The world began with the stench of death. And pain. So much pain that it blocked out all sound. On and on it stretched, seemingly forever, as if it had always been and would always be.
He could not open his eyes or move his body for some time. Every twitch hurt. Every thought was clouded, hidden by the fog of agony that held his mind in thrall. He could do nothing but lie where he was.
The pain receded incrementally, slowly releasing his senses from bondage. He heard trees groaning in the wind, their branches rubbing and striking as they swayed. He did not understand what this meant. He felt the hard surface under his body, smelled the rotted leaves crushed by his weight, and did not understand. He tasted blood, and did not understand.
The smells, though... so invasive that no amount of pain could drive them from his awareness. Death and blood. Filth and sweat. His eyes began to open.
It took several long minutes for him to grasp his position. Above, the trees he'd heard stood tall. Their naked branches cut across a blue, cloudless sky. He was lying on the ground, then. He attempted to rise.
The world lurched sickeningly and he fell back, gasping. His gorge rose alarmingly, and he rolled to the side in time to empty his stomach. Falling back, he stared up and up. What was this place? Why did he feel so sore and ill? What happened to him?
That these questions had no answers alarmed him. Surely he would remember what caused him such pain. He made another attempt to sit up.
It was easier this time. The world tilted, but he held fast against its movement, and it settled. He forced down the vomit that wished to join its fellow; fought it and eventually won. Now he could see what caused the cloying stench that was itself enough to make one retch.
All about him lay bodies. He didn't even try to count them all. Blinking rapidly, trying to take it in, his eyes scanned what appeared to be a battlefield. Was he the only survivor? Were his folk the victors or the dead?
Only two yards away was a corpse, lying face down with arrows in its back. Another a little further away lay on its side, facing him. He stared at the face of the dead... creature, uncomprehending.
It was hideous. A deep cut down one cheek laid the flesh open and a cascade of blackness flowed from the wound. Its face was contorted with anger, pain, and hatred, frozen in death. Something stirred in his mind, looking at that face. It was... familiar. Like wisps, the thoughts flitted through his foggy mind, and somehow he knew this creature did bad things. It caused pain and suffering. It was hated.
Perhaps... it was his enemy. Surely this must be so. He was not one of these. He was not dead, as these things were. They must have been slain by the good people. The good people; they must be his folk. The good people must have thought him dead and left. Perhaps they were forced by circumstance to leave him behind. Perhaps they would return...
Yes, he was one of the good people. These others... they were bad people. He was not one of them. He must find the good people again. They would tell him what happened here. They would tell him who he was.
Who... He didn't know who he was.
He had to get up. They would tell him, but he had to get to them first.
Standing required a monumental effort and several failures. The forest danced and the ground convulsed; he dragged himself up and forced his shaky legs beneath him, holding onto a small tree for dear life. All the while, his head felt split open and his stomach threatened to unleash its fury once again.
Now he could see more, and the sight of so many repulsive forms... he could not look at them for long. Bad people. They were bad people. He was not one of them. He had to get away from here.
But where could he go? He did not know this place, and had no memory of coming here. When he stilled and listened, he heard something roaring in the distance. A steady roar it was; the sound did not inspire fear, so it must not be threatening. He slowly turned in that direction.
It was a start.
His plodding, uncertain, stumbling footsteps jarred his sensitive head, causing the pain to flare up again. He had to stop frequently and wait for it to subside before continuing on. His eyes refused to open wider than slits, for the light of day pierced so sharply he...
Night was upon him quite suddenly, and he was lying on his back, gasping and sore from head to toe. Again, he rolled over to throw up what little was left in his gut. Hours must have passed. It was a struggle to sit up.
For the first time, he looked down at his body. His chest was covered by a curved metal plate. There were many scratches and dents, and it was a dark grey beneath the dirt and blood. It did not fit him well; he was now aware of the places where it had rubbed his skin raw. His questing fingers found buckles on the sides, and he clumsily worked them open, his hands seeming to know what they were doing without his guidance.
There was more strapped to his body than the chest plate. Metal covered his head. He removed the cap, and stared at the deep dent. He gingerly touched the back of his head, and his fingers found a gummy mass tangled in his hair.
More metal concealed his thighs and shins. Leather girded his loins. The leather he could stand, though it was filthy and smelled terribly. Beneath the metal plating on his torso, he wore a ragged shirt, so dirty from sweat and grime its color was indistinguishable. So torn it barely covered his flesh, and had clearly done little to protect his hide from the metal plating. Open sores at his collarbones and shoulderblades itched and burned.
His skin... dark and rough... gnarled hands ending in claws...
Breath quickening, he forced himself to stand. He was not one of them.
The roar resolved itself into a river running wild and boisterous. Near the shore, the water was calmer, and he waded into the shallows to clean himself off. Submerging his body, he ducked his head in as well, then jerked it back out. The cold water stung against the swollen lump where he was struck. Steeling himself, he lowered his blood-encrusted head in the water once more, and washed the gore and filth away.
Once he was clean, his meager clothing soaked and only slightly less dirty, he realized how hungry he was. It was difficult to see in the darkness, but he must somehow find food. Perhaps... meat? Was that what he ate? It was still difficult to think clearly, between the pain and the voice...
He heard a voice. Freezing, he listened. Somewhere far away, someone was murmuring... muttering incoherently. He could make out no words, only... feelings. Sensations that formed images.
Very ugly images of blood and fire.
Starting in a panic, he looked about him. It was day again, and he was in a different place. Still on the bank, but he must be further downriver. He was walking still, as if his body knew where to go and his mind only occasionally woke enough to take notice.
He stopped for a moment and took a deep breath. Several of them, actually. The roaring was louder, and he realized that the river ended abruptly ahead. Cautiously, he approached.
It was a great waterfall, tumbling over the cliff on which he stood to continue on hundreds of feet below, by his reckoning. Since he had chosen this direction, he was loathe to choose another. Who knew where he would end up? Perhaps he was guided by instinct, some deeply-buried knowledge that this was where he needed to go to find his folk. The good people.
The farther he walked, the more distance he would put between himself and the bad people.
Skirting the edge of the cliff, he found a path leading down. The path cut back and forth on its way down, and frequently changed from dirt and bare rock to worn steps and back. Many feet had traveled this way.
Then he found himself squatting in the middle of the path with a dead rabbit in his hands, tearing at its flesh with his teeth. He paused, unable to recall how he'd gotten the animal and unsure where he was. The falls were still near enough to thunder in his ears, and a quick look around told him he was still on the path. He just... didn't remember...
Shaking his head, he resumed eating. He was starving. Did it really matter where the rabbit came from?
Hours of walking brought him to the foot of the cliff. Before him a lush grassland stretched, and he wondered where he should go. The sun was lowering in the sky, casting long shadows to his left. He was tired. Perhaps sleep...
Once more, he jerked to awareness lying on the ground, muscles twitching as tension slowly released. His entire body spasmed feebly, slowing to a stop. He could barely swallow as he stared at the darkening sky.
There was no answer to the questions that burned in him to ask. No one to ask them of, either. He took deep breaths to calm himself. As long as he was lying down, he reasoned, he should let himself sleep. Even though he was hungry again.
He wondered what the good people looked like. Obviously, the bad people were ugly and foul-smelling. The good people must be beautiful and smell wonderful. Perhaps they smelled like the grass, so pleasant after the fishy scent of the river. Where the bad people were dark, the good people must be light-skinned. It was good he was one of them, he mused sleepily. Good people did not die.
Morning dawned brightly, and he dragged himself stiffly to his feet. He'd resolved during the night to strike out across the grassland in search of his folk. There must be many of them, to kill so many of the bad people.
As he walked, his brow furrowed. Something was not right. He slowed to a stop and looked around warily. He smelled... something...
The 'something' hit him so suddenly in the back he was propelled several yards to land face down in the grass. As he struggled to rise and pitch the thing off, he felt claws rake across his shoulder, and briefly saw a spotted, furry arm wrap about his forehead. More claws dug into his temple and the backs of his thighs. A fang-filled mouth clamped over his neck and sank into the tough hide.
His furious roar shattered the silence, and he bucked hard, then rolled onto his back to crush his attacker. An answering growl filled his ear. He grabbed the spotted arm and pulled, releasing its hold on his head. Without thinking, he bit down on the arm hard enough to feel some give in the bone.
The creature did not like being bitten, and tried to scramble away, but he was not in a forgiving mood. Now he leaped upon his foe's back and flattened it. He tore at its flesh, bit into its neck, punched and kicked it until it stopped struggling.
Climbing off it, he huffed rapidly to regain his breath and calm himself. There was blood everywhere. The creature's pale yellow, black-spotted fur was covered with it. Some was red, some black. Confused, he slowly reached up and dragged his fingers across the wound on his neck. He held them poised just below his line of vision, but could not look down.
He hastily wiped his hands on the grass.
Ignoring his wounds, refusing even to look at them, he tore the fur from the carcass and hungrily feasted on the creature's flesh. He found that when he was calm, he could hear that murmur deep in his mind just a little more clearly. Chewing thoughtfully, he wondered about the voice. It didn't seem helpful at all. There didn't seem to be answers in its mutterings. There were urgings, perhaps, but no clear instructions. The urges it inspired were unclear and contradictory, vague and unfocused. Nagging, almost. It seemed to want him angry, and he didn't know why he should be angry. He did not understand what it was trying to tell him.
The voice gave him nothing useful in his present situation, so he decided to ignore it.
Hunger finally satisfied after so many days – however many days, he was not sure – he rose and continued on his way... whatever way his feet seemed to be following.