An individual ran through the cold of the night, their breath labored as they could taste iron in the back of their throat, and their breaths had turned into labored heaving. With each exhale, they let loose a torrent of phlegm and white vapor. Where once their arms had been driven through the air like cutting blades, they were now limply shaking by their side as their feet started to stray, and their knees began to falter. Those of Hollow can push their bodies to the absolute extremes, but even they reach a point where their bodies give out; the woman collapsed to the ground, bile from her stomach was pushed out from the shock of hitting the ground, all the actual contents of her stomach had been expelled many kilometers back, eaten by the thing chasing her. Despite her erratic breathing that forced her whole body to rise and fall, filling her ears with the sound of faltering lungs, she was still able to hear the horrid hissing of the thing that was slowly lurking behind her. She knew could tell by the feel of the vibrations in the ground that its feet were right behind her; the intense heat of its many breaths was heating her back, even though her back was already warmed from the intense muscle strain of her journey. Each head of the nightmare that stood behind her had a different stench to its breath, a different monstrous cry as it inched ever closer to its prey. The woman didn’t even have enough energy to cry out as one of the many heads started to swallow her right leg or even when a second head started to snake its way up her left leg, not gnawing and gnashing the flesh but crushing it with immense throat muscles. Her vision started to blot out with shimmer patches from the pain, quickly consuming her whole vision, but she didn’t need her vision to hear the crackling of teleportation from a Hunter, there was no sound at all until the deafening strike from a hammer came crashing down into the nightmares spine, it was both the sound of too many bones crushed under the weight of the blow and the sound of several nightmarish cries, from mouths with too many throats, then there was a relief as the woman fell unconscious.
There were many moments of near life as she was transported, they were filled with blinding white light, and an all-consuming pain that started in her legs, radiated through her muscles, and tore up her lungs as every breath in felt like needles stabbing her lungs from the inside, and every breath out was only slightly better. Her ears rang, but they were still working; they could hear the chatter and how her environment changed. At first sounded like the crisp crunch of nearly frozen leaves cracking, then there was the cacophony of a vehicle; it was loud and sounded as if every part of the machine was taking turns colliding with every other part. Then there was a moment of muttering, her vision had not returned at this point, but she was able to make out shadows, and it appeared as if there were people, many of them moving around. Her next point of consciousness had her passing under an equidistant set of even brighter white, and the steady hum of electronics filled the air. Finally, the next few instances of consciousness were remarkably the same, the same hum of a small machine next to the right side of her head; her vision was still blurred, but now she could see the faint touches of color and many bright lights around the room filled the rest of her vision with white, the kind of white that caused a migraine, and felt as if it was pushing a thick piece of metal into the back of your eye. Soon she was able to smell again, faint at first, but without a doubt, the smell of blood and chemicals filled her nose, with the distinct smell of grease lingering as an after scent. Then there was a strange darkness, it was not unconsciousness, but she was unable to move, and she could feel her limbs being pulled at; she could feel her flesh tearing and bones not only snapping but being ground down. She could feel all of it, but there was no pain. There was the whirring of high-speed blades and the sound of many power tools that she recognized, but she was confused as to why she was hearing them. Then, there were mutterings, and eventually words, but by the time she could actually make out words, they were of a farewell.
“We have done all we can do.”
“Will it be enough?”
“That is up to her; I have others to see to.”
“I guess I just wait then.”
There were many more instances of varied sensations until. Finally, her eyes forced their way open through swelling and crusting of yellow mucus that lined the middle of her eyelid. When she struggled to breathe a full breath, she engaged in manual breathing and forced air through her broken nose, creating a dull hiss as she did. She flexed her jaw the little it would move, and her eyes slowly absorbed the environment she was in. There were grey walls that dripped water periodically from various points in the cracked concrete ceiling, a simple tube light lit up her room, and she could see through a grime-covered window that there was another light just outside her cramped room.
“Where am I?” She muttered, her mouth barely moving.
“You.” A deep voice came from beside her, “are in one of the many medical facilities hidden by the Hunters; you have done well, Constance; if you survive your recovery, you will make an excellent addition to the ranks.”
Constance turned her neck slightly, the muscles in her neck rigid like rock, creaking as they moved. Looking at the gargantuan man in the corner of the room, she could not help but notice the plague mask that sat on the seat next to him and the hammer weapon leaning up against the wall with the head sitting on the ground in a small indent where it was set down too hard.
“But I didn’t finish.” Constance slurred, “I was going to die; why did you save me?”
The man’s eyes were black, with the faintest cracks of red veins cutting through the darkness. He was covered with scars, his lip was missing a small wedge, revealing a sharpened tooth tipped with metal. He groaned and exhaled before taking a deep breath.
“The challenge isn’t exactly doing the tasks at hand; it is about doing your best to accomplish the task. Most of the tasks aren’t achievable with skill, luck perhaps, and while luck is beneficial in this role, so is the ability to push yourself until your body fails. If you had fallen even one step sooner, I would have left you in the field to be devoured. You live because you have the strength to live.”
“But I am weak, nothing but ash to the flame of the world.”
“When ash gets wet, it turns to paste; when the wind blows, it floats; when it hits the ground, it rests; when stood on, it molds to the boot; and when pushed, it disintegrates. You were not only pushed, you were shoved, stepped on, beaten, and nearly eaten, and yet here you are; you are nothing like ash; you yourself are a tiny flame with so much potential; rest now; we can talk when you wake.”
Constance nodded ever so slightly, letting her head return to its resting position. She slipped from consciousness.
There were weeks of flitting in and out of consciousness; each time, her body healed a little more, and everything hurt a little less. By the time she was able to sit up, she finally noticed that her hands were wrong; looking at them, there were ten fingers again. Three of them were fully mechanical, while another had the end joint made of metal. Constance looked at them closely, flexing her hands. They moved as she would expect any other finger to move.
“My, my. It has been a while since I had ten digits; it feels so much better than seven and a half.”
“I am glad to hear.” A woman said, walking into the room. “That was my work, that along with the legs.”
Constance looked down at where her legs were; the blankets above them made them look like her legs, but she still ripped the stained sheet off of her to reveal her new legs; the left was fixed from the knee down, and the right from the middle of her thigh. They were remarkably thin for a metal prosthetic, barely thicker than her original legs, not that they were around to compare to.
“You will have a couple of weeks of getting used to them before the Hunters can use you, but don’t take too long; they don’t wait forever.”
“I, ugh, who are you?”
“I am your mechanic; my name is Siktel. I am just checking to make sure that there is no rot; these prosthetics have a tendency to be rejected by the host. Hold still.”
Constance was too dizzy to protest, so she just watched as Siktel prodded the skin around the prosthetic, poking at her with the end of her pen.
“How long?” Constance asked.
“Hmm?” Siktel responded.
“How long do they wait? The Hunters.”
“Ah, right; I think the longest I have seen them wait for an initiate was two weeks after full consciousness; they give time for recovery, but they are not patient, hey wait….” Siktel said as the skin she was investigating moved.
Constance turned her legs to the edge of the bed and pressed her feet onto the ground, getting a feel for the toes.
“That works for me because I am very restless.” Constance could feel the world turning around her; her head felt as if it moved even after she had stopped. Siktel moved around the side of the bed, kneeling on the floor.
“Don’t move again, or you won’t make it to the hunters because I will rip my prosthetics from your body. Those who have my mark do not disrespect me and live.”
Constance froze; it was a mild relief to be still, although she could feel the itch of wanting to be healthy, to be ready for commitment. Her stillness was broken as Siktel grabbed her hands and investigated the connections.
“Well, flawless as always.” Siktel said as she stood up. “To be honest, I have never had a rejection, and I was not going to let you be the first.”
“How would you stop me from being the first? Isn’t it up to my body to decide whether it takes to the metal?”
“Well, it is, but it is also up to me how much you bleed out from your neck when I stab it with a screwdriver. Can’t reject my prosthetics if you are dead.”
“Well, that is one way to false a statistic. Can I move now?”
“You can move all you like now, providing you can. This is my last check-up, so I don’t care what you do.”
Siktel took off her gloves and let them slap onto the ground, setting up a puff of dirt. She then walked through the door and disappeared down the corridor.
“Alright, Constance, we have it. We do not lay where we fall, we are not ash, we are the flame, we dictate what burns.”
Over the next week, Constance forced herself to move, vomiting from a strange sense of motion sickness over and over again, but eventually, she was walking around the room as if nothing had ever gone wrong. She marched herself out of the room and down the halls until eventually she found someone who looked like they worked there; grabbing them by their shirt, they stared deeply into their eyes.
“Which way to the Hunters?”
The person she grabbed pulled away, removing their shirt from Constance’s hand.
“They are up; just find some stairs.”
The person walked off, muttering, frustrated, under their breath.
“Where are the stairs.” Constance yelled.
“It isn’t a big place; just find them.”
Constance took a deep breath and calmed herself, her nose wrinkling but a moment in frustration. On her exhale, she brought her emotions back into check and marched down the halls. Her metallic feet clanged across the concrete floor, slowly gaining pace as she was feeling more abled. To her surprise, she was face to face with the stairs. After only a few turns, ascending them, she pulled on the door and stepped into the light of day. It was harsh but filtered, beaming through the glass of the ceiling.
She looked around the room to see several black-suit-wearing individuals, the Hunters. Their plague masks attached to their hips, they all turned to see Constance standing with beads of sweat dripping from her forehead. Out from the back of the crowd stood the strong-jawed individual who was sitting in her room.
“Ah, so you are moving again. Looks like my initiate is the first to make the climb.”
“Come off it, Ari, she can barely stand.”
“Yeah, it is not like she will be picking up a weapon anytime soon.”
“I think I can smell vomit radiating off her body; there is no way she is ready for this.”
“You can all shut the fuck up; I am here, I am in the building, I am here to train.”
The room fell silent quickly, and many smiles were shared between one another before those wielding them carried on with their tasks. Ari, however, stayed standing, a head taller than those walking past him.
“Come, Constance, you are under my care now. But don’t think just because you are weak that this will be easy. Hunters don’t have a tolerance for those that falter. The walls of our cities are our armor, and as a hunter, we are the weapon of the city; if we bend or break, the nightmares we hunt will treat our cities as playgrounds, or worse, the Vindicators will spread their insane religion.”
Constance did her best to stand upright; raising her chin, she stood proud on weak limbs; Ari nodded, gesturing with his head the two of them moved from the building. Ari had to lower his head as his hulking frame had to turn sidewards to actually fit, making Constance conscious of her size, feeling inadequate as the frame of the door seemed untouchable. She wasn’t paying attention to where she was going, and stepping forward, she landed shin-deep in mud; there was a sucking noise as she tried to pull her leg out to no avail. She quickly looked up to see Ari walking through the mud as if it were a paved path.
“That up there,” Ari said, pointing to a distant house on a hill. “That is where we are going; it is the training house of the hammers; you get there when you get there; come find me when you do.”
Ari kept trudging along, the sucking sound of mud following him as he made short work of the mud’s attempt to hold him in place. Constance put her other leg down into the mud, her muscles already aching from recovery, but it was already late morning, and if she was going to make it to the safety of the building by nightfall, she was going to have to move as fast as her body would let her.
The first foot she managed to pool from the hold was ragged; she jerked at her leg with arms and shaky legs. By the time she pulled her last leg from the mud, the sun was low in the sky, bruising the sky; her foot was pointed, each muscle through her leg activated in turn, finishing the full step action with the thrusting of her hips to change the angle of pull, and defeating the pull of the mud. She was drenched in the kind of sweat that rolled over her eyebrows and into her eyes, but it didn’t slow her. Her tanned skin was dotted with red spots from the various bugs that saw to turn Constance’s blood into a meal. they itched like nothing she had experienced before, and they puffed like clouds with red tips.
On the deck of the house, there was a pair of people sitting on hardwood benches, smoking something that let off a green flame, and the smoke smelled of sulfur. They stared down at her as she made the slow climb up the hill.
“Do you think she will make it?” One asked the other.
The other took a long drag and breathed deep.
“I don’t know, she has the build and the determination for it, but some of those insect bites look as if they have Ill’akese behind it.”
They both watched as Constance paid them no mind; slopping through the front door, she disappeared inside. The two on the deck looked at one another with surprise.
“Well, if nothing else, she is focused; it looks like Ari made a good call with this one.”
“Except it is Ari, which means she will be broken before her training ever really begins. That guy forgets that he is a genetic freak; no one can compete with that primordial of a man.”
“Sure, then man is big, but if we have learned anything from this, it is that size does not mean everything. There are plenty of nightmares out there that are no larger than a cat but kill you quicker than the thing that could hold you in its palm.”
“He went toe to toe with a Vindicator.”
There was a long pause as the eyebrows of the silent person rose.
“That is, surely, an initiate, though.”
“Not hardly, one of Sephrial’s people. Didn’t make it look easy, don’t get me wrong, I was certain he was going to lose when I saw it, but he eventually got the better of them, stood bloodied and broken over the corpse of a Vindicator.”
“Wait, you were there?”
“Yup. Stuck under the rubble of a building, the Vindicator was brought down upon his arrival. Destroyed my jump pack, killed my driver, and my clamp, I was the only one of my tool-kit to survive.”
There was the sound of heavy footsteps as Constance pushed their way out of the door; Ari was barely able to follow her through; he looked to the side to see the two on the porch.
“We are going into the mines, clearing a passage that has been overrun by a territorial nightmare that is fond of miner blood. Someone needs to be on the radio.”
The two on the porch nodded their heads and headed inside as Constance shuffled the bag on her back and held a thick metal rod with a heavy end. Ari looked at it, juggling the much more sophisticated war hammer in his hand.
“When we get some more supplies out here, I will get you a better weapon; for now, that should do.”
“Better than anything I ever trained with; I am certain I will be more lethal with this than I ever have been.”
Ari nodded there head, letting the slightest smile creep at the corner of his mouth before gesturing for Constance to follow. The two of them left down the side of the hill that was paved, even still Constance could feel the wobble in her legs; Ari was aware of it, he could see her body struggling to stay upright under the weight of her pack, and he sighed, stopping in the path.
“Go back up; get your rest. I will call on you tomorrow.”
“I can do this, Ari; I don’t want to be weak; I can push myself.”
Ari rested a sympathetic hand on Constance’s shoulder, then pushed down with a constant gentle pressure that caused her knees to buckle.
“You are not weak; you are spent. Rest, you can start training tomorrow; now go inside.”
Ari walked down the hill without Constance, leaving her as a heap on the cold hard ground. It took her only a few moments to get up, using her hammer as a prop to help her stand up. She made her way inside, through a worn wooden door, across the creaking wooden floors, and into the bunks where she dropped her pack, hammer, and then herself upon the bed. There was no part of her body that did not hurt; the muscles that were not tensed to the point of feeling like bone were torn and had left bruising under her skin. It was not until this given moment that she felt all of this; her determination and adrenaline had been keeping her going until now, but no more.
She closed her eyes and instantly fell into a dreamless sleep of pure darkness.