Ryne Waldron wondered if he should kill the woman.
Blood, bodies, and screams rolled across his mind with the thought of her and those she represented. The stink of something dead or worse hung in the air. He expelled a great breath, chest heaving with the hope the stench was only death.
An old, familiar feeling, like heat seeping into a cold hearth, stirred deep within his eight–foot frame. In response, the vibrant tapestry of tattoos covering his body from foot to chin writhed. Seamless replicas of the same artwork decorated his armor, they too twitching in unison with those on his body. Ryne flinched, his muscled arms and broad back clenching, the scars under his leather armor drawing taut. Frowning, he stopped himself from reaching to his hip for his greatsword’s hilt. His bloodlust had never risen before unless he touched his power. He shut away the craving to kill with practiced ease.
Unable to shrug off the lapse of control, Ryne stepped to the rear of one of Carnas’ many rosewood and teak homes and glanced out across the Orchid Plains. Shimmering heat rose in waves, and yellowed grass and flowers bowed under the sun’s rays as if praying for relief, but sure enough, there she stood.
Mariel—if that was even her real name—kept her gaze trained in his direction. Dark hair hung to her shoulders, and she was dressed in a short–sleeved shirt and close–fitting trousers, her slight body and paler skin color the opposite of the native Ostanians. As usual, she stayed beyond the range where he could read her aura.
Ryne turned his head to the noise of a boot scraping on the wooden stairs next to him.
“See here?” Dren craned his head to peer at Ryne, his leather boot poking at a dried bloodstain. “This is where they took Miss Corten last night.”
Looming over Dren, although the sinewy man stood two stairs higher, Ryne inspected the scuff marks. Rust colored splotches stained the wood. Next to the steps, several flattened flowers were the only other signs of a struggle. Ryne’s brow wrinkled. “Nowhere near enough blood to have been anything serious.”
“Exactly.” Dren nodded, scarred hands rising to stroke his short beard. “Miss Corten can hunt as well as any one of us scouts. But no one heard her sound an alarm or even cry out.”
Ryne gauged the proximity to the other adjoining homes. Despite the space between houses afforded here at Carnas’ outskirts, someone should have heard Miss Corten. With the recent hot weather and lack of rain, the shuttered windows on these houses would’ve been open. Neither the sturdy structures nor the wooden tile roofs would have kept out the sounds of the struggle or a cry for help. Not even the gales that often howled during one of the frequent thunderstorms could have drowned out Miss Corten’s cries. However, there hadn’t been any such wind, not the past few days. The weather had remained as it was now, hot, still, and silent with not much more than an inconsequential breeze.
Shifting uncomfortably in his fitted leather armor to sample the air once more, Ryne flicked his thumb across his nose as the whiff of something long dead, of decay and unwashed dog fur curdled his insides. “Have you noticed the smell, Sakari? It’s faint, but it’s there.”
Sakari glided forward, his nostrils flaring. The silver flecks dominating the whites of his eyes flashed as he sniffed the air. At near seven feet—almost reaching Ryne’s shoulder—today he was the opposite of Ryne in girth, his body svelte, each part fit in near perfect proportions under his scaled leather armor. “Yes,” Sakari answered after a final scrunch of his nose. “Rot. Old fur. Something not quite dead.”
Dren’s brows drew together, his eyes narrowed, and sweat beaded his forehead. His hand eased down to his sword hilt as he glanced around, his gaze searching the woods across the expanse of pastures. “Master Waldron, you think it’s a beast from the Rot?” the scoutmaster whispered, his head shifting from left to right as if to make sure no one overheard.
Indeed, Dren had cause for his fear. If any beast had crossed the Rotted Forest, there would be reason to worry for everyone. “Maybe. We’ll know soon enough. Take us to the body,” Ryne ordered.
Dren gave a tentative nod and set off at a jog, his hand on the pommel of his sheathed short sword. Under too clear skies and a burning sun, they cut across the Orchid Plains with its grasses and namesake blue and red flowers that lit up the air with the sweet scent of their blooms. In places, the brush and plants around them not only drooped and were becoming sickly yellow but were a dying brown.
Ryne spared a look over his shoulder, and the muscles along his neck formed a tight rope of tension. As usual, Mariel followed. He smirked. She wouldn’t escape him today.
Seeing her usual dogged pattern brought questions rising within Ryne again. Why did she seek him? Why did she maintain the distance from him that she did, yet still followed wherever he went? Could she know of his ability to see auras? No. He dismissed the thought. Besides Sakari, no one else knew.
Brow creased from both curiosity and worry, he wondered if she recognized him. If she did, and she reported his identity to her masters, life would become even more dangerous for Carnas’ residents. There wouldn’t be just eight villagers who went missing over the last few weeks since she appeared; the Granadian Tribunal would wipe Carnas from the map. The fact he still lived was an embarrassment that reeked of their failure, a weakness for others to exploit.
Or so they would see it.
As soon as the thought crossed his mind, a memory bloomed. Garbed in golden armor of interlocking plates, five–foot greatsword in hand, ebony hair tied in a ponytail, Ryne stood atop a mound of dead people. Skulls and ruptured bodies by the hundreds spread all around a smoke–shrouded village square. He plunged the Tribunal’s Lightstorm battle standard through a corpse, into the ground, and roared a challenge. He was the Tribunal’s instrument of vengeance and none could stand before him. Not even the Tribunal’s own. Then he was running, and running, and running, chased by the Tribunal’s assassins. The vision shifted. He was on his knees in chains, unable to use his power, his body covered in blood, torn flesh and half–mended scars from lashes. The whip struck again. Pain seared through his body with the memory. Ryne clenched his sword’s hilt. Never again. Never again will I suffer at the hands of the Tribunal’s kind.
“I see Mariel is still following you. When last you tried to catch her?” Dren’s words broke Ryne from his thoughts.
Ryne gave a shake of his head and grunted before he shortened his strides in an effort not to outpace the much shorter man. “Two days ago.” Counting his steps, Ryne pictured where Mariel would be behind them. The moment needed to be perfect.
“She’s better at hiding than anyone I ever met.” The admiration in Dren’s voice was clear. “In my years as a scoutmaster, I’ve yet to meet one as skilled as she who wasn’t an Alzari. It’s almost like she uses the shade to hide. I wonder if she wields the elemen—”
Ryne veered off from the path the scoutmaster set and broke into a full out sprint, his hand on his scabbard to keep it in place. To his right Sakari kept pace, sandy hair bouncing to match his languid strides, a constant shadow hovering somewhere near, eyes seeing everything but revealing nothing. As Ryne expected, Mariel turned tail and sped toward the Fretian Woods.
With the path clear ahead, Ryne opened his mind and linked with Sakari. Ryne’s vision doubled. In one sight, he was in his own body, tearing through the brush. In the other, he saw through Sakari’s eyes as if he ran in his companion’s boots, each step a glide that barely touched the ground.
“Whatever we do, we must catch her before she reaches the woods,” Ryne said under his breath.
“As you wish.”
Ryne closed the link, and his vision receded to his alone once more. Ponytail slapping against his back, he ate up the distance between him and Mariel. Frightened birds flapped from his path, their morning song interrupted, protesting squawks coming in discordant jangles.
Dren’s unfinished question had brought up another issue Ryne had considered. Suppose Mariel did use the elements to hide? That would make her more than the high ranked priestess she claimed since she arrived in Carnas. Lips curling, Ryne snarled and pumped his massive legs faster. The old pain from his torture by the Tribunal rose anew. If she did possess the ability to use the same power as he, then he would force her to do so. When she did, she would confirm his suspicions of her intent. And he would kill her.
Deep inside himself, Ryne’s bloodlust flared to life. In response, his Scripts—the tattoos covering his body— roiled like living things.
Down a gentle slope they ran, the occasional tree a blur as they pursued. On the opposite incline, Mariel crested the hilltop before she disappeared down the other side.
As he rushed to the top of the hill, Ryne’s strides faltered and slowed. He’d chosen what he thought was the perfect moment and the best path to cut her off. Somehow, the woman had anticipated his move. Not only had she opened up more distance since the chase began, but she fled at an angle that made sure she would reach the woods long before he managed to catch her. So clear was her path and wide her distance, not only was catching her near impossible, but he wouldn’t be able to close the gap to read her aura.
He growled in frustration, and his bloodlust surged.
“Embrace your power,” a deep voice, steeped in malevolence, whispered in his head. “Capture her. Kill her.”
“No. Remember what that has cost you in the past,” warned a soothing voice in a low whine. “The blood, the bodies, the innocents slaughtered.”
“Yessss,” the first voice encouraged in trembling tones of a creature savoring its pleasure. “Remember the past. How your power saved you. Our power. Kill for ussss. Feed ussss. And none can escape you.”
The opposing voice pleaded, “No, please, no. If you do so, you will lose yourself yet again. Is that your wish? To see all you love covered in blood by your hands, steeped in despair that you wrought?”
On and on the voices warred. Ryne closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, the argument a buzz in the background. As he had practiced the last few years, he listened to the latter voice. If he touched his power now, not only would he kill Mariel, but if he lost control, those he’d come to love in Carnas would suffer a similar fate. Shuddering with the effort, he fought down his lust and shut it off yet again. He heaved a sigh. This sudden rise of his urges didn’t bode well. Suspicion of Mariel’s ill intentions was all well and good, but without proof, he was no better than those in Carnas who blamed the woman for the missing villagers or the recent bodies they’d found.
What was he thinking? Regardless of her capacity in her work for Granadia’s Tribunal, should anything happen to her, Carnas’ inhabitants would pay. The Tribunal’s price was always absolute. Ryne squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. Picturing those he loved in Carnas lying dead under the Tribunal’s banners, crushed by the boots of their military might brought bile rising to his throat.
“Sakari, stop,” Ryne shouted. He churned to a halt, his breathing heavy with exertion.
Sakari slowed to a walk. He turned and glided back to Ryne in those smooth strides of his. As he drew close, Sakari shook his head. “You make this more difficult than it needs to be.” The green pupils of his eyes were deep pools of nothingness.
Ryne ignored the man. He’d heard the same more than enough times. Well ahead of them, Mariel reached the woods’ rosewood and mahogany trees and vanished among the dappled shadows cast by trunks and branches. Ryne spared a glance for the footsteps thudding behind him.
Breaths coming in harsh gasps, Dren caught up with them. “W–What was that all about?” His chest heaved as he gathered himself. “Why chase her now?”
Ryne shrugged. “I thought I’d be able to get her before she reached the woods.”
Dren wheezed a laugh. “I’ve seen that bitch easily outrun our dogs. Forian and the others have been whipping the village into a frenzy since you been gone the last two days.” He sucked in a breath. “He been saying the things she does proves she’s evil. They say she follows the path of the shade.”
“And the mayor has been allowing him as usual,” Ryne concluded.
Dren nodded. “There’s others who think differently, but sooner or later they’re going to attack Mariel. May be a good idea for you to speak to them before it gets any worse. They’re meeting at Hagan’s right now.”
“Yes. I might have to,” Ryne said, expression thoughtful, his gaze focused on the area where Mariel had fled. She reappeared at the forest’s edge. “Lead us to the body,” he said to Dren.
Gesturing toward where Mariel now stood, Dren grunted and shook his head. “She sure is persistent.” He turned to lead them back the way they’d come.
After one last look at Mariel, Ryne followed Dren with Sakari in tow. Within an hour, the wood–tile roofs and sturdily built homes of Carnas dwindled behind them to the south as they passed the sparse trees dotting this section of the plains. Dren called for them to stop at a small stand of trees. Ryne glanced back. From the edge of the copse, the lone sandstone structure of Hagan’s Inn stuck up from the dip in the land where Carnas was located. Near the slope’s crest behind them, Mariel watched, but made no attempt to venture closer.
“The body’s just in there.” Dren pointed to a few stunted kinai trees. The sweet fruit from the misshapen branches dotted the ground, their color yellowed and pale instead of their normal red.
Hand on his sword, Ryne strode toward the kinai orchard with Sakari flanking him. Ryne picked out an old blood trail and smelled the stink of death before he saw the body. Ravaged beyond recognition like the others, the corpse had been stripped naked, limbs twisted at odd angles. From the mess for a face and the torn torso, he could barely tell the person was a man.
Grinding his teeth, his nose upturned at the stench of offal, Ryne inspected the death wounds without touching the remains. The shredded flesh across the corpse’s face made Ryne brush the old scars that striped the left side of his own. What did this? Could Mariel be responsible like some suggested? And if so, how? He knew every creature within the woods. None came to mind that could have torn a person in such a way. Something from the Rotted Forest, maybe? No. His Scripts hadn’t warned him that his wards had been triggered.
He longed to touch his power to see if any malevolence existed within the gashes or the body, but the potential consequences stopped him. Until he figured out why his control appeared to wane, he needed to resort to relying on his physical gifts. Old habits died hard, and this dead body reminded him too much of his past, of the War of Remnants, of the years before when he’d seen beasts ravaged in even worse ways totter to their feet and attack. A simple method existed for him to make certain no such darkness existed here.
Ryne unsheathed his greatsword with a rasp of metal on leather. Runes and glyphs etched into the five–foot silversteel weapon glinted from the sun’s penetration through the trees. In a smooth motion, he stepped forward and swung. The wide, double–edged blade passed through the corpse’s neck without resistance. Blood pooled onto the soft dirt and leaves.
With a flick of his sword to the side, Ryne rid it of any residue, and sheathed the weapon. “May Ilumni and his Battleguards keep you safe,” he said in reverence.
Dizziness swirled through him for a brief moment, and he swayed. Sakari stepped forward to help, but Ryne waved him off. He’d grown used to these bouts of lightheadedness over the past few years. This one he could handle.
“What do you think?” Ryne nodded toward the corpse.
“No beast from the Rotted Forest delivered those wounds. And the only stench here is just death,” Sakari said.
“None I can think of.”
Ryne grunted his agreement. “And I see no auras around the body so no elements were used. Come let’s see what else we find.”
They searched the area but found nothing else out of place. Still baffled by what could have caused such grievous wounds, they left the stand and headed for home with Mariel still trailing them. With the sun beating down on them, they made a straight line for the sandstone edifice that marked Hagan’s Inn.
“Let me guess,” Dren said, an eyebrow arched. “You’re going to let them know the error of their ways if this foolishness with Forian continues.”
“Something like that,” Ryne admitted, his voice even. “I think Mayor Bertram has downplayed just what kind of response the Tribunal would have if Mariel was harmed.”
In short order, they reached the low wooden wall surrounding the village.
Dren slowed to a walk, his eyes focused toward the woods. He pointed. “Who’s that out there?”
In that instant, a bestial roar pierced the humid afternoon air. Ryne’s head whipped toward the sound, the same direction in which Dren, foot raised in an unfinished step, still pointed.
A boy stood frozen amongst the brush and long grass. The large teak, mahogany, and rosewood trees in the forest before him shook with such violence a rain of leaves fell.
“Kahkon?” Ryne said under his breath, cold fingers of dread slithering down his spine as he squinted at the skinny youth.
A huge beast, at least five the times the size of a large wolf, leaped from the dark woods. The aura about the creature shone with an obsidian blackness instead of its normal gray. Fluids dripped from raw, pink flesh and dark fur splotched black with decay. The infected lapra reared up on four of its six legs like a mantis preparing to attack. A wide, snout of a muzzle and forepaws tipped with sharp claws flashed. Before Kahkon could react, the beast snatched him by a leg. Kahkon screamed. A sound that brought shivers sliding down Ryne’s back. With the same speed it struck, the lapra disappeared back into the trees, the boy a ragdoll in its mouth.