The monsters come, and the man prepares. The road is endless, and Abel Hart steps to its edge. In the distance, screams and snapping wood echo. His caravan is being torn apart under the setting sun. Nothing he can do with a dancing blade or hardened leather against a horde of wild beasts, so he strips off his armor, weapons, and gear.
Abel continues to strip until only his tattoos cover him. Seven runes mark his flesh, each one the stylized symbol of a city he has served on this endless path.
The woman he loves is at both the finale and the beginning of his journey. The beauty he will marry must be won by looping this world and earning a tattoo from every city along the way.
The screams scatter. Their meager defense must have collapsed and panic set in, dumbing them to the final lesson on Uroborus: strip and surrender to survive.
There is time. Abel pulls a notebook out of his backpack and kneels. Eyes straining, he reviews a magic ritual that will cost the last of his wealth. He was saving it, wary of its loss if he failed. But now, the monsters are here to prove all wealth is fleeting.
He sprinkles fine powders of precious metals, the currency of magic. He checks and rechecks the symbols. Tiny imperfections will magnify under the mystic pressure. He could do this from memory if he was a wizard, but only humans born on this world can claim those skills.
The father of his love denied him with the same excuse. With a crossbow primed, the old man had sworn only a native would claim his daughter.
Abel growls and empties the rest of the powder into his palm. The sun sets, and the glow of dusk outlines the final symbols of his ritual.
Only the status of becoming a looper can force the old man’s blessing. Seventy-three more cities, and he can claim honor as a native-born.
The screams die down as he finishes shaping the symbols. The beasts will spread out now, looking for the smart ones, the few like him who ran when the dust cloud first appeared.
He holds the book up to his eyes, but the scribbles are blurred under the dark sky. Chants and gestures are still needed, and he is not blessed with dwarvish night-vision.
He stretches his fingers into his bag and grips a torch and a fire-starter. The monsters will come to the light. They will swarm it and stomp it out, no matter the damage to their purple, rubbery flesh.
The ritual will fail if he does not act, and he will be discovered regardless. Sucking in a deep breath, he lights his torch.
Howls echo, and the ground vibrates through his knees.
Abel gulps and reads, chanting and gesturing with a reckless speed.
“Bat!” he says and tosses the torch towards the horde.
At the word, air stirs and swirls into a presence that puts pressure on his mind.
“Spirit, I compel you!” He flaps his arms. “Become a bat, and let me see through your beady eyes.”
The air stops swirling, and a fluttering bat appears.
Abel claps and thanks his summoned creature through their mental bond. He blinks, and his eyes become ears. Through the bat spirit’s senses, what he hears and sees blends together in time to abstract the arriving bestial swarm as a single flood of claws and teeth smothering his torch and surrounding him like a breathing ocean.
A big thing, twice the size of a horse, separates from the mass and comes over.
If he had his rapier, he could pierce the beast’s brain in a blink, but this is not a death-duel following the rules of his home world. Any aggression and they will all attack.
Able releases his viewing through his bat’s eyes and prostates himself before the shadowy giant. The monster snorts and claws at his strewn items, knocking them into a pack of lesser beasts behind it. With yips and snarls, they tear, rend, and bend.
He grimaces. The ritual book cost him several seasons of labor on the road. Unless he finds better pay, it might take a year to recoup all his gear.
The giant beast sniffs along his spine, and rolls him over with a grand paw. It digs where he was, finding nothing.
Years ago, he might have hid his best items under his body, but some of the monsters are getting smarter. They dig and search now. They also tempt.
The monster’s growls shift into the grunts and sighs of a native tongue. Abel has struggled to learn this world’s languages, but lessons have been short and far apart during his journey. He cannot even tell if the words are from the northern or southern wilds.
Four years have passed since he made his vow, and now he has been stripped back down to nothing. Going back would admit failure, but there are poorer families with extra daughters. A seven-tattooed man would be a proper catch for them, even though he had arrived on this world shackled as a prisoner.
The beast rubs its massive head against Abel’s bare chest. Warm and gentle as a kitten, it has fangs as long as fingers and claws the length of a chair leg. A twitch would skewer him.
He should be petrified. His heart should be thumping, but other than its size, the creature is not so different from the drakehounds he played with as a child.
Hand steady, Abel pats the beast’s cheek. “Good boy.”
The monster opens its mouth over his face. He shrinks against the dirt, and it huffs at him. Mangled sounds come out, maybe even a few words of the common tongue.
Offer made, it jerks away.
The night empties of sound, and Abel huddles in the dark. He could follow. Rumors have spread that the smart monsters were once human. It would be a simpler path with no more lonely nights.
Abel sucks in a breath and uncurls. If love ever fails, he always has his pride. He orders his bat to again share its vision. The deep dark becomes lines of gray, and he continues down the endless road of Uroborus.