Kaeo shook out a ragged breath before gasping for another. His throat had gone numb and his lungs burned, but he lived, so he suffered through his discomfort. His breath erupted in angry clouds into the cold dawn air. His hands clenched at his knees where he knelt in the mud, the slick texture making it difficult to steady himself without digging his nails into the flesh beneath his pants. Beads of sweat ran down his face and the back of his neck. He shivered in response to the sudden chill beneath his tunic.
“We were searching the mires south of Jacova,” Kaeo said. He took another breath before continuing. “South, where the forest begins to pull apart...they warned us...”
Kaeo stopped talking, overcome by sudden images. Despite his thirty-odd years and nearly a lifetime spent in the wilderness, he wept.
“Easy, now, hunter,” the voice in the darkness soothed. “When you’re ready, tell me the rest of what happened.”
The calm in the other’s voice gave Kaeo focus. The images tearing their way through his mind stopped, swatted away by the commanding presence before him. He couldn’t be sure exactly who stood before him, shrouded in the lingering shadows of night, but he trusted this man. He must report what he’d seen. He couldn’t let his fears eat him alive.
Kaeo spit into the mud and cleared his throat. “Before we left Jacova, we were given strict instructions to avoid dark areas, areas that could conceal the Soul Seekers. We were told to look for the mists in which they hide, but we were told explicitly to avoid any areas that looked suspicious. They told us to return to Jacova and report at once if we found such areas.”
“Told so by whom?” the voice in the darkness asked.
“By Ariel Forn, the Cortazian King, and the Dwarf Elder Council. Didn’t you know?”
“Of course. I knew, Hunter,” the voice said. The words spilled out smoothly. “Continue with your report.”
Kaeo shivered forcefully, a result of the sweat soaking through his clothes chilled by the early morning air. “My captain was a brave man, but he didn’t believe in the Seekers. Even after hearing of the destruction in Navda, even after hearing of the savagery with which the Seekers fought, he didn’t believe.” Kaeo paused. Anger rose in his throat like bile and spilt from his lips. “How could he not believe? How could he disregard a direct order and believe his commander concocted fairy tales? How could he lead us so far astray without an ounce of regard for the orders he’d been given?”
“Calm yourself, Hunter,” the voice in the darkness urged. “Keep your head clear. Keep your thoughts focused and tell me what happened next.”
Kaeo trembled. He took another breath and swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. His emotions shifted inside, stirred and set aside by some invisible hand. His mud-caked fingers fell from his knees, and he folded them gently before him.
“Yesterday evening, before the sun set, I caught a glimpse of what I believed was smoke through the trees. My captain took us, all eight of us, down into the mires. It was so dark down there, and it was getting darker. I was the one who realized that it wasn’t smoke, but mist. I told my captain at once that we should fall back, that something wasn’t right. He laughed at me and told me I shouldn’t give in to children’s ghost stories.”
Kaeo searched the darkness for the man before him, his vision clouded with sadness and rage. A vague outline settled in the shadows. He could almost put a name to him. Almost.
“Go on, Hunter.”
A flash of red exploded in his mind, turning the forest around him crimson. In the crimson haze that had become his memory, he saw his captain exactly how he’d seen him last. Dark features twisted with hideous laughter. In the turn of a second, his captain’s mouth widened into a cry of terror.
The mists around them turned inky black. A Soul Seeker rose up in front of Kaeo’s captain in its tattered black robes. Silver claws lashed out in one swift motion that tore his chest and abdomen in different directions. As the remains of the captain’s body fell away, his eyes, terrified, burned into Kaeo’s memory.
“Dead...” Kaeo managed in a single forced breath. “All of them dead. First there was one Seeker, then two, then five. By that time, we were already outnumbered. Before we could even draw our weapons, three more of us were dead.”
“And did you draw your weapon?”
Kaeo stared ahead. “I didn’t have time. None of us could defend ourselves. Only one man managed to draw his sword, and he was struck down even quicker than my captain...”
“So what did you do?”
Kaeo shook his head, made frantic by the accusation in the voice of the figure before him. “Isn’t it obvious?” he cried. “We ran. We threw down our weapons, and our supplies, and we ran. I ran. Every time I heard a man scream out behind me, I ran harder and faster. I ran until everything around me blurred into nothing. And when I heard nothing, I ran even harder.”
Kaeo wept again, tears rolling down his face like a child lost and caught out in the impenetrable dark. No one would come to save him. The hunter sunk his chin into his chest. His great sobs slowed and then ceased altogether. The figure in the dark knelt down in front of Kaeo, but his tears hid the man’s face from him.
Kaeo breathed deeply. “There’s nothing more to tell. I ran as far and as fast as I could. I ran until my legs gave out, and that is where you have found me now.”
The figure didn’t move. Unease surged through Kaeo. He couldn’t be sure why, but he suddenly and clearly realized he didn’t know who he was talking to.
“Tell me, Hunter,” the voice in the darkness whispered, the scrape of tooth against bone. “How many of the Soul Seekers have returned? How many did you feel at your back as you ran like a frightened hare?”
Kaeo’s muddied hand slid to his thigh where he kept a knife strapped at all times. His fingertips found the handle effortlessly.
“Answer the question.”
Kaeo kept his gaze locked on the shadow before him. “I can’t be sure,” he said. “It felt like a swarm of them.”
In a swift, seamless motion, the figure rose up. A cold surge of satisfaction radiated from the man and into his own body. The hunter slid the knife free from its sheath. His muscles tensed. No friend stood before him.
Kaeo leapt to his feet, launching himself into the dark, knife drawn back and poised to fall in the middle of the shadowed figure’s head.
“Useless.” A hiss that echoed in Kaeo’s ears.
Wicked green light flared in the dark. The earth beneath Kaeo rose up, enfolding him. The cold and the wetness of the dirt grasped him tight, pulling him down, its crushing pressure suffocating. The mud reached his chin, then his teeth. The cold seeped into his mouth. His breath escaped. His eyes widened, nearly popping from his head.
The face in the dark smiled.
“The Soul Seekers have come, Hunter.”
Kaeo’s lungs struggled for one last breath, but it was the darkness, the blinding blackness that finally, and so effortlessly, killed him.