I will never forget how it all began. I was a young girl, living with my foster parents in a family-run inn. It was a nice place - near a small mountain river, at the base of the Ridge mountains. We frequently had visitors passing through on their way to the mountain range. They usually came in late, stayed the night and left early in the morning. It was busy that time of year - the fall had just began to cover the hills and hollows with golden blankets, contrasting only with the snowy peaks. It was beautiful and everyone wanted to see it. There were numerous lakes, rivers and peaks in a day’s worth of hiking - some beginner-friendly, others not so much. Most of the trails were discovered and marked by my parents’ family - it was the family lineage. Lineage that I was never truly a part of and would soon come to know would end with me.
One day that fall the place was unusually busy. The sky was getting darker, covering with stormy clouds. Storms weren’t unusual - the mountain range frequently stopped stray rain clouds above the inn, though it never happened so quickly. Travelers were rushing in for shelter to get ahead of the storm - storms here were violent and ours was the only shelter in many miles.
By the time the storm started it was already crowded in the tavern. It could have easily been three or four dozen people crammed around the tables, at the bar or even sitting on the wooden floor on whatever blankets we had around. It was still early afternoon but the sky had become so dark you could barely see the nearest peaks outside the windows. Then the thunderstorm started. It was like the earth and sky were fighting their last stand, enormous columns of lightning briefly reminding us that it should have been daytime, each followed almost instantly by the deafening sound of what we had seen moments before. It all combined with the heavy rain violently trying to get inside, as if it itself wanted to get away from the ominous thunders. I hoped nobody was left outside, not able to reach shelter in time.
I kept looking out the window, in awe of this violent display of nature’s enormous power, almost able to shut off the mishmash of loud voices and laughs filling the tavern’s single room. Everyone seemed happy to be here, enjoying the shelter, warm food, wine and company of, albeit too many, other people. I disliked the loudness of the crowd, so I stayed in my corner, looking outside and imagining stories of mythical creatures fighting epic battles in the darkness of the artificial night. Despite the chaos both inside and outside, I was taking shelter in my own corner of the world, my mind, and was feeling strangely peaceful.
After what seemed like an eternity, the storm’s violence slowly faded. For a few minutes the sun even managed to break through the distant clouds on the horizon, bathing them in red and orange. It was setting - as if the daylight itself was tired of battling with the darkness and was ready for its promised nightly rest. The crowd had also quieted down a little, but still remained loud - a couple of groups playing cards, some discussing politics, and others still laughing at absurd stories and jokes.
Someone faintly knocked on the door. Looking around, nobody seemed to have noticed it. It must have been my imagination, I thought - that would mean whoever it was had survived the full wrath of the storm outside.
Then a knock again, this time louder. Part of the room heard it. My father went to open the door. An elderly figure wearing a ragged monk robe with a hood walked in. Whoever it was had an exhausted, even hunched posture. From the corner I was sitting in I couldn’t see his face, but it seemed like most people did. They looked terrified. The room filled with quiet dread. Everyone was frozen, staring at the old traveler.
Everything happened so fast. Green mist started forming, swirling around the room, surrounding the elderly man. It exuded from each and every person, then twisted and inevitably flowed towards the man in the robe like he was at the center of a vortex. The looks on everyone’s faces - frozen expressions of terror, not wanting to, no, not able to move, their eyes becoming more and more lifeless by the second. Deathly silence - the chatter, the wind howling through the windows, even the crickets singing moments before - all gone, all silent. The only sound I could hear - my own heart, beating in my chest, trying to get out, to save itself. As the mist clumped around the man, still orbiting him, people began dropping to the ground. One by one. My family … gone.
The traveler turned and looked at me. I now understood what others had seen moments before - the horror standing before me was no man. Its face had just patches of skin, its few teeth black and ragged, and its vibrant green eyes - looking at me so intently as if it could see through to my soul. I wanted to scream, to run away as far as I could. But I could not - not a muscle of my body moved. The green mist still swirling around the creature had started flowing towards me. The thing didn’t move its skin-stripped jaw, didn’t make a sound, but spoke to me still. A deep voice I could hear in my head as loud and as clear as the thunders hours before - “I am sorry, child. One day you will understand.” As the last of the mist left it, the creature collapsed to the ground, as if the force that was holding it together was suddenly gone, leaving just a pile of bones and the black robe it was wearing.