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Year 47 AR
As they bore closer to Trouperde and encountered no signs of life, the three of them had silently gravitated toward a shared apprehension of what they would find when they got there. Now, here they were, and what stood before them was no longer a village, but the site of a massacre.
The small town consisted of about twenty houses, or what was left of them, circling the edge of a man-made clearing. The homes had not merely been breached, they had been torn asunder, rent open and had their insides turned out into the clearing, as if to showcase the people that had been pulled from them. Even the air was vile, not quite the sting of wet rot, but a stagnant decay that parted with its odor only after she had breathed it in.
Blankets, clothes and upholstery mingled with shattered pottery and utensils across the jagged edges of the broken walls and windows. They had been meant to keep them safe, now they were lined by wooden teeth capped with crusty browned testimonies of the people that had been dragged through the gaping holes. As she walked among the wreckage, Auri saw that the walls and dirt were riddled with tracks. They were gouges so deep that they looked recent, despite the sickeningly stale smell telling her that the site was over a week old. Not human, not animal, they were not like anything she had seen before.
No matter how savage wild animals could be, while their teeth and claws were part of them, they were not the point of them. The thing that had left these grooves in the ground, and the gouges in the walls of the buildings, was a far simpler and more alien creature. Its prints looked as though its proportions had been inverted – all claw and all teeth, even more than the massive weight could have possibly justified. A thing made to kill and nothing more.
“No,” Basia’s voice came through in a breathless whisper behind her. It sounded like he had come to the same conclusion. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck…”
She hadn’t heard this timbre from him before, and the moment she spent parsing it for what it was cost her the chance to confront him about it. As he pulled back from them and into the thicket around the village, stomping off outside the line of houses and muttering to himself. He was afraid. She could smell it, even over the nauseating tang that permeated the air, and it was infectious. She resented him then, leaving her a fading trail of expletives as the same restless dread came over her, and she had nowhere to go.
“What do you think happened?” Talem’s voice pulled her back into the present.
“We were too late.” The words hurt to say, weighed down with the knowledge of how comfortable their pace had been. If she had known she would have run the whole way.
“We’re here now,” came the reply, and she latched onto it.
As Talem began to move along the inside of the perimeter, she fell into step behind him. Crusty brown stains of dried blood were everywhere, and the sick odour grew so thick she could feel it stick to her skin. They found bodies in the first house they checked, but the state of them made it difficult to say anything about who they had been. They couldn’t even tell how many of them there were, because the state of the remains left so few whole pieces, and because the pieces that did remain varied so much in size. They were spread about the walls of the cabin, scattered as if though had been discarded for some other purpose.
“Children,” Talem said quietly, hunching down next to one of the piles of human debris. “These were children.”
“It took their heads.” She tried to take a walk around the room to avoid lingering on any one spot for too long, but new details wouldn’t stop coming at her, and before long she ended up having to step away from the building entirely to avoid throwing up.
“Not just the heads.” Talem’s words came out in terse, haunted breaths as he followed her out. “It… cored them.”
The central space of the village hadn’t fared any better than the buildings that surrounded it. While there were no more bodies, it was still a site of decay. It had been set up with tables and chairs, and crowned by makeshift wool banners suspended from tall poles. Most of the tables had been upturned or simply smashed, but the ones that still stood carried wooden plates and chalices stained by traces of food and wine that the local wildlife had long since taken care of. The banners were sagging where they weren’t torn, but they still managed to emphasize the two racks that sat near the middle of the circle they made, which were holding what remained of two goat carcasses. They had clearly gone foul before any of the local wildlife had a chance to get at them, and by the looks of things, before any of the villagers had too.
“I think it was some sort of appeasement. Those racks look sacrificial, and no one has touched the meat. I guess whatever it was they were trying to mollify, it didn’t work.”
“Where do we even start?” She found the idea of having to sift through each house, each scene repugnant. At the same time she knew she needed to do something, to stop being a witness and act.
“There’s something over there.” Talem was pointing at a house just like all the others. The fact that she couldn’t make it out for herself made the approach feel more daunting, filling her with an irrational fear that what did this might be hiding just around the corner. There was something absurd about that. They were the cavalry, and here she was, aching to act yet frightened at the prospect of actually finding what they were after.
Stepping over the shattered threshold of a door that only went up to her knee, she saw that there had been three rooms. On one side was the bedroom, promising another scene like what they had found in the last house. She went the other way so she wouldn’t have to see it again, and was rewarded with a moment of relief as she came across something new.
“Talem come see this.” She waved him over and shunted his wondering look over with a nod. In front of her was a large round hole in the floor, and inside it a cleanly severed section of ironwood. “Does this look familiar to you?”
“You were right,” he said, nudging the piece of log with one of his feet. “Some kind of swapper, then? I guess the poor bastard made a bad switch. What the fuck kind of creature does something like this?”
“I believe it was a fiend.” Basia’s voice chimed in from behind them, making both of them jump. “One of the Adversary’s creatures. A reaper.”
“What did it do to them?” Shaking his head, Talem was just about to give the piece of ironwood a firm kick, when Basia’s voice made him freeze.
“It collected them.”
“Wait,” Auri cut in, giving Basia a shocked stare. “Glaivians? One of the Adversary’s fiends did this? That’s not possible, not this far from the front.”
“Reality does not agree with you. Follow me. I have found something else.”
Basia lead them to a cabin outside the circle of the village proper, a building that stood out for several reasons. The most obvious was its location, outside of the main circle that composed the hamlet proper, and unlike every other building it had two floors. It was torn open like the rest, but rather than speak of home and family, its spaces were covered in wreaths and bundled herbs, bottles of all shapes and sizes, only some of which had been smashed in the breach. The ground floor had a small bedroom and a big pantry, most of which had been scavenged by the scrounging critters of the surrounding woods. This was the abode of a wise woman or medicine man of some kind, even Auri knew enough about traditional cures to see that much.
Access to the second floor by way of the stairs had been cut off, but not by the same carnage that had gutted the other buildings. Instead it was sheared off in the same clean lines as the chunk of ironwood from before. That meant they had to climb in order to ascend. Despite the heavy damage to the house’s exterior, however, once they got upstairs they found that the room itself was more or less pristine. Whatever had smashed its way outside through the walls and doorway had left this part of the house alone. Stranger still, the single bed inside the room wasn’t empty. The monster had left someone behind.
He was tucked into several layers of blankets and quilts, so all that protruded was a chubby face that had turned blue from exposure. It held a peaceful expression that looked completely out of place with what had happened to the rest of the village. She found it difficult to make sense of, and somehow more unsettling than the gore they had already seen. This one was whole enough to still be a person. More than that, he had been right where it had all started, and yet not only was he seemingly untouched; the creature had avoided his room altogether.
“What is he doing here?”
“He may have already been dead when the monster showed up,” Talem offered.
“I don’t think so. The body is much too fresh. This child died recently. There is another possibility, however. Remember the tree?” Both her and Talem nodded at him as he managed to get one of the covers loose, and reached into the bundle. As soon as he found what he was looking for, and pulled out a small, pale foot. As he turned it over, she saw that there was an imprint of a bony, long-fingered hand wrapped around its ankle, puffy and discolored, like burns caused by a terrible cold.
“Shit,” said Talem, for the both of them. “Those fucking things are real!?”
“Yes,” Basia let go of the foot and rubbed his hands on his clothes, making an uneasy frown. “There is only one explanation. A fiend did this.”
“How can you be so sure?” Auri was uncomfortable with the amount of conjectures that were going over her head, and being faced with just how much more experienced both of her companions were. They were eliminating implications that she had not even considered, and it made her feel like a child.
“Fiends stay clear of Osa. It would be wary of the lost sister that had latched onto the boy. The same does not make sense if the sorcerer we are after did this themselves.”
“That was an option?”
“Everything is an option until we have proven otherwise. Now we have a different problem.”
“How do we track someone who can instantly cross large distances,” Talem said, running a hand through his hair as he thought out loud. “I can try. The swapped locations do stand out, but I can’t see past the horizon. We’ll have to get close.”
“That is not all.” Basia shook his head, his sour expression furrowing further. “We can’t assume the sorcerer and the Fiend are both in the same place. That means we now have two targets.”
“Wouldn’t the fiend have done to them what it did to the rest of the village?”
“No. A mere fiend can’t subvert a sorcerer. Even a Glavian could not do such a thing. Only the Adversary.”
“Then we have to split up.” Auri hated the idea as soon as she said it, but there was no other way forward, and she wanted to contribute. “Talem can track the sorcerer. The two of us can deal with the fiend.”
Basia glanced at her and opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again. His eyes lingered until they had transitioned into a hard stare, and when he finally spoke again she felt as though she had been weighed and somehow found wanting.
“No,” he said, and there was something in his voice she couldn’t quite place. A dour sort of determination. “We cannot. You and Talem will go after the young sorcerer. I will go after the fiend. I have hunted these beasts before.”
“That’s a bad idea.” Auri looked at Talem for support, but he avoided meeting her gaze. “This thing is dangerous, Basia. You shouldn’t go alone.”
“You should not go at all,” Basia snapped. “If I had known there was a Fiend, I would have gone alone. I would have been here sooner. I will not make things worse by making you face it. You will find the young sorcerer, and I… I will do what needs to be done.”
“But you did,” Auri said, her restlessness and bitterness merging into a sudden fury in order to get the better of her. “You did put me here. I have been facing it, and now you won’t let me do anything about it. You want to send me off to safety, but I’m not scared, I’m angry! We were too late, and I need to help make it right.”
“That is why you can’t come with me.” Rather than be upset by her words, Basia had managed to find his composure. It infuriated her, but he did not give her any space to reply. “They are still alive, Auri, still living this moment inside the fiend. There will be no heroism, no closure there. It is just a funeral.”
There was no way he could have known what his words would do to her. She flinched as if he had jabbed at her with a knife, backed off until she struck a wall and sliding down against it. It was as though he had opened a door, and all the conclusions that had been flying past her before landed like slaps. Their target had discovered their sorcerous truth just like she had, and like clockwork, the gift had hurt everyone they loved. Meanwhile Auri had taken her time, loitering her way here like she was going camping, confident that she would show Basia how it was done. As if he had been the reason it had all gone wrong, as if he hadn’t showed up after the fact. The truth was, it had never been his fault, it was hers. She was the one who had to make amends, and just like him, she had been too late.
“You want to make it right,” Basia crouched down by her side, hovering a hand near her shoulder in an aborted gesture of support. “Find the one we are after and take them home.”