Ankit over the Orphan’s Pass

Part 2: The High-Way Raiders

Finding a warmer coat would prove easier than Ankit expected. Having packed his things the following morning, after the best night’s sleep he’d enjoyed in ages, he set off in a northerly direction. As far as he knew, there was only one more settlement between him and the Gates that he would need to avoid, the village of Widlow. He hoped instead to come across a homestead or farmhouse where he might find what he needed. After that, he would follow the river and head higher into the hills, where he would trek across and towards the Orphan’s Pass.

For now, he stuck to the treeline and did his best to stay out of sight, keeping his eyes open for signs of life. He would look for smoke rising, fencing, trails, and perhaps livestock in pastures. Just as he began imagining how he might break into a farmstead and steal what he needed—something he was only considering out of necessity—what he was looking for practically fell into his lap.

While making his way towards the river to make a crossing, having seen an old farmhouse on a hill across the valley, he came upon a grizzly scene. Along the river bank from him, he saw something hanging from a tree. Quickly, Ankit went low to the ground and tucked himself into the wild hedging that ran along the river bank. He moved forward slowly and quietly, and the disturbing sight came into focus.

An elderly man was hanging by the neck from a stout tree and suspended over the river. Before being strung up, someone had clearly taken the time to torture him savagely—his face was featureless from swelling, his torso and legs covered in welts of various shades of black, green, and blue, and his chest… His chest was a shredded mess, slashed to ribbons by a sharp blade.

A dead man hangs from a tree over a river.
Life—and Death—in the Lowland Wilds

Ankit sat there quietly for a long time, observing from the hedge and barely moving a muscle. He didn’t even notice the gnarled branches scratching his forearms where he rested against them. Something truly barbaric had taken place here. When he finally took his eyes off the man’s face, they drifted over to a neatly folded pile of clothes, including what looked like a heavy coat. As bad as it made him feel, it would be preferable to stealing. Besides, the old man would have no use for them now.

When he was satisfied that he was alone, he extracted himself from the hedge and collected the dead man’s clothes. They included a thick canvas overcoat, lighter than it looked, a shirt, trousers, and some underpants. He rolled up the shirt and trousers and tucked it inside his pack, strapping the coat to the outside. The underpants he left behind. 

Finally, Ankit wandered over to inspect the tree from which the old man swayed. Near where the rope was tied, where it had been pulled taut, was carved a symbol. An X, with a circle in the middle, and one at each point. It was nothing he recognised, though it would now be imprinted in his memory forever. 

After a moment’s consideration, he cut the rope and lowered the man into the water as gently as he could manage. He kept hold of the cut end to stop him drifting away and walked over to remove the noose from the man’s neck. Then he watched as the body drifted slowly down the river. Ankit imagined how he would make it eventually out to sea—down, down to the depths, for Cyne to reclaim. Or so say the Araki. He wasn’t so sure about all that, but at least this way no one else would have to come upon such horror.

When the old man disappeared from view, he turned his attention to the footprints in the sand. He wasn’t looking for trouble, but if knowing where these assailants went could help him avoid them, all the better. They tracked through the river and out the other side, then up the opposing bank and towards the farmhouse. A new feeling of dread came over him as he followed the tracks. 

All was quiet, but Ankit took his time, observing, making sure all was safe before he would approach the house, which he eventually did. He came to an open window first, sitting beneath it in silence and listening for a long while. He didn’t know what he expected to find, his reasoning was in conflict. On the one hand: leave, get to safety. On the other: what happened here? Is someone still in danger?

A few minutes in, the faintest sounds came from inside. Someone was still here, but well hidden. Perhaps below the floors? He continued to listen for minutes until, again, he heard a whisper, followed by another in response. The pieces came together. He stood carefully and peered inside the house. It had been ransacked—furniture scattered, cupboards looted, and broken glass everywhere.

He saw a version of events play out in his mind. Those sadistic murderers had come here first, aiming to take the family hostage and do terrible things to them. Finding only the old man, they tortured him into giving up his valuables, or his family. 

Ankit climbed through the window. This time intentionally making noise.

“Shh!” He heard it clearly, followed by a gentle shuffling below, beneath the floorboards.

He stood still for a moment to see if he could hear anything else, contemplating the scene. With a sense that he knew how they might feel, like they wouldn’t trust any unfamiliar face, he decided there was only one way he could help.

“They’re gone, and I doubt they will come back for some time.” No sound from below. “The old man is dead. I have sent him on to Cyne to be at peace. You should gather some valuables and make your way to the safety of the nearest village. You cannot stay here.”

He did not have to wait for long before he heard muffled sobs. 

“I’m so sorry. I wish I could do more. Please, get to safety.”

He left noisily by a back door, climbing a low, rocky hill behind the house as quickly as he could, before tucking himself out of sight between some rocks. From there, he watched for several hours until he saw a young woman emerge from the house. She was holding the hands of two little girls. The woman paused and looked around, her gaze landing on his hill. As she stared, he felt like she was looking directly at him. Finally, she and her children walked quickly towards the road that led down to Widlow Village. 

Ankit ended up taking some rest in that spot for the evening, thinking his approach to the crossroads might be safer under cover of night. 

There were two options to cross the Low Gates that he knew of. The original Orphan’s Pass, cut by the first settlers in the Barrier and still in use today, though only by smugglers from what he had heard. They had named it for the trade in child labour that once saw orphaned children from all over Unara transported like livestock between the workhouses of Refuge, the farms and towns in the Meetlands and occasionally further afield.

The second option was the new road over the mountains, imaginatively named the New Pass. This was the safer route from what he had heard, assuming it wasn’t being watched, and would get him over the mountains in less than a day.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for him to find that the safer route wasn’t viable, not for him. They had set a checkpoint up on the mountain road and it was crawling with Protectors and Village Guard.

Again, Ankit observed and re-evaluated his options from the relative safety of a nearby thicket. He hoped, more than anything, that he was right and that once he was over the Low Gates, he’d finally be beyond the City’s reach.

Regardless, this meant that the only option left to him was the old pass. He set off immediately and found his way to the base of a poorly maintained dirt-track. It was only a few kilometres away, and he was relieved to find no checkpoints. This raised a new question. Why? Why did the Protectors not think that he might go this way? What did they know that he didn’t?

Ankit turned one last time, looking to the south. It was growing dark, and while the City was a long way out of visual range, he was just able to make out the low orange haze that blanketed his former home. As the road tucked behind a rocky outcrop and began its climb towards the Pass, he left Refuge behind.  

With steady progress made for a few hours, it was now growing dark. The moons were less than half full, which meant visibility was low. Ankit would need to break away from the road soon to find a safe camping spot for the night. 

Having noticed a small, sheltered copse of trees barely above the snowline, he was about to make a move when he heard noises ahead. He froze and listened, getting himself positioned for a quick getaway from the road and into a hiding place. The sounds grew clearer the longer he stood still, but they weren’t growing any nearer.

Another decision, avoid or approach? He felt compelled to investigate. Making his way away from the road and climbing up into a narrow tree line that ran parallel to the track, he continued to advance.

A light appeared over the crest of the hill. Slowing down, he approached with increasing caution until finally, from a safe spot on the slope, he could make out the spectacle below. 

The track ran through a clearing and what looked like a small settlement. Ankit guessed it was an old smuggler’s staging area. There were tents, a few old wooden cabins, and other dilapidated structures. Someone had rigged up several gas lamps and a couple of battered electric spotlights on poles and had them focused on the clearing. A group of men and women, dressed mostly in black or dark grey, surrounded something. They each looked to have long sticks and were prodding away at whatever it was.  

Ankit worked his way closer; about as close as he dared. In the middle of the group was an enormous animal. It looked like a wolf, a female—based on what he didn’t see—but far larger than any he had ever heard of, at nearly twice the height of its captors. Also, her fur sparkled, catching the light as if made of glass, and then there were the eyes. They glowed with a burning white warmth, each orb in flame in its socket. As fearful as she seemed, as scared, Ankit felt a sense of power and mystery projecting from her.

She was injured, nursing her left-front paw, which looked to be caught in a trap. A stream of gleaming red blood soaked the leg and splattered the snow where she stood. The same blood tracked back up the trail and into the trees–she must have been trapped elsewhere and dragged to the clearing. Snarling angrily, she circled to face each of her attackers as they shouted and laughed. When she growled, Ankit felt it in his chest.

Someone called out loudly. The voice cracked and strained, “We need it alive,” punctuated by retching. Ankit tried to locate the source. “The Doctor wants it alive.” 

The speaker came into view, and several curious things caught Ankit’s eye. The first was his black jacket. As he turned, Ankit saw a symbol painted crudely on his back that nearly made him gasp.

An X with a circle in the middle, and one at each point. 

The man turned, offering a better view of his face. The eyes had a white glow to them, different to the Wolf, less intense. Ankit blinked to see if it was just an illusion caused by the bright lights, but no, they were definitely glowing. Stranger still, he seemed to be crying bright white tears as well. He rubbed his face with his sleeve and smeared them away. Aside from that, his skin was unusual; dark and cracked, as if charred, and he had no hair on his head. He was shaped like a man, but if he was one, some process was changing him into something else.

Ankit’s eyes were drawn back to the Wolf, only to find her looking in his direction, before the sting of a spear took her attention. There was something about her that he could feel deeply, an aura. Whatever it was, he had this feeling that he was witnessing this creature—something perfectly pure—being brutalised by something unnatural and destructive. That brought another, more familiar feeling, the one that screamed for him to step in and do something. It was stronger than ever this time. 

He was so heavily outnumbered; the situation seemed hopeless, but despite that, the feeling rose and rose.

This isn’t right. I need to make this right.

Continued on Page 3 with Part 3: The Gate’s Guardians