In southern Danusia, in the village of Zenlo, a most exceptional boy was born to the wife of a blacksmith. Not unusually large or otherwise physically outstanding, his uniqueness was discovered, instead, a few months into his life, when, at the age of four months, he spontaneously asked his mother for some stew, please.
After the momentary shock wore off, the boy's mother got right down to business and explained kindly that he couldn't eat the stew, for it had pieces of goat meat in it which he could not chew. The tiny child furrowed his brow, and his mother spooned out, instead, a sip of the broth from her own bowl. Little Brygar slurped up the hot broth greedily and nodded his approval, smacking his lips.
Little Brygar quickly became a village celebrity, and his vocabulary improved daily. Around six months of age, he began attempting to walk, but met with very little success despite his efforts. This led to a very frustrated infant, more so when the adults around him cooed and chuckled at him encouragingly, and despite his repeated attempts, the “child genius” (as he was being called) did not learn to walk until the age of ten months.
Not that the months in between were wasted. On the contrary, Brygar continued to show an incredible propensity for learning. He consumed knowledge, seeking it from anyone who would listen and pushing himself to understand. Not only that, but he had another trait for which his parents were always grateful—he never got sick. Not once, not even a sniffle. This continued through his blessed childhood,into adolescence and his very early adulthood, when a large wedding brought a number of visitors from the nearby town of Nzulo to little Zenlo. At the wedding—or rather, afterward, during the celebration—Brygar met a beautiful young girl named Felira, daughter of Maiko, a well-known spice merchant in Nzulo with ties to House Celthoy. Here, his unfaltering fortitude failed him for the first time, as Brygar first discovered what it was to be sick—lovesick, anyway.
As Brygar had matured, the constant praise he’d received had given him a powerful confidence. Coupled with his natural earnestness, genuine good nature, and local fame, the young man quickly won the heart of Felira. Before her father would give his blessing, however, he insisted that Brygar prove his ability to care for and look after his daughter—impressed as he was with the man's standing in the community, he was cautious and reluctant to give up his only daughter.
The people of Zenlo—even Brygar's own parents—agreed with Maiko: the young man was meant for bigger, better things than the smith's shop. So, they arranged a meeting with a sage, pooling community resources for Brygar's benefit. As a result, when Brygar and the sage met, the young man was feeling nervous, excited, and tremendously indebted to his community.
The old sage, after a lengthy interview with the young prodigy, declared that the people of the village had been right—Brygar was meant for bigger things, indeed. Declaring him one of the most talented individuals he had ever met, the sage announced that he would personally set up the boy's training, in a profession yet to be determined. Privately, then, he spoke to Brygar: "You, my boy, may do anything you wish. You may be anything you wish. You have the wits, the guts, the strength... what is it that you would like to do, my boy? Name it, and I will get you the best training there is, for you deserve to have that potential of yours unlocked!"
Brygar, though, was singleminded in his intent. All he would say was, "I want only to learn to provide for a wife as deserving as Felira."
As much as the sage tried to convince him to go into one of the noble professions—he even offered personal apprenticeship—Brygar would not be moved. His mind was made up, and in the end, the sage gave in. He summoned a Wild Man from the North, who came within a few days and took Brygar into the mountains for several weeks.
When he returned, the old sage—who had stayed in Zenlo to see how Brygar turned out—was shocked. It became obvious to all the townsfolk that whatever training the young man had received was expected to take many months, at least, and here Brygar had seemingly completed it within a single moon cycle! As Brygar went immediately to his family, and from there, to Nzulo to ask for Maiko's favor, the Wild Man and the sage were the celebrities of the hour, both interrogated as to what Brygar might have learned, for the rumors had flown fast and thick.
When the townspeople learned what the Wild Man had taught their Boy Genius, they were, truth be told, disappointed. He told them that Brygar had learned the ways of the forest; how to live sustainably, to hunt, fish, trap, and to create all manner of woodcraft, including entire houses. He told them also that Brygar had learned all manner of knowledge about the land and its inhabitants, savage and tame, natural and monstrous. The old sage corroborated his story in subdued tones, saying only: "Brygar wished to learn what he must know to provide for his wife-to-be. He would have nothing else I offered him."
The much-anticipated wedding was held a month later, and though all were happy for the joyous, beautiful couple, there were discontented mutters among the elders of the village. Many still thought their town’s prized prodigy had thrown his life away. Some had been counting on him to bring fame to the tiny village, or to do this or that other grand feat in their eyes. But Brygar himself was oblivious to this, and for the most part, all were happy and excited to see the couple together at last.
Soon, the young lovers bid good-bye to their parents, and headed joyfully down a sunlit path into the eastern forest. After but half a day's walk, they arrived at a grand house made of logs, complete with windows, plenty of firewood, and a chimney, all in a hand-cleared space in the midst of the woods. Brygar explained that he had built the cabin while in training with the Wild Man, and led her inside to find several different rooms, a kitchen stocked with assorted salted meats, and several other homemade accoutrements.
Felira threw herself upon him in pure glee, and for several years they lived in their cabin, in love, content, and very, very happy. Brygar went hunting frequently, occasionally for several days at a time. Any time he was out for long, venturing deep into the forest, Felira knew it was because he was searching for something special to bring back to her. They always ate well, with rare meats and rarer herbs, and around their house they cultivated a beautiful garden. Not a week went by without friends or family from one of the couple's villages stopping by for a meal, for Felira's cooking with Brygar's exotic ingredients quickly became legendary. Sometimes people would stop by just to admire the garden, lush with flowers in every shade and variety, and many edible. The couple always had plenty to spare and gave freely of their ample foodstores, and soon the thought of Brygar's “folly” was all but forgotten.
The frequency at which they received visitors only increased with the birth of their first child. Little Maiko was the spitting image of his namesake, but with his father’s eyes and precocious appetite for learning. From the moment the town learned that Felira was with child, he was nearly as much of a celebrity as Brygar himself had been, and when he was born that winter, his mother found herself entertaining well-meaning and curious townsfolk on a daily basis.
Eventually the novelty began to die down, though of course everyone still insisted on being the first to know about any major developments in Maiko’s life, and many expressed their hopes openly that he would go on to accomplish all the great things that his father never did.
Brygar returned home at dusk on his twenty-third birthday, humming contentedly after a four-day journey to the mountains. He'd been searching for the exceedingly rare Midnight Alyssum, and he'd finally found a few shoots, gently removed them from their rocky home and transported them carefully back. He smiled as he considered the tender flowers: Felira would plant them beside the little stone garden next to the house, and later, when they'd grown and multiplied, she would take a few seeds for cooking: Midnight Alyssum seeds, when ground, release a spice powder, more sensual and intoxicating than anything ever found on Utara.
Entering the clearing, Brygar sensed something amiss. It was nothing he could see, exactly, just a feeling he got. His neck prickled. Perhaps it was the north wind whistling softly through the clearing; Brygar had always felt that a north wind heralded change. He quickened his pace just slightly, producing the two Alyssum stalks from a safepouch at his side and holding them excitedly in front of him. Felira would be so happy! She'd always wanted to try it—what a lovely birthday present he would give her!
He frowned, though, as he stepped onto the neat pebbled path through the garden to the front door of the house. The normally tidy walk was scuffled, and pebbles strewn throughout the garden in some places. He bent to pick them up, whistling a tuneless ditty as he happily restored the path, pausing momentarily to lament a pale crocus that had gotten crushed somehow. Lifting the last stone in the fading light, he noticed a small green chute prodding the air from the ground underneath. Squatting low, Brygar curiously inspected the tiny stalk, and his eyes widened. Rare flowers, indeed—but Black Tuberose was nothing he'd ever planted. Its smell, when mature, would be deeper, darker than any other typical flower of that family, with a sultry richness almost tangible. Indeed, Black Tuberose was often seen as an ill omen by those inclined to believe such things, but Brygar was not much taken by omens and portents, and made a mental note to transplant the seedling to a more appropriate party of the garden—Tuberose needed full sun, and here this little sprout was on the wrong side of the house!
Finally, he stepped up to the door, lit with the last rays of sunlight, and pulled it open, beaming. But for the first time in months, Felira did not greet him with her customary warm smile, her red-gold hair curling merrily around her face and Maiko babbling in her arms. Feeling a little silly, he walked into the house, glanced toward the kitchen and, seeing nothing, opened the door to the bedroom.
Felira was waiting for him inside, but something was wrong. Her smile seemed off, somehow, her face not its usual perfect unison of rosy cheeks and gently curved chin and laughing eyes. There was a smell in the room, too... It was so familiar, but now he couldn't place it; it was just... out of place. Stopping a moment to take this all in, he remembered himself and offered her the Alyssum, loving smile back on his face.
Felira stood, and closed with him, putting her hands over his holding the flowers. "They're lovely! Put them here by the bedside for just a moment; come here..." She pulled him towards the bed, slipping entirely out of her dress in the blink of an eye. "I have something special for you, Birthday Bear..."
Brygar was stunned momentarily, a little crestfallen at her dismissal of his birthday gift to her, but that all was soon forgotten as he climbed into bed with her. She wrapped her body around his, powerfully—Gods, he didn’t remember her strength!—and pulled him close. Brygar buried his face in her neck, by the soft blanket, and that's when it hit him. The smell, overwhelming now, emanating from her body, from the bed itself, so familiar and so wrong!
Blood. Yes, it was definitely blood. The bed, his wife, the whole room reeked of it, and as it hit him, he thrust her from him with sudden force. Head at a slight angle, her smile was mocking now, as he thought, then asked,"What happened? Why...?" He looked suddenly to the corner of the room, eyes falling on Maiko’s empty cradle. “Where’s Maiko?”
Felira pushed herself up off the bed, pouting now. "Awww. He’s fine; he’s in the kitchen! Come to me again; I need to give you your birthday gift!"
Brygar would have none of it. He stood, carefully picking up the Alyssum and placing it in a bowl by the door. "You smell of blood, Fellie! What's going on?"
She stood, then, too. "Oh, well. I guess there's just no fooling you, is there? You can wash it and wash it, but it just doesn't come out!" She loosed a harsh laugh; a grin that didn’t belong on her sweet face. She lunged for him, then, and something truly wild was in her eyes.
She gripped his arms—she was stronger than he! This could not be, what had come upon her while he was away? Brygar began stammering, and she began to mock him as she forced him quickly backwards, out the door. The bowl clattered to the floor, spilling its precious cargo onto the floor beneath the mad woman's feet. A snarl—a real, feral snarl—issued from his Felira, his beloved Felira, and she pushed him out of the bedroom, through the empty kitchen and, pausing to glance out the window, out the door into the garden.
She fell upon him there, their bodies intertwining again, but now with deadly intensity. Brygar felt a prick at the side of his neck, and a spreading warmth. Everything smelled of blood, and in a flash as time slowed terribly before him, he saw. Human blood. His family’s blood. The disturbance, the smells, the behavior, and now... the teeth. That was it, he realized as time painfully sped back up, to its normal pace and beyond.
Brygar pushed his wife off of him; saw her face covered in blood; felt dizzy; knew what was happening even as his heart screamed in denial. She crowed at him, "Hooo! Now that is a rush!" and wiping blood from her perfect chin, she came at him again.
"Please, Fellie! Please don't do this!" he cried as he fell back before her advance. “What about Maiko? Where is our son?” She only grinned crookedly as she approached, and he remembered the first line from Stalker in the Night: “A man who has been turned to the Dark is no man; nor a woman a woman; nor a child a child: he is, and shall forever be, a Stalker in the Night.”
He'd read that book long, long ago; it was a fairy tale. But he knew such monsters really did exist. If he hadn't believed it before, he certainly would now. Desperate thoughts cut through his mind like lightning, and with each one, its grim counter in a faraway voice:
She can't be dead! She can.
But, she's still my Felina! She is a creature of the Night, and no more.
There must still be some part of her that remembers me! The girl you knew and loved is dead.
But why?? Because another night creature has killed her, and replaced her soul with something wholly evil and corrupt.
I can't kill my own wife! Then you will die.
Tears streaming down his face, Brygar continued to back away, shaking his head and simply repeating: "No, no, no, no, no, no, no..." while his dead lover chanted "Yes, yes, yes, yes!"
Gritting his teeth, he found what he'd been looking for. Edging backwards past the gardening shed he'd made for his wife, he clapped a hand to the side of his throat, blood leaking between his fingers. He sagged towards the ground; she followed him with that terrible, wild light in her eyes.
He came up like a bolt of lightning, a well-used but equally well-cared-for trowel in his hand, and it was this hand with which he struck her off-guard, cutting her beautiful, hideous head messily from her shoulders.
Trembling, Brygar fumbled for a wooden shaft, and found a spade. He shuddered as he broke the handle against the wall of the shed. He took a last look at the body of his love, and rammed the broken shaft through her heart.
Unable to look any further; unable to do anything at all, Brygar turned to the woods, and he ran. He ran to get away; to wake up and find it was all a dream; to run and run and not have to feel. By the time he stumbled crazily to a halt, his eyes had long run out of tears, dawn was breaking somewhere in the east, and Brygar was alone in the Batiku Forest, with no idea which way to go. And somewhere, back at the place he'd called home, the Midnight Alyssum cried its own blood onto the floor of an abandoned house.