Loque’s pace had slowed, a new night creeping upon him after nearly a full day of riding. His horse was equally as exhausted, unable to keep up a strong pace even as Loque walked on his own feet. Deep inside his burning chest, Loque could feel the life that he had stolen from the man fading away. As a constricting band wrapped around his lungs and turned his ribs into daggers pressed into his chest, Loque could tell that, without another Bloodstone, he wouldn’t make it to see the dawn of another day.
The forest was midnight black, the streaming light of the stars only offering the slightest hints of shape within the endless expanse of the night. There were no signs of life, no water or food to sustain Loque’s strength as the end neared.
Life ebbing away as the world spun onward, Loque continued to push forwards. The only thing left for him to hope for was a miracle -- be that some lost traveler or a town that maps had no care to remember. Miracles, naturally, were not something one could influence, leaving Loque’s life in the hands of Akkarm and the Gods.
Now, after leaving him in peace for hours, the spirits returned. Bouncing through the air and in and out of his sight, the spirits taunted Loque with images of everything that he had destroyed. Loque aimlessly swatted at them, having no mind left to care what images haunted him through the night. A few images trickled into his mind, but Loque ignored them, unbothered by the thought.
But now, even as Loque’s energy diminished with every excruciating step forward, a single light appeared upon a rocky hill along the horizon. Eyes locking onto the light, natural and warm, unlike the deathly red spirits, Loque straightened his posture with a renewed purpose. Unless fate had so chosen to torture him, light could only mean one thing: lives, human lives, and a new source of energy.
“Come on bud, we’re almost there,” Loque whispered to his steed, his own voice gravelly and dry after a day without any food or water. His horse gave little response, flicking its head and continuing to slowly clomp forwards.
Soft sounds of chimes and a flute soon made their way to Loque, his sight of what lay ahead still obscured by the sudden contrast of the night and light. The occasional laugh, sounding of hope to Loque, joined in the joyous music.
Step by step, meter by meter, Loque drew closer to the light. A dulled edge of pain began to pulse through his head, but Loque’s own drive overrode everything else. Each flair of pain was forgotten before it had even begun as Loque saw the source of the light: a small cabin carefully nestled into the trunk of an ancient tree, a cracked shutter letting the light bleed out into the night.
Rapping his knuckles upon the oaken door, Loque unbent his body to stand in a formal posture as the sounds from inside came to a sudden halt. There was a moment of silence, the light flickering before footsteps sounded inside the house.
The door remained closed, the hushed breathing of Loque the only sound in the night before a woman’s voice asked from inside, “Who’s there?”
Pouring all of the exhaustion he could into his voice, Loque responded quietly, “I’m just a traveler, got a bit lost in the woods.” There was a pause. “Do you have any rations to spare?”
Loque stood in the silence for a moment, the sounds of a whispered argument not quite reaching past the door. The sound of a latch clicked, the door swinging open. A man, no older than his early thirties, and a younger woman, likely in her later twenties, stood just inside the door, both dressed in loose, handcrafted clothing.
“Why don’t you stay the night and head out in the morning, we can point you towards the nearest town,” the man offered, his voice calm and soothing. The woman stayed silent, observing Loque’s messy appearance.
“You have blood on you,” she said cooly, turning to the man and glaring at him. “Should we be letting someone with blood-stained clothing come into our home?”
Interjecting before the man could give his own thoughts, Loque spoke the first thought that came to mind, “I’ve had to hunt my own food for the past week but this area of the forest is empty.”
“It’s fine,” the man said, silencing the woman’s complaints with a brief kiss. Speaking to Loque, he stepped further inside, “Come in and have a seat, we can spare a bit of food and water.”
Loque stepped inside, letting the pair begin to rummage around in their supplies. A spike of pain in his head made Loque wince as he took a seat, but he pushed it aside knowing that it would be gone before long.
“Do you know the way to Trepton?” Loque asked, taking a small platter of unidentifiable meat and a small flask of what appeared to be water from the man.
“It’s around a two-hour journey to the North West. If you head straight West from here, you’ll reach the coast and then you can follow it North to Trepton,” the woman stated, remaining monotone. She gestured as she spoke, pointing in the general direction. “I take it you’ll be leaving at dawn.”
“I’ll probably leave before that,” Loque responded, taking a sip of the water. While it was warm, it instantly soothed his mouth.
“Why do you need to visit Trepton?”
Loque took a bit of the meat before he answered, thinking about the answer. “I’ve got to catch a boat there, though I can’t really remember why.”
The man nodded, letting Loque eat as he engaged in conversation with the woman. After eating his fill, Loque rose, holding his chest as a wave of pain washed over his body. “Thank you for offering me all of this, I shall remember it.”
“It’s nothing,” the man said, offering Loque a warm, heartfelt smile.
Loque smiled back, though his smile was grim and filled with sorrow. “I do greatly apologize for the mess I’m about to make.”
“Excuse me?” the woman asked, eyes bulging and a slight nervousness in her voice. “What mess would you be referring to?”
Loque didn’t respond to her question, continuing on with his own monologue, “Blood is always so annoying to get out of clothing. Especially when it dries overnight, but I suppose that no one will be around to see it, so it doesn’t matter in the end.”
“Are you going to kill us?” the man demanded, stepping back against the wall and pulling the woman into his arms.
Loque, chewing on the last bit of the meal, nodded, slowly stepping up to them. His voice was cold, all sense of his personality long gone as waves of new spirits, visible only to Loque, flooded through the doors. “I’m afraid so. You have something, something that I really need, that can only be collected in death so I don’t have any other options.”
Stepping forwards, Loque lightly tapped each of them on their head with either hand. Neither had time to scream before they were dead, falling to the ground as blood dribbled from their mouths and pooled together on the floor.
Staring at their bodies, a strange thought struck Loque: why was he still going. Even as he lifted the Bloodstones from the side of the couple, turning the first to dust and placing the second in his pocket, a subconscious itch tried to remember what he had set out to do that morning and why he was still heading West.
Dismissing the thought, Loque left the bodies on the floor and lay upon the straw bed tucked into the corner. Red spirits, their laughter singing in the warm light from the fireplace, danced at the edges of his vision as sleep drew its blinds upon Loque.