The sun was just reaching the apex of the sky when the distant beating of drums reached Aloy's ears.
Abandoning her task of gathering greens for supper that evening, Aloy straightened from the squat she had been in and listened carefully. They sounded fairly close - not within the Embrace, but not too far outside of it.
Although she had never heard that particular cadence on the drums before, Rost had been drilling it into her head since she was a small child. It was a dire warning that meant danger was near, and all Braves were expected to head towards the nearest village to receive orders, as swiftly as their feet could carry them.
She worried at her lower lip, uncertain if she should run back home to Rost, just in case. Even with their hut being as far into the Embrace as it was, there was no way he couldn't hear the furious beating of the drums with how the sound was echoing off the mountains and throughout the valley. He'd be expecting her.
But then her ever-present curiosity started to tug at her, and her eyes drifted to the path that led out into the rest of the Sacred Lands. Before she could give the matter much of a second thought, Aloy set her basket of gathered plants down in a patch of unfortunate daisies and let her feet lead her towards the nearest road.
"I have my bow if anything goes wrong," she muttered under her breath, reaching up to brush her fingers reassuringly over its smooth metal curves. "It's probably nothing more than a small raiding party of bandits."
Still, it was always better to ere on the side of caution - another one of Rost's lessons. Aloy couldn't help but grimace as she ducked down and began to creep forward. Her adoptive father would be furious with her when she got back home, but she'd deal with it like she always did when her adventurous nature got her into trouble.
Besides, after living her entire life as an outcast in the confines of the Embrace, could he really blame her for wanting to at least observe something interesting for once? Especially now that she was eighteen - an adult by Nora standards and eligible to run in the next Proving. For the umpteenth time, she cursed her unfortunate birthday, mere weeks after the annual event was held. If she had been born just a little sooner, she would already be a Brave and perhaps even know the truth of her origins.
Shaking her head, Aloy put those thoughts aside as she neared the gates guarding the entrance to the Embrace. It did her no good to dwell on what wasn't, so she focused on what was ahead. And froze when she took in the scene in front of her.
The gates were open. And there wasn't a single Brave in sight.
Uncertain, Aloy shifted on her feet. On one hand, something could have gone horribly wrong - she had never once seen the massive walls left unguarded, let alone opened, and uneasiness sank into the pit of her stomach. On the other hand, however, it was an opportunity to sate her curiosity, to learn what lay beyond those walls. An opportunity she may not ever have again. Besides, what if someone needed her help? Outcast or not, surely no one would complain if she came to their aid, and her skill in battle was as refined as any Brave's. She had been training her entire life for this, after all.
Making up her mind, Aloy tilted her chin up and squared her shoulders. A quick look around surely couldn't hurt, then she'd go back home and deal with the consequences.
As she stepped over the threshold, her heart pounded so furiously she briefly worried that she would pass out. Aloy drew in a deep breath, willing herself to calm.
She had crossed over, now outside of the protection of the Embrace for the first time in her life.
Her eyes darted about as she took in her surroundings, swallowing hard when they settled on a black cloud of smoke sluggishly rising in the distance. If she strained her ears enough, she could just make out the sounds of battle, the desperate screaming and whistling of arrows. The war drums were louder now, so she hastily stepped off the road and melted into the protective embrace of the foliage. It would do her no good to stand in plain sight, gawking like a fool.
Ironically, the early spring forest was tranquil, the ceaseless pounding of the drums muted by the ancient trees. Birds flitted about, chirping brightly at their mates, and a startled rabbit dove into the brush when it caught sight of her. A cheery group of buttercups swayed gently in the breeze of a clearing not too far ahead, lit by a couple of lazy sunbeams filtering in through the sparse trees. Aloy finally allowed herself to relax. Whatever was happening seemed to be far from her, and she suddenly felt rather silly for worrying.
Regardless, it was probably about time to head back. Once she finished checking out the clearing first, of course. Perhaps she could gather some flowers to brighten the hut, to lessen the sting of the inevitable tongue-lashing she knew she'd be receiving from Rost.
When she reached the treeline, however, anxiety began to tighten its hold on her, gooseflesh prickling at her forearms. Everything in her told her that something wasn't right and, never one to ignore her instincts, Aloy stilled and lowered herself to a crouch. She glanced to her right, then to her left, her heart lodging in her throat when her eyes caught on a dark form.
There was a man standing in the clearing with his back to her, and he didn't look like any Nora she had ever seen.
Black plated armor threaded together by red twine sat on his shoulders - wide shoulders that connected to powerful, bare arms corded with thick muscle, promising deadly strength. A large hand clutched at the hilt of a wickedly curved blade, and she had to gulp back bile when she noticed it glistening with a dark sheen of blood. A plume of crimson feathers spilled from the back of his headdress, and Aloy would have thought the whole ensemble ridiculous if it had been any other situation, if the freshly killed body of a Brave wasn't lying brokenly at this warrior's feet. As it was, panic clawed at her belly, and she took an automatic step back - right onto an unfortunately placed twig. It buckled, then broke, the sharp snap echoing through the peaceful quiet of the meadow.
The man tensed then slowly turned to face her. His features were mostly obscured by the half mask of his headdress, but she could just make out the gleam of pale eyes as he sneered.
"Well, what have we here?" His voice was deep, almost conversational in tone. Aloy's hands immediately flew to her bow where it sat on her back, and she had an arrow drawn and nocked before the man could so much as raise his weapon.
"Ah, ah, little huntress," he tutted, taking a step towards her and lifting his blade. "Let's not get in over our heads."
"Not a step closer," she snarled, backing away from him further. "Or I'll shoot."
Cold amusement flashed in those eerie, dead eyes. "So fierce! I had heard tales of the Nora Braves, how they allow even women to join their ranks. With spitfires like you, I'm beginning to understand why. It seems like we Carja could learn a thing or two from your tribe."
"Stop talking," Aloy bit out, drawing her bowstring back further. She wasn't certain why she was hesitating, why she didn't just loose the arrow she had aimed at his ridiculously unprotected chest. "And fight me."
"How rude! You wound me," he pouted, placing a hand over the broad span of his bared chest, where some sort of bird-like symbol was painted. "But as much as I would love to see your battle dance, fierce one, I won't fight you."
Confusion welled up in her, but it only stoked the flames of her anger. "Why not?"
"Outside of war, I only fight evenly matched opponents. A personal honor code of sorts," the man explained, giving a loose shrug of his shoulders that only infuriated Aloy further. "And you, girl, are no match for me."
White-hot rage tore through her, and with a strangled cry, she released her tightly drawn arrow. When he dodged out of its deadly path with a smooth, practised motion, she threw aside her bow and lunged at the man. Naked shock widened his eyes to an almost comical level as she crashed into him, sending them both tumbling to the forest floor. The impact from his head hitting the ground sent his helmet flying, and as Aloy pinned him to the earth with the weight of body, her eyes met his. She couldn't help the sharp exhale that escaped her.
He was younger than she had expected - most likely around her age, if not a couple years older. Those eyes - lined on the lower lids by strange, dark markings - were the most striking shade of grey she had ever seen, closer to silver, and something in her gut clenched as they regarded her cooly. Pale lips sitting beneath a regal, straight nose were framed by a neatly trimmed black goatee, matching in color the undercut hair he had tied back in a tight bun. Unbidden, she felt her cheeks warm, and the man had the audacity to grin at her.
A couple of seconds later, Aloy found herself lying on her back, staring at the canopy of leaves above. Taking advantage of her momentary lapse in concentration, her opponent had flipped their positions, hooking his legs in hers and rolling her as easily as if she were made of air. That stupid, infuriating grin was still plastered on his face.
"Like what you see?" he purred, bringing his lips to her ear. "If it was a tumble in the brush you wanted, you should have just said so. I'd gladly partake, especially with a beauty like-"
He was cut off by Aloy's fist connecting with his cheek. His hand darted out as quickly as a striking snake, grabbing her wrist before she could get in another blow. The sound of his harsh, mocking laughter filled her ears, and in that moment she wanted nothing more than to end this man's life.
"Have it your way, Nora. If it's a fight you want, it's a fight you'll get. Don't say I didn't warn you."
Aloy was just barely able to dodge the punch he threw her way, and with a furious yell, she shoved at him until he was knocked off balance. She was able to wriggle out from underneath him, and potent adrenaline surged through her as she leapt to her feet and bolted for her bow. She swooped down to grab it, continuing to sprint for the treeline all the while. The heavy clanking of the soldier's armor sounded behind her, much closer than she had anticipated - how had he already closed the gap between them so much? But despite the nagging of her inquisitive nature, she didn't look back, willing her legs to move faster instead.
There was no time to activate her Focus and search for a path, something Aloy lamented as she crashed blindly through the brush. Thorns and branches lashed and stung against her skin, opening numerous tiny cuts, but she was numb to everything beyond her determination to put enough distance between her and the man to buy her time to draw her bow. One look at his heavily muscled form told her she couldn't beat him in hand to hand combat, but there was no better shot with a bow in all the Embrace, so she could at least even the playing field.
As the trees began to thin out, the already rocky terrain became more and more treacherous, so she chose her steps with care. It wasn't long before she had to skid to a stop, for in front of her loomed a massive, yawning hole in the earth with no visible bottom. As she flailed her arms in order to maintain her balance, a few loose pebbles kicked up by her feet flew into the void, and seconds later she could hear a distant splash as they made contact with the water below.
The pounding of footsteps sounded from behind her, and Aloy barely had enough time to whirl around before she was thrown to the ground. The force of her impact on the rocks below stole the remaining breath from her lungs, and as she lay there wheezing, a wild glance to her side told her that she had come mere inches from probable death.
"Are - are you crazy?" she gasped out. "We could've...could've fallen into that pit!"
A bloodthirsty sneer was splitting the soldier's lips, and those lifeless eyes bored into her with so much intensity Aloy had to turn her face from his.
"Such pretty prey," he crooned, and Aloy gulped as the cold edge of his sword dug into the sensitive skin of her neck. "Don't worry - I'll think fondly of you, little huntress. I'll remember exactly what it was like to steal the light from your eyes."
In a last, desperate attempt to preserve her life, Aloy wrapped her fingers around the blade, hissing as it sliced through her flesh. Blood immediately welled up and dripped down thickly to stain the material of her shirt - at the sight, a momentary lightheadedness washed over her, but she forced herself to stay conscious. The man's eyes flicked down, dilating until the grey was almost entirely consumed by black, and his tongue darted out to wet his lips. Aloy used this moment of distraction to her advantage, and, winding her free arm back, she jammed her elbow so hard into his ribs she could've sworn she heard them crack.
An animalistic howl resounded from him, and his grip on his sword loosened enough that Aloy was able to wrench it from him and fling it off to the side. With the last of her waning strength, she wrapped her arms around him and threw him towards the depths of the pit.
But his awareness returned long enough for him to latch back on to her as he tumbled over the edge, and then she was falling, hatred twisting her features as she stared at the man above her.
Instead of mocking triumph or even potent fury mirroring her own, panic flared to life on the soldier's face, and at the last second he squeezed her tightly to his chest and flipped their positions mid-air. Before she could react, or even begin to think about why he had done something so stupid, something which could easily lead to his death, they slammed into an outcropping of rock.
The man let loose an agonized scream, his hold on her instantly dropped, and Aloy found herself flying through the air until her shoulder smashed against another rock. Something deep within her crunched, the excruciating pain radiating out from the spot nearly blinding in its intensity. The shock from her plunging into ice-cold water was the last thing she felt before her consciousness winked out.