I pop into the lush forest straight from the desert and take a long breath, inhaling the layers of green. I love the deep thick moist air. My muscles loosen, and I begin to relax. My duties have kept me far too long in the desert. I close my eyes and breathe in the humidity, raising my arms over my head. Then I laugh. Finally, I might understand why mortals love yoga.
As I step further into my trees, the dust falls from my jacket. Maybe I should walk over to a tree and touch a root to ground myself. Nah. My mood will do nicely to touch base with the locals. I run a quick scan across the woods before heading out to the bar. Something feels off, so I step off the path until I can’t see the road. Maybe this yoga thing will help. I take a deep breath, raise my hands over my head, and bend a knee until my foot is resting on the other knee. I hold the position for a moment, but nope, this is silly, and now I am laughing again.
It is time to get serious. I reach out to see what I can pick up from the animals. Images flash across my mind. Squirrels are preparing for winter, as always. The cute little buggers are constantly losing their stash. The ants are busily making fortresses and preparing for war. I’ve always admired their organization. The deer are jumpy and frisky. A little jumpier than I like, but their minds are only showing a vague shadow darting around. The coyotes are… Wait, why are the coyotes scared?
More images come in. The ground is torn. There are large hoof prints, but they aren’t complete. Has someone purposely tried to scuff them up? The smell is revolting. What is that? There is something familiar, but…is that perfume? It is very odd that I can’t identify it. There are carcasses scattered around, half-eaten and mutilated. Mutilated? This almost looks like the fake satanic ritual mutilations that were popular some time ago. That can’t be. I put that moron down quickly, and the human copycats rapidly lost interest or were arrested. I shake my head to clear my anger. The waste of animals could send me into a rage, and that will not help. Yet.
I need more information. It is time for a bird’s-eye view. Ah, there’s an eagle. Perfect. Hello, little one, I thought as I gave it a reassuring mental stoke and asked, Show me the path of the bad smell. Unlike the deer and coyote, the eagle’s thoughts are steady. It shows me wide, long sweeping images from high above. Finally, there is something to make me smile. I’m going to have to ask Pegasus for a ride when I get home again.
The trail starts in a cave in the woods. My mind fills with rage for a moment, feeling that this nebulous tainted thing has invaded part of my home. I want it out of my caves. The odd tracks came out and ran toward town. Some of the houses had scorch marks, and something had been dragged into the woods. The eagle’s eyes then darted and tracked a mouse. I caught a few more winged memories that were about the same. It’s odd that none of them show what caused the mess.
Time to check up with the mortals. I now know where to go to track this down, but I’d like to hear more. I take off, walking for the Crow’s Nest. It has been a while since I have been to this dive bar. The mortals here are reminiscent of my family, arrogant and dangerous. Still, they have a charm to them, and they, at least, respect the forest.
I open the door and am hit with the thick smell of smoked meat, fruity hops, and yeast that must have seeped into the walls by now. It makes my mouth water. The breakfast of shakshuka was ages ago, and I always dive into ale after having been in a place with no libations for so long. The bar was darker than the woods and filled with beards. Mostly they are long and grey with one lonely goatee. Clearly, it belongs to a hiker from the south, judging from the rolled-up skinny jeans and tech pad things scattered on the table. He does seem a bit on guard around the grizzled old men. Honestly, it is cute. I will make sure they do not play with him like cats with their prey.
“Artie!” a man yells from across the bar.
“Morty,” I yell back, knowing the voice well. I walk over and clasp hands with the longest beard in the room. A genuine smile crosses my face. “It’s good to see an old friend.”
He smiles back and waves a finger at me. “Old is right. How is it that you are here looking as fresh as ever, and I am a wrinkled bag of bones?”
I shrug. “There are many ways to keep youthful these days,” I say and wink at him. He has always been one of the few that know but don’t need to push, a true friend.
He laughs and calls to the bartender, “Al, a Guinness for Artie and I.” Al looks up and sees me for the first time. “Ah, Artie, is it? Do I need to tap a new barrel for ya?” he asks seriously.
“Not this time, Al. Just stopping for a short visit,” I explain as I sit down at Morty’s table.
After a mug and hearing about the latest hunting season, I ask about the burned house I saw on the way into town. He looks around and says, “House just caught fire in the middle of the night. Fire investigators don’t know what could have happened, and there was no ignition source found. I hear they can’t even find the origin point of the fire. There were too many hot spots to track. Then they couldn’t find the little girl who lived there. Some people think maybe she started the fire, but surely the fire investigators could have tracked down anything a little kid could have done. I went up there and saw that something had been dragged out of the house.” He paused and lowered his voice. “The weird thing is that no one was talking about it. I immediately decided to track it down but then just didn’t. I went home and watched TV.”
He slams his fist on the table and takes a breath. “Artie, I’ve never flaked out on a kid. Never!” Then me and the guys were talking about it. They saw the marks in the mud but didn’t take a look around. How’s it that a bunch of hunters and trackers just didn’t follow the tracks?” He takes a long sip of his beer and looks me straight in the eye. “I’ve heard whispers of this kind of thing in another town around here. Maybe the men just don’t wanna admit that they didn’t do what a man should, but I think it’s more than that. I think there is more to this, and it’s happened more than we think. I hate to ask for anything, Artie. You done so much for us already, but this is weird. Just plain weird, and you’re…something. I don’t know what, but you’re something. Do you think you’d be able to take a look?”
His question pulls me out of trying to put these pieces together and scour my long memory for clues. “Of course, I will help,” I say, ignoring his question about what I am. I slide him a card. “I’m going to take a look around. Here’s my new number. Can you send me contact info for the fire investigators? I’d like to have a chat with them.”
He seems relieved. “Will do. Thank you.”
I remember at the last minute. “And make sure the goatee at the other table stays safe.”
He rolls his eyes. “Aw, Artie. They come up here with their ideas and—”
I interrupt him, “And they could bring in money and ruin the place, or they could help preserve what you have been fighting to keep pure.”
He groans. “Fine. Fine. I’ll look after him.” I smile, stand up, and pull my wallet out. He puts his hand over mine. “Nope. I got this. Like I said, you been doing stuff for us ever since I first laid eyes on ya. I’ll get this, and you go get that.”
I smile. “Will do. Let me know if anything else comes up or if you remember anything.” Then I lean close to his ear and say, “Let the hunt begin.” I push a little energy toward him. His pupils widen, and his eyes focus. I can feel his mood lift and his head clear a little. The wheels start turning for both of us, and I walk out of the bar.
I take the route my eagle friend showed me rather than the road. I hike through the woods, deciding to go at mortal speeds. I want to get that smell stuck in my head. It is nasty, but I am having a hard time remembering it already. As I find the path and walk it, the smell does start to settle in. I also notice the leaves that look slightly out of place. This is clearly a spell designed to hide the actions of something from sight and memory.
Nearing the house, I pick up the smell of a girl who had been wild with panic. I decide to go after her before examining the house and stay with the trail. The closer I get, the more panic I smell and the more visible the signs of the trail become. I reach the cave I saw earlier and slow down. I approach cautiously, not knowing if the creature is still in there. It is possible it is not mortal and well able to hide.
I slip into the cave silently, and the spell instantly disappears. I can feel the savagery committed here. The smell no longer has the odd vagueness to it, and the perfume overtone is gone. The scent is worse than ever. The cave is covered in large hoof prints and coated in blood. I move further in and find limbs. Rage explodes inside my chest. This was a child! I hurry from the cave and lean against a tree, breathing deeply. I pull out my phone, thankful for the closeness to town and cell towers. “I need the maidens in Michigan now,” I say and disconnect the call. Truly, The Hunt has begun.
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