The smell told Tannyl what he would find before his eyes did. It was unmistakable, and though it was not unknown to the Hunter, it still sickened him. More accurately, it was the memories it brought that sickened him. He put a hand on the nearest tree to steady himself. The rough bark gave a minute amount of strength, but not enough. Not nearly enough. Nothing would be the same again. The smell told him that. And much more. It had taken thirty years, but dread wrapped itself around his shoulders like an old friend, whispering of ghosts and echoes of failure. “You need a break, old-timer? Our young legs moving too quick for you? I’ll be sure to get Bryna to whip up some of that tonic she gives my uncle when his knee ain’t moving so well.” Tannyl turned and shook his head at the burly musician, but said nothing. In truth, his mind hadn’t heard what was said. Words would soon be meaningless as they discovered what Tannyl’s senses had already told him was there. Sachihiro gave Tannyl a pat on the back and made to continue on the beaten footpath, but stopped. He looked at Tannyl and then to the slight man at his back. Sachihiro wrinkled his nose. Tannyl grimaced. Even a lout like Sachihiro couldn’t avoid noticing the taint that hung in the air like a mire. “What is that?” he asked, waving a hand in front of his face. Thankfully, Jaydan answered before Tannyl had to. “Death,” the Healer said in his quiet monotone. Sachihiro frowned at his childhood friend and looked to the east. “Death? But we’re almost back to...” The young man’s words trailed off on the absent wind. In another moment he was running toward the village. Tannyl winced, cursed his senses, and looked at Jaydan. He was of an age with Sachihiro, but the quiet Healer had wisdom unfitting to one just entering adulthood. Tannyl didn’t need to say anything. In different ways, they had both seen enough death to know that the smell emanating from Woodhaerst, their home, could not be anything less than catastrophic. Life changing. Life ending. Lives ended. Bile rose in his throat, bringing with it the shrieks of spirits long since dead. Jaydan frowned, something just passing into his forethought. His face screwed into a mask of pain and before he knew it, Tannyl was alone. The elven Hunter calmly strung his bow and nocked an arrow if for nothing else but the comforting warmth he gained from holding the weapon. He wished for an ignorance he had never known. He cursed his senses for a second time. And then he blamed himself. Another habit he couldn’t shake. His muscles twitched, begging him to run as well, to throw himself to the torrent of emotions that bubbled just below the surface. She kept dancing across his mind, bringing with her some of the feelings he wished to keep buried. Feelings that caused his hands to shake and his breathing to quicken. He shut his eyes and contracted all of his muscles as he forced the emotions back down. They would do him no good here. He forced out a short breath and slipped into the trees, slowly circling toward what the smell told him he would find. But though his emotions were locked safely away, her face remained, and he couldn’t help but walk a little quicker.
Sachihiro stumbled at the sight of the first body, falling hard to the packed dirt in front of Gaelin's home. The elven Birther lay slumped against the stairs that curved around the trunk of a massive oak. Her skin was mottled and gray, black in places, showing nothing of the vibrant life he knew she had once possessed. Pale bone jutted bare from the rotted flesh in odd places. Bile forced itself from between Sachihiro’s lips and he turned to retch into the undergrowth. “Sweet Mother,” Jaydan whispered as he came to a stop alongside Sachihiro. Sachihiro wiped his mouth and saw Jaydan wasn’t speaking of Gaelin. The Healer’s eyes looked further into the forest village. Sachihiro rose shakily to his feet and followed the gaze. He immediately wished he hadn’t. Bodies lay strewn as far as he could see. Some lay in the middle of the beaten path. Others leaned against the many staircases and trees that made up their home. And the smell… “What happened?” he managed to say between gags. Jaydan knelt at Gaelin’s side without a word. He produced a small twig and prodded at the fallen elf. Sachihiro had never been gladder for Jaydan’s stoic demeanor. Sachihiro felt like he was spinning out of control. He needed to punch something. Or someone. His stomach tossed again, but he bit back the bile with a grunt and steeled himself. After a few moments the Healer sat back on his heels and shook his head. “Well?” Jaydan looked at Sachihiro. “Looks like she’s been dead a couple weeks. Maybe longer.” Sachihiro’s head spun. He was never one for figures and sums, but even this revelation was apparent to him. He shook his head. “No, we were only gone maybe eight days.” “Nine.” Sachihiro hadn’t heard Tannyl approach, but there he was, shrouded in the twilit shadows, standing just off the path. His bow was readied and the Hunter’s face showed cruel intent. It was an expression that once made Sachihiro uneasy, but now it grounded him. “Not even a full week,” Sachihiro continued. “How’s that possible?” “I don’t know,” Jaydan said. “There are narrow slashes all over her body, from a small blade or claw, but the edges are black and rotted as well. Could be some sort of poison.” “Any you’re familiar with?” asked the forest’s shadow. Jaydan shook his head. “I’d have to do some experiments to know more.” Tannyl grunted. “No time for that.” For once, Sachihiro agreed with the terse Hunter. Woodhaerst was silent. Even in the dead of night that was never the case. There was always business to conduct, goods to prepare for morning. And at least one impudent child would escape their bed and run shrieking through the village, evading sleep and hoping to nip a bite of Haegar’s fresh pastries. For a moment, Sachihiro fell back into fond memories of doing the very same thing. It had not been that long ago, though it felt like an eternity now. “We need to check on the rest of the village,” Jaydan said. “My parents…” “Uncle,” Sachihiro found himself saying. Tannyl merely grunted, but something passed over the stalwart Hunter’s face for just a moment, a fleeting betrayal of emotion. Any other time, Sachihiro would have questioned it, berating Tannyl with questions until the Hunter backhanded him or stormed off. He typically opted for both. “Check for survivors,” Tannyl barked. “See to your families. I’ll secure the border and look for signs of what happened.” And just like that, the Hunter vanished into the shadow-plagued forest, silent as one himself. Sachihiro turned to regard Jaydan, but the Healer was already running toward the center of town, leather satchel slapping against his back. Sachihiro adjusted the lute at his side and darted down a side path. Brengan Teller always left the door to his home wide open, an invitation to any that sought company or a good story. Seeing it now, Sachihiro felt only dread. Something told him that it was not warm laughter or a mug of ale that awaited him. Furniture was scattered about the sitting room. Sachihiro let out an involuntary noise of dismay when he saw Brengan’s favorite armchair had been reduced to little more than kindling. Small claws marks ran the full span of each wall and were evident on every surface Sachihiro could see. “Uncle!” He paused for a moment, but only further silence greeted him. Nausea rolled deep in his belly. His skin crawled. It was not a feeling he was used to, and it shook loose a rage deep within him. Anger and action could suppress all else. And a stiff drink wouldn’t hurt, either. But that would come later. The kitchen and bedroom were empty as well, but thoroughly destroyed. More indecipherable claw marks. Sachihiro ran his thick and calloused fingers over the grooves cut into the bureau. What did this? he thought. And how do I kill it? He looked around the bedroom one last time. Maybe he got out. Maybe he’s safe. Just as the idea floated into his mind, instilling a bit of hope, he saw it. A puddle of crimson crept from the crack beneath the closet door, slowing seeping into the floorboards. Blood. Sachihiro stared for several moments, wishing it would vanish, wishing hope to return. When nothing changed, he set his jaw, renewed his rage, and threw open the closet door, a hand going instinctively to the short sword at his side. There, hanging from the back wall of the small storage area, was Brengan Teller. A splintered table leg jutted from his chest, suspending his torn body a foot off the ground. Nude, his body was a tapestry of bloodied cuts and torn flesh. His thickly bearded head hung at an awkward angle, it too draining blood onto the floor at Sachihiro’s feet. The musician fell to his knees, hands pressed into the gore. For a moment, time stopped. It was still warm and fluid. Sachihiro raised his eyes to the lifeless body. His flesh wasn’t rotted like Gaelin’s. He sniffed, miming an action he often chided Tannyl for. Somehow, the Hunter’s strange ways seemed the most practical. Death had yet to scent the air, but something else wafted across his senses. Something that raised the hairs on the back of his neck and curled his hands into fists. “He begged for me to end his life, you know. Almost before we began our moonlit dance. It was rather disappointing.” Sachihiro whirled at the voice, rising and drawing his sword in one motion. Leaning against the bureau, running delicate fingers over the same scratches Sachihiro had touched just a moment before, was a stunningly beautiful woman. Hair black as night and a form-fitting dress of the same shade covered skin so pale it was nearly translucent, but it was more flawless than a dream. Her eyes were deep pools of black and swirls of gray, a storm of possibilities. Sachihiro thought her human, but without seeing her ears it was hard to be certain. She smiled and locked eyes with the musician. She no more walked than glided, and, in a blink, had a hand to Sachihiro’s face. Sachihiro shivered at the cold touch as she caressed his scruffy cheek before gliding away to lean seductively in the bedroom doorway. “He was a coward. Hardly like you, Sachihiro,” she said softly, her voice smooth and even. It reminded Sachihiro of lullabies his uncle had sung him as a child. It brought his rage to the surface. He lunged for the woman, his vision pulsing in tune with his heart. His sword struck the door frame, biting deep into the soft wood. His blade had been destined for the woman, but now she leaned casually against the opposite side of the door. He hadn’t seen her move. She blinked slowly, as if she were bored. Sachihiro growled and yanked at his blade, but couldn’t free it. “Who are you? How do you know me? And what did you do to my uncle?” Sachihiro shouted. He ended the string of demands by swinging his meaty fist at her. The woman in black merely smiled and shifted smoothly out of the way. His knuckles crunched against the wood though they had sought flesh. Time seemed to have slowed in that moment. She ran a finger along his jaw as she glided to the bed, alighted with a whisper, and crossed her long legs. She brushed a strand of hair aside. She never broke eye contact. “I had really thought he’d have more fight in him. How can one so interesting have been raised by one so… drab?” Her eyes danced at this. Was it amusement that shone within? “Who. Are. You.” His teeth were clenched again, bared in a snarl. It took everything he had to just free those few words. The pain pulsing from his knuckles only fueled the fire within. “I’d temper that anger if I were you. It did your uncle no good and it will do you less.” He dove for her, seeking to pin her against the bed and unleash his full fury. But as soon as the impulse reached his limbs his entire body was thrown back in the opposite direction. His head smacked the wall and he came to his feet with a face full of blood. Lights danced and played across the room. He took a disjointed step forward, raised a fist, cursed, and fell. The woman sighed and stood. She seemed disappointed again. “Soon, Sachihiro,” she said calmly. “Soon.” And then she was gone.