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Leaves rustled under his feet as he paced through the dense forest. It was cold. Late autumn was pouring rain from the darkening skies but it was winter that was slowly embracing trees and bushes with its cooling breath. Birds stopped chirping a long time ago. Only wind sang miserably, humming softly against the bark of old trees. The whole world went quiet. Silent, almost. It was only his steps now, that echoed between the woods.

The man coughed violently, clearly not being in his finest state. His lungs were burning from the piercing cold. He felt hopeless. Not like there were many possibilities. There was no helping hand that would reach out to him. Not here, in these woods. Not now, just before winter. He could feel the Death's breath right on his neck and shoulders. It was coming for him. It was humming along with the wind, lulling him softly to sleep, calling his old name with a chuckle. But there was no time for closing eyes, not just yet. Not after all that he’s been through thus far, without making his promises come to pass. There were still too many things left to do. Too many quests to fulfill.

His lungs hurt. His breathing was rapid and shallow, as he couldn’t inhale nor exhale properly. But there was no way he would stop moving now. He was well-aware that if he ever stopped, he’d die. There was no escape from the cold, after all. He couldn’t die just yet. Not without a name. Without anyone to remember him. Without fulfilling his sister’s last wish.
But with that thought, he started drifting off. Numbness spread across his body. From his hands to arms, then to his chest, as his vision became blurry. Then, the world went black.

And there was only cold to embrace him, like a long-lost friend, softly whispering words of encouragement to his ears. And after that, he was gone.

Chapter Text

Warm air made his lungs feel numb. He could feel the pleasant warmth, spreading over his body with a shiver. It felt as if he was drowning. Yet, he could breathe just fine, even though a strange feeling in his chest made it harder than it should have been. His eyelids were heavy, almost too heavy to open and his vision probably would have been blurry, if it wasn’t pitch black. His heart clenched.

He was alone. And the darkness wasn’t exactly the most pleasurable thing to be surrounded by. He could feel it. He could touch the slick blackness that he was drowning in. It was cold. Although, not freezing. Just cool under his fingers. Much warmer than he could have expected. But there was nothing. Not a single light nor a road-sign that would give him any foothold. He was just floating in the dark space, not knowing what awaited him at the end of that seemingly bottomless well. He wanted to scream, but no voice escaped his lips. He wanted to open his eyes but everything he could see, was just black. The man squeezed his eyes shut instead, bringing his hands up to his head. His fingers clenched on his hair, pulling it with anxiety. He couldn’t breathe anymore.

So that’s how death is like, eh?

He wasn’t able to decide if his heart was racing, or if it had stopped. Warmness wasn’t pleasant anymore. The air was burning his throat with heat. His hands started sweating, his fingers ached from too high temperature. It was almost unbearable. His thoughts trailed off, the man couldn’t concentrate on anything. Not like there was much to concentrate on, really. Only darkness, overwhelming him more and quicker with every passing second.

“It’s time to wake up,” the orotund voice caused his eyes to open. But there was no one around. Not a single person, nor animal. Not even a spirit. Disembodied sounds kept echoing in the void in a calming manner, until they trailed off. “You’ve been through a lot but it’s time to wake up.”

He opened his mouth, but he couldn’t find any words. He hid his face in hands, trying to understand what was going on. Trying to figure out why him and why at all. He didn’t know the answer.

“Where...,” his own voice sounded quiet, somewhat strangled in his sore throat. Soft whispers reached his ears, as the whole space filled with them. They were calling out to him, just as the wind has all that time. They wanted him to come with them. To leave everything behind. They wanted him to close his eyes and drift away to sleep. Yet, he couldn’t hear it whispering his name this time. “Where am I?”

A quiet chuckle echoed in the void. It was giving away the tiredness of the speaker. The man didn’t notice. Blood boiled in his veins, it was hard to breathe. His chest ached. His lungs were burning.

“You are safe now, lost traveler. There’s nothing to fear,” the voice said. It was familiar, in a way. He couldn’t know for sure. “Now, breathe. You’ll be fine.”

He didn’t want to listen to that voice. Every breath hurt. All he wanted to do, was to scream and cry, to disappear from this hell. But he was still suffering in the darkness, as if death wasn’t enough of a punishment for all the sins he has committed. But he tried to take a deep breath nevertheless.

And then, the heat started to die down. It was slow, at first. Only enough to inhale without setting his lungs aflame. But it was enough. He gasped, longing for a deeper breath. His heart started beating again. He could feel something that wasn’t that feverish ache. He closed his eyes, feeling paralysis spreading over his body. Not in a bad way, though. It was easing, almost. His tired muscles finally relaxed, causing him to lay down on his back. It took a while, before he was able to calm down his breathing. But when he finally did, he closed his eyes, leisurely bringing his hand up to his head to cover his face. The whispers died down, leaving him alone in the darkness once more. But it no longer terrified him. It was just him with his thoughts, slowly pacing through his head and trailing off with time. Nothing to be afraid of. Silence lulled him softly to sleep, with no voice calling out his name, with no fear in his mind. And for the first time in ages, it was finally peaceful.

 

Before he opened his eyes, he could feel someone’s stare on his shoulders. It made him feel uneasy. He didn’t like it. He wanted to get rid of those eyes, oh-so-fixed on him. He sprang to his feet, looking around nervously. He stopped in his tracks, though, noticing a strange figure standing just a few feet before him. It was a boy, definitely. A bit stooped, with his hands brought up to his chest. He was lifting his head to the left a little. A red cape was falling from his shoulders, covering most of his body. He had some sort of a crown on his head.

“Wha...,” the man’s voice broke, as he examined that strange person with a close look. “Who are you? Where... am I?”

The stranger smiled to him showing his buck teeth. It was just now, when he noticed the boy’s ears, poking out from under his fancy crown. They looked like... animal ears? Definitely not human, no. It sent a shiver down his spine. He needed to get out, he needed to...

“Do not worry, traveler,” boy’s voice sounded a bit squeaky. He adjusted glasses on his nose. The man didn’t even notice them earlier. “You are safe now. Now, come with me,” the creature bowed a bit before him, pointing at something ahead, that he couldn’t yet see properly from the distance. “The master awaits in the manor. You need to come with me.”

He took a shaky breath, not being sure what to do. He could feel the freezing wind again, and he was well-aware, that he couldn’t stay out there, in the cold forest for much longer. If he hadn’t died yet, he definitely would then. Everything felt unreal. He must have spaced out for a moment, because the next thing he felt, was boy’s hand on his sleeve, as he dragged him slightly in the direction he’d pointed earlier. A quiet sigh escaped his lips. He had no other choice now, he supposed.