Unlike in many other villages in Rashemen, the homes of Dyernil were not inside natural caves. Some admittedly did look like miniature rock formations, but they were built from roughly hewn stone; others were constructed from thick blocks of wood and impressive logs.
The Zakithar house was a wooden one. Adjacent to it was a modest stable; it was quite small, but that aided to keep the sheep warm in winter. Straw from the village’s common stock helped the friendly bales of wool pass the cold season, and that applied to the human inhabitants as well.
Like most of Dyernil’s thirty or so families, Faurgil and Elena kept a small number of sheep for milk and wool. Beyond the winter season the animals were out in the open to graze during the day. In the spring, when the grass and other greenery was still tender and just beginning to grow, people preferred to have their livestock find their food elsewhere rather than in the near vicinity.
To give the closeby vegetation a chance to grow, the sheep were usually taken a little further, munching and nibbling and looking at the world with their placid and mindless gaze that generally seemed to ask ‘who, me?’
Yevgeny had never heard them complain. In fact, neither did he; he would rather watch the sheep than listen to the endless banter of the village teacher, or ‘lorekeeper’ as the old man liked to call himself.
Morik Dagar liked to consider himself a sage, and while he undoubtedly possessed some knowledge, he also had a short temper and a mean streak. No one was especially fond of him, but since he happened to be the single local teacher, most parents at least liked him to teach their children how to count, read and write.
Most of the time though, in Yevgeny’s experience, they had to learn hundreds of things by heart, and while he wasn’t among the thickest he certainly wasn’t the brightest either; whenever he listened to that monotonous, sour voice, his level of thinking miraculously fell to that of a sheep.
At least now he didn’t have to think about that. After he decided he had walked long enough he settled down near the edge of what with a little goodwill could be called woodlands, even if they were more than a few trees short of a forest.
There were a couple of trees though, throwing their shadows on the juicy stems of grass and shrubs with their fresh green leaves. The sky was only a little clouded. It promised to be a good day, both for Yevgeny and the sheep.
In fact, the weather was warmer than he had thought it would be. For the first time this season, Yevgeny slipped out of his woolen vest and wondered if the sheep, deep in their warm curly overcoats, would want the same.
He laid back against a tree, and after carefully removing the stones and twigs from the ground put the vest under his head.
In free moments like these, there were things he could do; there were even things he should do instead of laying down lazily and fantasizing.
But not yet.
Around him he could hear the peaceful sounds of the sheep grazing. Dumbest animals ever, Yevgeny mused. Well, maybe except for chickens. Dagar had it wrong: it had to be dumb-dumber-sheep.
Still, they looked happy. They were sheep after all. Maybe stupidity made you happy, not having to worry about teachers and lessons and having no talents except for an excess of energy, and your sparkling personality, which according to some girls was not that alluring. Being nice did not make you ravishing.
Yevgeny yawned and let the sun warm his eyelids. It wouldn't hurt anyone if he did his dreaming with his eyes closed—it was not as if he would fall asleep.
When he woke up the sky had darkened. It was the realization that shook him awake a good deal harder than anything. The sun was still there, a good deal lower than when he set out, but it seemed as if a veil was drawn over it. Maybe a storm was approaching.
The sheep, however, were nowhere to be seen.
Yevgeny groaned. “Oh please, Khelliara tell me this isn't true.”
Apart from the consequences, he felt truly racked with guilt: to helpless animals wandering about without anyone watching over them just about anything could happen.
He jumped to his feet and set off to a run, whacking aside twigs and branches and moaning a heartfelt “Shit ohshitohshit.”
Gods know what had already happened to them. The trouble he was in might not compare to what the poor animals were facing. What was being confined to his house or school, or a couple of smacks compared to being torn limb to limb by a wolf or a fox? How many could still be alive— and what would be left of them?
To be fair,he was not sure whether he would want to know. In only a month or so there would have been little ones… Yevgeny quickened his steps, calling out and muttering his litany.
Soon he reached a small clearing. Creeping ivy covered the ground and quite a few broken, grey stones. He had played here occasionally, pretending this was the ruin of a great ancient castle. It might have been suitable for heroes and adventurers, but if he were a sheep, this was not the place to be.
He was about to resume his frantic run when he felt something shift beneath his feet. It was not really a movement, much less a quake, as it was a feeling of displacement.
Since last year, when he had crashed through the ice in the lake, he developed a healthy mistrust of unstable undergrounds. This was not the same.
He looked down, half-and-half expecting to see something like large black grasping tentacles, or the back of a giant supernatural animal that he inadvertently trod upon. Instead, he just saw a blur, as if his eyes had gone bad on exactly the patch of ground he was standing.
Squinting, he thought he could make out forms, shapes inside the shimmering; if his mother hadn’t firmly said there were no such things (at least no such things that couldn’t be clubbed on the head with a good potato masher) this may have been the stuff the monsters hiding under your bed were made of.
On the verge of screaming Yevgeny slapped his own head, blinked, and looked down again.
It was still there, empty, shifting, and dark— except he could discern no motion, depth or color. It was a question in itself if it actually existed or not.
The feeling of unease in the boy’s stomach ceased to be just that and expanded, sending up waves of fear and persistent mental messages of ‘run, you idiot’ up his brain. He might have well tried to fly up to the sun or jumped over the moon—whatever it was that had manifested to him, had both the intention and the force not to let its prey escape.
In the distance
, there was a mutter of thunder. There were still no
clouds, even though the light on every brush and surface had become soft and
diffuse. A gush of wind blew through the leaves and whipped about the undergrowth
and Yevgeny’s hair.
Except for holding him pinned to the ground, the presence seemed to harbor some odd sentiency as well, a sensation that crept into nerves and very soul itself, without any other indication, be it evil or danger. If it indicated anything at all, it was that it was not there.
And now something that was not there was softly brushing past with tendrils that obviously did not exist, like a caress without a touch.
The twilight had fallen over the clearing. The earth and sky joined in with a low rumbling sound of thunder, this time much closer.
In the middle of it all Yevgeny Zakithar whimpered.
On the ground beneath his feet the darkening force stirred. For a moment Yevgeny felt nothing, like a hapless prey before the snowcat strikes.
Then it all ended, as the proverbial calm before the storm. Something surged up through his feet, through his spine, and clutched at his heart, but it was merely a dusky spark to what had followed.
The thunder stopped growling. Yevgeny never noticed the small but many-forked tongue of blue-white lightning that tore the sky asunder until it was too late to even panic. By that time his world was aflame.
In fact it was a lot like the truth: you never see it clearly until it hits you in the face.