunching and tamping its hind paws as it crouched, tail flashing back and forth. Its slitted eyes were locked on him.

Arlen and the lion moved as one, he for the gap, and the lion for him. Its first leap sent it flying thirty feet down from the outcropping and onto the ground not far away. Powerful muscles flexed as the great cat struck the ground, and it seemed almost to bounce, changing direction and launching towards him in one fluid move.

Arlen hurled his sack through the gap in the stone and then followed bodily, leaping arms-first through the nook. He crashed through vines and jagged branches, landing on hard, smooth stone. His face and hands stung, but the scrapes were superficial and he ignored them, grasping his walking stick in two hands.

The lion, as he had hoped, was too large to fit through the gap, but it fished a paw in, clawing the air, its face pressing in and roaring its anger.

But Arlen was angry, too. Was it not enough that the corelings hunted him each night? Now the beasts of the natural world wanted to tear the flesh from him as well? It was too much. Adrenaline flowed through him, banishing the burning in his shoulders and the feverish feeling in his limbs.

He darted to the side, out of the great paw’s angle of attack, and jabbed twice with the stout stick. The first thrust struck the cat’s maw, serving only to enrage it further, but the next struck home in the creature’s eye. The lion scampered back out of the gap, and Arlen blew out a breath. He noted the tearing of the overgrowth, and realized that the lion might have broken through and been upon him in another moment. The thought made his insides churn.

Peeking out through the gap, Arlen saw the cat retreating further, licking its paw and brushing at its eye. He did not know how much time the lucky blow had bought him, so he resolved to make the best of it. Picking up his sack, he moved deeper through the fissure.

It was then he realized that he was walking upon cut stone. He looked up, and saw that he was not in a gap at all, but a passageway. Beneath the growth, the walls and floor were stone blocks, cracked with age. There was sunlight streaming at him from just ahead, and as he went on, the passage opened into a wide courtyard, choked with vine and weed. There was a broken fountain filled with murky rainwater, and a low building, almost invisible beneath the thick ivy upon its walls.

Arlen walked around the yard in awe. It was ancient. He knew he was standing in a place unseen by human eyes in centuries. Full-sized trees had broken through cracks in the stone floor, overturning blocks now covered in dirt and moss. Statues lay broken and overgrown, and Arlen could see deep claw marks in the stone.

The corelings had fun tearing this place apart, he mused. They love to destroy what we build.

Arlen walked deeper into the courtyard, but a chill shook him, and he looked back over his shoulder. Sure enough, the lion was back atop the wall, watching him from the same spot it had been resting before. He tensed to run again, but the cat showed no inclination to enter the courtyard. He could only wonder why.

Keeping his eyes on the cat, Arlen walked backwards to the building, finding the doorway easily. The wood of the door was long since rotted away, and the remains of the metal bands were rusted and twisted. Arlen walked in, and froze just past the doorway, seeing why the lion was hesitant to come inside the walls.

The building was filled with nightwolves, a carpet of coal-black fur.

They looked up at him from where they lay, and though he saw curiosity in their eyes, there was nothing hopeful in it. It was a look of surprise and amazement that one such as he could be so stupid as to violate their territory.

Arlen ran from the building, followed by dozens of the snarling pack. The beasts were easily three times the size of the big dogs they kept on the farm for herding sheep; the smallest of them more than double Arlen’s weight. He thought first to head for the gap, but then remembered that there was still an angry lion outside, waiting to make a meal of him.

Turning frantically, Arlen spotted a gnarled tree by the building and bolted for it. Dropping his stick, he sprung high and pulled himself onto the first branch even as the nightwolves snapped at his feet. His injured back screamed at the strain, and he felt the wounds tear open once more, but he kicked at the nightwolves and continued to climb, finally ascending past the height of their greatest leaps. He waited there, trying desperately to think of a way to escape.
As Arlen watched, more nightwolves streamed in from around the building in response to the howls of their fellows. They ringed the tree, and Arlen knew they would wait there for the rest of the day, if need be.

They would wait until the demons came.

Arlen knew he had to act. Corelings could climb as easily as he—easier, in fact. If he was not away before sunset, he was doomed. There was no way to ward the limbs of a tree.

Climbing higher, Arlen saw that some of the branches extended out to the crumbling roof of the building. Flinging his sack across, he crept slowly along the thickest limb, and found his way to the roof. The nightwolves barked up at him helplessly from the ground.

The roof was cracked and caved in places, with rusting metal bars jutting from the crumbling stone. Much of the building’s top floor was open to sunlight, but there were a few areas of the roof that seemed solid. He collapsed there and took a rag from his bag, pressing it awkwardly against his back until the bleeding slowed. Seeing there was no way to leave the area before dark, Arlen took out his kit and painted wards in a small circle by the roof’s edge, where the support was greatest.

That task complete, Arlen took out the stream-worn stones he had collected, and continued to paint them, carefully setting them aside to dry. When he was done, he set them in a wider circle around the first to test them.

He then ate a meager meal and lay down to sleep, confident that the coming of the demons would be enough to wake him.

* * * * *

Renewed barks and howls from below brought Arlen from his exhausted slumber. The sun was just beginning to set, and that had set the nightwolves into a frenzy. The beasts retreated into the building, and Arlen found himself wishing them well. Even knowing that they would have savaged him without a thought, Arlen could find no malice in his heart for them. The corelings had made this a harsh land, and he could not fault them defending their lair.

Only a handful or corelings materialized in the courtyard; an advantage to walls, Arlen noted. Others might fly in or climb the wall, but more likely they would not bother, with other creatures, such as the lion, outside the walls to hunt. The boy felt a moment of pity for the lion as well.

His curiosity getting the better of him, Arlen left the inner circle and stood at the edge of the outer, watching the events unfolding in the courtyard. True to their patterns, the corelings danced about the courtyard, heightening the tension and fear in the air before they struck.

To Arlen’s surprise, the nightwolves did much the same. The largest of the pack, hulking beasts on par with the lion for size, clustered by the one entrance, growling and pawing at the ground, pacing back and forth. They challenged the demons openly, and Arlen could see respect in the corelings’ eyes.

Respect he had never seen them show a human.

There was a brief skirmish as one impatient flame demon rushed the nightwolves. The pack quickly surrounded it, nipping at its limbs and raking with claws. The coreling spat flame at them, but the nightwolves were ready, bobbing back and then coming in hard as the creature recovered. They bore it to the ground, teeth flashing, and the demon fought back desperately. It managed to escape, slinking back amongst its fellows, chastened, and resumed circling with the others.

So fascinated was Arlen with the scene that he lost track of his own situation. His scream as a wind demon smashed into the wards right in front of him returned him to his senses.

At least the warding stones work, Arlen mused as he leapt back to the safety of his inner ring. The wind demon was joined by others, and they circled his wards, testing carefully for holes in the net. Arlen had arranged the stones with great care, though, and there were no openings for the demons to pass through.

A few of them flew up, testing the field until it weakened sufficiently for them to pass through. These swept down and landed within the circle, and Arlen took this chance to study them in the moonlight. Wind demons were bipedal, with long, thin bodies, and spindly limbs that ended in single, hooked claws. The undersides of their arms and the outsides of their legs were webbed with a thin, leathery membrane, supported by a few flexible bones. Though barely taller than an adult man, when the demons spread their arms, their wings spanned twice their height. This alone kept them from landing inside his inner circle.

A curving horn grew from their heads, bent back and webbed like their limbs to form a ridge down their backs. Their long snouts held rows of inch long teeth, yellow in the moonlight.

They moved towards him, hatred in their eyes, but Arlen paid little mind. He was studying their gait. They walked clumsily, even worse than birds, seeming unsure of how to balance on land, despite their graceful mastery of the air.

Arlen was sure he could outrun the lot of them, and understood why they might be reluctant to strike at the nightwolves. The sharp fangs of the pack below could cripple those thin wings.

The boy stood his ground confidently as they approached, calmly raising a hand to block the glare as they struck his wards. He met their eyes with a hard and challenging look of his own, but he saw none of the respect that was shown the nightwolves, only frustration.

One day, he swore, they’ll look at me with respect.

He waited until the corelings lost interest and flew off, then slumped to the roof, the pain in his back overwhelming. He was starting to get dizzy when he stood still for too long, and he felt flushed all the time. He was going to have to do something about the wounds, and soon.

The night had grown long, with dawn not far off, when the now-familiar roar rang out over the courtyard. Arlen climbed wearily to his feet in time to see the one-armed rock demon vault over the wall and land in a crouch by the fountain.

The other corelings gave the giant a wide berth, but it paid them no mind, its nose to the ground. It snuffled a bit, and Arlen watched its eyes flicker to the entrance to the nightwolves’ lair, then to the tree, then up to the top of the building. The demon met Arlen’s eye then, and gave a great howl. It bounded over to the building, its claws gouging deep into the stone as it veritably ran up the wall.

Arlen watched the demon approach impassively. He felt the fever making his head spin and his limbs watery, but he ignored it, refusing to give this creature the satisfaction of seeing him swoon.

In a twinkling, the demon slipped over the edge of the roof and hissed at him. Arlen responded with an obscene gesture.

Shrieking, the rock demon charged, smashing against the wards with all its might. Magic flared like lightning in the courtyard, turning night into day. Even the nightwolves and the corelings took their eyes off one another to regard the struggle above.

Seeing it could not penetrate the wards from one angle, the giant demon began to circle, testing the strength of each ward with thunderous blows. Arlen turned with it, never freeing it from his hard gaze. He was terrified that he might faint and tumble from his protective ring, but he would be damned before he let the demon see that.

The demon took another step around the circle, and there was a high-pitched creaking noise. Arlen and the demon both glanced behind it just as a portion of the roof gave way with a loud crack.

The demon flailed with its one arm and its long tail, but it was unable to regain its balance. It fell into the hole with a shriek of anger, and Arlen watched as its weight bore it right through the top floor of the two-story building and into the midst of the nightwolves.

There were loud barks and growls as the nightwolves fearlessly leapt to defend their lair. Arlen could not see what was happening, but he could clearly hear as the barks turned to howls, and then yelps. What followed, beneath the roars of the frustrated demon, was a sickening cacophony of rending flesh and wolfish cries of pain.

Arlen hung his head. The nightwolves had found a way to fend off the demons, had faced the corelings with more bravery than humanity had shown in centuries, and now, because of him, they were slaughtered. Was this why he left home?

* * * * *

The sun peeked over the horizon before the one-armed demon could climb back up to him. Arlen somberly collected the wardstones that had not been lost in the collapse and then slid down a section of caved roofing to the second floor of the building.

He looked around the room in wonder. Rotted frames hung crookedly from the walls, the art they contained long forgotten, and the floor was sodden and mucky, the decomposed remains of a thick carpet. The boy wandered around, touching the broken furniture and wondering how this place had fallen. Had it happened that first night when the demons returned; or had the people here lasted longer, reclaiming the old magics in time to fend off the corelings, if only for a while?

He searched for signs of wards, but if there were any, they were long gone. Ancient grooves were clawed into the walls and furniture, remnants of the fall.

Arlen found the stairs, and descended to the ground floor. As he feared, the destruction was total. The nightwolves had focused the demon’s rage. The entire floor was littered with bloody pelts, an abattoir thick with the hot stench of blood.

Choking, Arlen found his way out of the building and then out of the courtyard. The lion was nowhere to be seen when he exited the nook in the wall. Thankful for the small blessing, the boy pressed on, heading for the mountains. He noted the husks of other destroyed buildings as he walked, passing them with a heavy heart. How many other places like this were there? Crumbling tombstones to unknown dead. So many of those jagged, overgrown foundations could have been that of his family farmhouse.

He walked for hours, the wounds on his back burning and wet. He paused for lunch, but sicked it up not long afterwards.

As he approached the mountains, a cold, clear smell reached him, followed soon after by a great roaring. The sound heralded a river, its banks swollen with the mountains’ summer melt. Arlen was a fair swimmer, but he had no desire to test that water. He turned and followed the flow of the water.

The afternoon was wearing on when he saw the bridge. It was small, but it seemed sturdy, and more importantly, it wasn’t rotted. Someone was maintaining it.

As he drew closer, Arlen’s heart leapt. On either side of the bridge, clear as day, was a road. It was nothing impressive, just a path of packed dirt, but to Arlen, it was the most beautiful thing he could imagine. A road meant people, and people meant succor within a day of here.

Having no idea which direction would bring him to the closest settlement, Arlen decided not to cross the bridge, and headed away from it down the road.