by Raven Jade
Aelhar Hurech, a ranger, receives a letter asking him to return home to Doln Nory.
A wind rose in the Blue Mountains of the Pyrenees. Born below the ever-cloud-capped peaks, the wind blew east, out across the Sable Hills. Down it rushed into the Twin Rivers, into the twisted forest known as Draylam Woodland. Aelhar moved through the thick, knotted woods as skillfully and deftly as the animals that inhabited this forest.
Gusts whirled around Aelhar, whipping the peaked tails of his leather jacket around his legs. Pulling his peaked hood forward to protect his face from debris, the wind picked up. No birds sang in the forest, no squirrels chittered from branches. He did not expect them, not this spring. Trees that kept leaf or needle through the winter had no greenery. Snarls of last year's brambles spread brown webs over stone outcrops under the trees. Nettles numbered most among the few weeds; the burrs or thorns, skunkweed, which left a rank smell on the unwary boot that crushed it.
Scattered patches of snow still dotted the ground, where tight clumps of trees kept a deep shade. The pale sun sat above the trees to the east, as if mixed with shadow. It was a surreal morning, made for unpleasant thoughts.
Without thinking, he reassured himself of his weapons in hidden locations around his body. Winter had been bad enough on the farms, worse than even the old ones remembered, but it must have been worse in the mountains, if the number of wolves driven down into the Twin Rivers was any guide.
Wolves raided the sheep pens and chewed their way into barns to get cattle and horses. Now, bears were coming down from their mountain homes after sheep, too. It was no longer safe for folks to be out after dark.
Aelhar kept moving steadily, his eyes scanning, ears listening; all senses peaked and reflexes ready. He got the feeling he was being watched. Nothing moved or made a sound among the trees, except the wind. That's what bothered him.
However, not only did the feeling persist, it grew stronger. The hairs on his arms stirred; his skin prickled, making it feel itchy on the inside. That was a sign something was amiss. He glanced over his shoulder and over twenty spans of the trail, a cloaked figure on horseback. The horse and rider were all black. Aelhar stopped and faced toward the rider. The rider's cowl hid the face well. Aelhar could not see an outline of a face, only a black hole. He had the feeling he was looking into the rider's eyes and he sensed hatred as sharply as if he could see a snarling beast, a hatred for everything that lived. Hatred for him above all.
The rider abruptly reined in his horse. Aelhar pulled his sword, ready for the attack.
"Another time, ranger," hissed an otherworldly voice. With that, the rider turned his horse, rode away, and disappeared.
Aelhar waited with sword poised, watching and listening. Satisfied no attack was forthcoming, he sheathed his sword. What did he mean, 'another time ranger?' Then he realized what had been odd about the horseman besides his strange appearance. The wind did not stir the black cloak. Definitely the strangest encounter he had ever experienced, which left him feeling weird and numb.
Reaching into his jacket, he pulled a letter from inside his jacket. It read, "Strange things are happening around Doln Nory, the Vearney Woods, and other hamlets and farms. I need your help! Come quickly! Your friend Jax."
Aelhar sighed. It would be a long night.
Vearney Woods is close to the village of Doln Nory. On the second day of his journey, the sun was setting and the woods gradually thinning until the last few trees stood actually among the stout frame houses. The land sloped gently down to the east. Patches of woods, farms, and hedge-bordered fields and pastures quilted the land beyond the village, all the way to the far edge of Vearney Woods. Its maze of meadows, streams, and ponds. The land to the west was fertile, and the pastures were plentiful for most years.
Aelhar looked down at the hamlet of Doln Nory. Dusk had set in and candle light began winking on in the windows of each cottage. He descended the side of the hill with agility and skill. Everyone was in for the night, and the smell of home cooking was inescapable. He did not realize how hungry he was until his stomach growled, started by the pleasant culinary aromas. Aelhar headed down the lane toward Potter's Manor Inn. Jeremiah Potter was the jolly proprietor of the establishment. Potter kept a reputable place, always clean, hospitable, good ale, and excellent food.
The good food was because of Telena Ambrose. She had been with Potter and the inn for thirty years and was a spritely, middle-aged woman that could work circles around the younger folk. The lady kept everything organized and ran tight ship. Travelers going to and from the city of Sharach would take the roads passing by Doln Nory to stay at the inn and for the food.
Aelhar could not wait to get a plate of her pot roast, seasoned potatoes, buttery peas and carrots, and her delicious sourdough bread. His stomach growled again, prompting him to hurry before it ate him. Arriving before the entrance to the inn, bright lights from inside shone warmly through the colorful stained glass windows. As he stepped into the room, Aelhar closed his eyes and breathed.
The inn had an aroma he found irresistible: pipe and hearth smoke mingled in the air, along with Telena's cooking from the kitchen. As he opened his eyes, again, the pleasant air caught in his throat. The crowd at the inn was often boisterous, but not tonight; the air was more solemn, only low murmurings and conversations. He noticed people glanced at him with suspicion - not with the welcoming look they would have given three years ago.
Aelhar's face grew grim. This was not the homecoming he expected. The rumors he heard were true. A touch on his arm interrupted his thoughts, and he turned to see Jax.
"It's about time you got here!"
"Well, hello to you too!" Aelhar snapped.
"Things have been tense recently and we have a lot to discuss."
"I'm hungry," said Aelhar.
Jax rolled his eyes. "Over there!"
Jax pointed to a table to the right of the hearth.
"We can talk privately there."
Aelhar and Jax seated themselves at the table in the far corner of the inn near the hearth. Jax waved over a serving girl. The lass was a pretty youth of fourteen with her red hair in braids, sparkling green eyes, and a bit on the skinny side. Her name was Trixie. Potter hired youth who needed work to help support their families. Both he and Telena trained them to be good workers in every capacity of the inn. Potter and the people of the village believed in taking care of their own. Good people lived Doln Nory.
The young lady quickly arrived at their table and the two men ordered their food. Trixie was gone in a flash to turn in the order, but just as quickly returned with two mugs of ale and a small loaf of sourdough bread with honey butter.
She leaned in and spoke quietly to the men.
"What is going on, making everyone gloomy and anxious?" Her eyes registering deep concern.
"Nothing to worry your little head about," Jax smiled at her and winked as he buttered a slice of bread. Aelhar pulled down his hood and smiled at her too.
"It will be all right, Miss Trix. Don't let the rumors scare you. Jax and I will figure this all out."
He also gave her a wink of reassurance. She smiled back and moved off to help another customer.
"I hope so my friend," interjected Jax.
Aelhar sat contemplating, and the events described were disturbing.
"So did you see any of the bodies firsthand," asked Aelhar.
"Yes, but I'd rather wait until after we have eaten."
"Weak stomach, eh?"
Jax gave him a withering look. Trixie popped up with their food, steaming and sizzling, placing their plates in front of them. Aelhar's mouth watered as he inhaled the steamy goodness.
Jax lifted his mug. "Here's to Telena's culinary wizardry."
Aelhar lifted his mug, "Here, here!", and both took a long draw.
"So, how is your brother and his family?"
Jax washed down his bite of food with ale. "Their doing fine. Levi wants to talk to us as soon as you got here, but since you were starving, we will go as soon as we are done."
"Yes, like nothing we have seen before."
Jax and Aelhar sat across the table from Levi, Jax's brother and mayor of Doln Nory, as he explained the situation of the gruesome attacks.
"This all took place at 'the land between the lakes'," began Levi. "A bipedal wolf-like creature is stalking the forest."
"Wait," said Aelhar. "This thing walks upright?"
"Yes," resumed Levi. "it has an appetite for killing livestock, forest animals, and pets. They describe it as being seven feet tall on two legs, thick matted hair all over its body and a stench that smells of rotting flesh."
Aelhar rubbed his chin. This was too fantastic. Werewolves and malevolent fairy creatures were stories told to children to make them behave and stay in doors at night.
"Are we talking about a werewolf?"
Levi nodded his head, "From the descriptions I have received of this creature. Yes, werewolf would fit."
Aelhar looked over at Jax, who gave a sympathetic shrug.
"Is it a possibility that it might be a wild man who thinks he's a werewolf?"
Levi shook his head. "It's a possibility."
"I saw it, Aelhar, and it did not prepare me for this kind of carnage," interjected Jax. "A wild man could not do what this creature did. The bodies, mutilated and drained of their blood."
"What about a bear? There's been reports of bears and actual wolves coming from the mountains to find food. This could be a case of mistaken identity."
"A bear can't run on two legs, and the bodies, mutilated and drained of blood," said Jax.
"Fine. What about paw prints? Did you see any paw prints?"
Jax shuddered and spoke with forced calm. "The prints looked like human hands and feet, but clearly paw prints as well."
"Whatever it is, we need to find out. That's why we called you back home, Aelhar," said Levi. "You and Jax are the best, and I'm not saying because he's my brother and you're his best friend. You both are the best team this area has. I need answers because people are becoming irrational from fear. I have a town hall meeting tomorrow and need you both there."
Aelhar was about to speak--surge of energy hit him. His vision blurred, he gasped for air, and he sweat profusely. The air crackled and popped around him and the acrid taste of bile began building in his throat, causing his stomach to roll. His ears roared, piercing his mind. He slumped over the table and all went dark and silent.
"There she is! Go in and get her," the leader shrieked.
Lightning flashed again, and the silhouette was gone. Their quarry had escaped.
"Idiots, you let her get away!" The dragon howled.
A bolt ripped through the harpy and gargoyle ranks. The leader watched their flaming bodies descend below to be claimed by the black, oily waters of the Maelstrom. She knew if she didn't escape the melee of storms, or she would suffer the same fate. Shards of burning pain tore through her forearm where the other dragon had clawed her. The leader veered into the same cloud bank after her sister and spied a waning rift. "Fool," she said and headed for the rift.
Aelhar jerked awake, his head throbbed with searing pain. "Oh, my head." Something cool touched him and a melodic voice spoke.
"It's all right, Aelhar. Just lie back down and rest." The soothing voice instructed him. He obeyed and opened one eye to see Marla looking down at him.
"What's going on? Why am I in bed?"
"You collapsed at the table. Levi and Jax got into the guest room. Larina and I have been tending to you. Levi and Jax want to know when you've regained consciousness. Larina went to get them."
She dabbed his face with a cool wet cloth, from the water bowl next to the bed and placed on his forehead.
"How are you feeling?"
"My whole body hurts. I feel like I've been beaten and drug down a million miles of road."
"He's awake. You had us scared to death when you slumped over like that for no reason," said Jax as he busted through the door. "I thought you were dead."
"Not quite. But, I feel I should be."
"How are you doing, son?" asked Levi.
"I'm alive, but I don't know what happened or why?"
Jax and Levi looked at each other with concern displayed on their faces.
"All right, you two know something? What's up?"
Levi pursed his lips, gazed at the floor, and then back to Aelhar. "After you collapsed, my boys thought they saw a figure near the woods. He was all in black and his horse was black. They said when he saw them, he disappeared into the woods."
Aelhar sat up and swung his legs off the bed to stand up and realized he didn't have his trousers on. Throwing the covers over his lap, his cheeks began to burn. Marla stifled a giggle and waved her hand. "I'll be in the kitchen if anyone needs me."
Jax through his trousers at him laughing.
"What do you think you're doing," asked Levi.
"The figure you described your boys saw. I'm convinced it's the same dark figure I encountered in the Draylam Woodlands on the way here."
"Why didn't you tell me about it, Aelhar," asked Jax.
"Please tell us about this encounter," said Levi.
Aelhar recounted the incident with the figure on the trail through the Draylam and how it stalked him and told him another time.
"What did that thing mean by that?"
"I'm just a puzzled as you are, Jax. I've never had dealing with anything like this. I really didn't know what to think about it, so I just put it out of my mind," said Aelhar.
Levi looked thoughtfully, tapping his chin with his index knuckle. "Well, it's obvious that this person or thing is following you. Somehow, we need to find out what it is and what it wants. Something tells this thing might be behind the sighting of the werewolf. The town hall meeting is tomorrow evening, and I don't have any answers."