Iâ€™ve always been different.
My last name, for starts. Iâ€™m probably the first human to have a last name in who knows how long, not that Iâ€™ve ever given enough of a damn to check. Itâ€™s all water under the bridge in my eyes.
Eyesâ€¦eyes that look like tiny black holes in my reflection against the still waters of the lake. Eyes that have always been just a shade lighter than the shadows themselves. Eyes that have seen unforgettable sights, some terrible acts.
Thereâ€™s been plenty of good, too, donâ€™t get me wrong. But I suppose itâ€™s just human nature to remember the bad before anything else.
My reflection melted into countless ripples as a pebble broke through the lakeâ€™s surface. I jumped just a bit from surprise. Looking behind me, I saw Art grinning to himself.
â€śWhy so nervous, Kuro?â€ť Artemisâ€™ cocky smile could have been used as a light with teeth like those, always easily visible. Even during a dark night such as this.
I blinked and turned away from the lake. Reflections donâ€™t teach me much about myself, anyway. Iâ€™ve had the same straight black hair down to my earlobes since I could remember. The same nose pressed closely to my thin face, with nostrils that curved slightly upwards. The sameâ€¦everything. I havenâ€™t changed a bit throughout my fifteen years of existence, at least not physically. Mentallyâ€¦well, that was another story entirely.
â€śIâ€™m not nervous, jackass,â€ť I said, with enough gravity to show my friend that I was not in the best of moods. â€śJust a little pensive.â€ť
Artemis wiped the sweat from his pale-skinned forehead. â€śShocking,â€ť he muttered with a sarcastic bite. â€śWhat are you thinking about this time, huh? Sedating Diyana and dragging her unconscious ass outside again?â€ť
I chuckled loudly despite myself. â€śThat was quite the prank, wasnâ€™t it. In all fairness, she had it coming. Big time, Art.â€ť
He whipped out his bow, the muscles in his shoulders rolling smoothly. He then pulled out an arrow from his backpack, pointed to a particularly thin branch, and let the flimsy piece of wood fly.
The arrow hit the exact branch Artemis had targeted. Most people would have been impressed, but I was used to it.
My friend whooped and hollered, as if in front of a crowd. â€śEvery time!â€ť
I gave him an obnoxious yawn in return, expressing both my boredom and my disdain at his bragging. I glanced up at the crescent moon, sharp as the head of a scythe. Well, that was the image that always crept to the surface of my mind. Inherent violenceâ€”we all have it. Itâ€™s just a matter of dosage.
â€śItâ€™s getting late,â€ť I told Art. â€śWeâ€™ve been out here for hours, and Iâ€™m ready to get some sleep.â€ť
Artemis shook his head, then nodded, as if debating with himself over what to do. â€śAlright, you pansy. Have it your way.â€ť
With that, I joined his side and we began to walk away from Ghostly Lake and into the Pines. The lake didnâ€™t acquire such a name by having souls swim within its depths, I promise. No, ghosts did not exist, do not exist, and never will exist. When youâ€™re dead, youâ€™ve done your part and thatâ€™s it.
The Ghostly Lake was named so because during daylight hours it always has a thin coat of mist hovering over it, constantly stirring and swirling in every which way. This gave many people the impression of spirits moving over the water.
Our trek through the Pines was like any other walk of ours through the huge forest at night. Watch your step, donâ€™t walk into that tree trunk, jump over that vine. We could practically make it home blindfolded. Of course, at such a late hour we nearly were anyway.
As we maneuvered around a particular tree, a rank odor assaulted my nostrils. I stopped dead in my tracks, choking from the smell.
Stars, what is that?
It took Artemis as few seconds to realize that I was no longer by his side. When he noticed, he turned his head toward me. â€śWhatâ€™s wrong?â€ť he called.
My jaw dropped. â€śYou really canâ€™t smell that?â€ť I asked, astonished. â€śDamn, it reeks.â€ť
Now Artemis was directly in front of me, eyeing me as if I just grew another head. â€śDude, I think youâ€™ve finally taken a whiff of your own pits. Now come on, letâ€™s go.â€ť
â€śI donâ€™t think so, Art,â€ť I said seriously. â€śWeâ€™ve traveled in these woods hundreds of times during the night. When was there ever a horrific scent like this in the air?â€ť
â€śNever. And Kuro, thereâ€™s no smell now. Itâ€™s all in your head!â€ť
Ignoring my friend, I pursed my lips and tried to look around carefully. Between the lack of stars tonight and the widespread canopy above us, it was difficult to see any details of our surroundings.
I had to draw upon Synergon.
I sighed, knowing that using the mystical force would drain my energy. Synergon is an interesting experience. One out of every four beings can exploit it. And by beings I mean all life formsâ€”animals and plants included. Yes, Synergon is elemental to the land of Roto.
Morah always told me that I had potential regarding Synergon, but I usually just shrugged off her assessments. There was nothing to ponder. Should my capabilities expand and flourish, so be it. If notâ€¦oh well.
Synergon is a magnificent form of energy, one that has no comparison. The science of the magical stuff is quite simple. It exists in the world around us, flowing and shifting constantly through both space and matter alike. Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to experience Synergon are known as Enablers, and we could utilize it in infinite ways.
And thatâ€™s just scratching the surface.
â€śCome on, Kuro!â€ť Artemis yelled in frustration. He wanted to go home, and I couldnâ€™t blame him. But I had to know what was causing that terrible smell.
I felt the Synergon around me, using inherent ability just as I would to gauge the temperature. It was like a sixth sense, feeling and harnessing the mystical energy. There wasnâ€™t an extraordinary amount of it here tonight. Luckily, all I needed to do was improve my vision. Such a simple task, even a small amount of Synergon could support it.
I held up a hand to silence Art, and I summoned the Synergon around me with my will and my skills. I felt the beautiful energy slide through my pupils and settle inside the confines of my eyeballs.Â Untouchable and untraceable by any physical means if so desired. Gotta love it.
I could sense Artemis staring at me, impressed. Judging from previous experience, he was probably looking at my now glowing eyes. I did not need Synergon to know that my best friend always stared dumbfounded when I took advantage of it. He was one of the many that was unable to use, sense, or manipulate Synergon in any way. I almost pitied all of the non-Enablers. They didnâ€™t know what they were missing.
I looked up at the sky, my vision so much clearer now. One star seemed to wink at me, shining more than the rest for just a moment.
As if any of the stars gave a shit about me.
I turned my head to my immediate surroundings, hoping to find the source of the rancid odor. I saw a squirrel resting on the branch of a nearby tree. I watched as a few leaves drifted through the air. I was just getting ready to call it quits, when I saw it.
Drops of blood.
A faint, thin trail of blood that led from a seemingly random spot of soil caught my eye. I considered that to be the answer, the cause of the smell, but I quickly killed that theory. I well knew the smell of blood. The liquid of life certainly had a unique tang to it, but I never found the smell awful.
I walked over to the little droplets and kneeled down. I put a dirty finger to the blood. Sticky and wet. In other words, it was fresh.
Suddenly, my heart began to pound.
I rose back up and found Artemis standing silently beside me, curiosity etched across his face. â€śWhat? Kuro, what is it?â€ť His voice wasnâ€™t laced with fear, but it certainly wasnâ€™t full of lollipops and sugarcanes.
I put my blood stained finger right in his face, so he could smell, feel, nearly taste the stuff. â€śIâ€™ll give you three guesses.â€ť
Artâ€™s eyes widened, ocean blue irises swallowed by black pupils. â€śWhat the hell?â€ť
I lowered my hand and said, â€śFresh, too. The question is, where does the blood trail lead?â€ť
My friendâ€™s previously hesitant expression morphed into one touched by adrenaline and excitement. I knew that if I baited him the right way, Art would want to embark on a new little quest. Of course, it was my idea to go home in the first place, but my unexpected discovery changed those plans.
I checked out both directions of the trail. To our right, I could see that the splotches were shrinking, yet becoming fresher and fresher as the trail continued. To our left, I saw the blood grow progressively thicker, but drier as well.
Hmm. Time would indicate that something, perhaps the source of the odor, was moving in the direction in which the blood was fresher.
â€śWeâ€™re going right,â€ť I said authoritatively.
â€śLead the way, Kuro,â€ť Artemis said, with pure lust for adventure.
I nodded. â€śStay close behind me so you donâ€™t get lost.â€ť
I began to walk at a slow pace, Artemis following me, me following the faint yet fresh trail of blood. After a minute, I began to realize we never even made a turn.
Artemis broke the thick silence after another few minutes. â€śHey Kuro, have you ever been in these parts of the Pines?â€ť
I looked around for a moment while we walked. â€śCome to think of it, I donâ€™t recognize any of this.â€ť
Before Artemis could respond, I saw something that caught my breath.
â€śHoly light!â€ť I exclaimed in utter awe.
For several feet in front of us, a tree lay on its side, sliced evenly near its roots.
â€śWhat is it, Kuro?â€ť Artemis asked anxiously.
I didnâ€™t answer him until we reached the severed tree. Even Art could see something so obvious right in front of our eyes.
â€śWhat the hell?â€ť the muscular boy exclaimed, if not curiously then amazedly. â€śWhat could do this, besides a sword? And who would be out here at this hour?â€ť
I looked closely at the tree, both the rooted and toppled parts. The only item of significance I noticed was that the drops of blood simply continued over the smooth surface of the defaced tree. By now, though, they were so faint that I had to strain to see them, even with Synergon supporting me. We were certainly near the end.
â€śA sword, Art?â€ť I answered his question with a question. Pardon me for being rude.
He chuckled. Beads of sweat flew from his forehead, despite the lukewarm temperature. â€śWell, itâ€™s either a sword or the hand of God himself.â€ť
I made eye contact with Artemis. â€śThere is no God, Art. Someone had a blade, and it mustâ€™ve been big enough to slice this tree in one swipe.â€ť
â€śDamn,â€ť was all he said in response.
We continued walking, the odor growing stronger and viler. I saw through the trees that on our left was the Ghostly Lake, somewhat far away. And since we were moving south when we were on our way home, that meant that we were heading east, towards the Cyre Tundra. Of course, we were nowhere close to the blizzard realm, but it was always good to get a perspective.
Another minute passed, and the trail finally ended. I stopped walking, as did Artemis.
â€śThe trail ends here,â€ť I told him. â€śBut thereâ€™s nothingâ€¦â€ť I looked around us, spotting a few trees, some small animals, andâ€¦there! Past the group of pebbles in front of us was a hill of dirt, about four feet high and three feet wide.
â€śArtemis!â€ť I said, emotion in my voice. â€śThat small hill, see it? Somethingâ€™s hidden inside of it!â€ť
We ran to the pile of dirt. Shit, Morah was going to kill me when I got home. No matter. Iâ€™d rather die living than live dying.
â€śDo we just, um, dig?â€ť Artemis asked.
I answered by thrusting a hand into the large clump of dirt. The effort was harder than you would think thanks to the energy I was sacrificing to improve my vision.
â€śYea. Art, help me out.â€ť
We dug together. It didnâ€™t take long, and halfway through the pile we saw part of what was being hidden.
Blood, bone, and fur.
Artemis had to walk away and puke upon seeing the half-decayed, half-chewed cadaver. His tall frame was doubled over, and he was making noises I would rather not remember. The putrefying body didnâ€™t bother me in the least bit, even though I knew it should have.
â€śIâ€™ll finish, Art.â€ť
By the time we completed the digging, my hands were covered in dirt, blood, and guts.
I looked over at my friend. â€śAre you okay now?â€ť
He nodded and walked back over to me. â€śYea, thanks.â€ť
We both studied the corpse. Upon seeing its dead face, I knew that it was a bear. Its chest and stomach were ripped open, and its limbs were torn apart by what appeared to be bite marks. Bones popped outward at awkward angles.
â€śSomeone was either hungry or just plain sick,â€ť Artemis said.
â€śI think Iâ€™ll go with hungry,â€ť I said. Working from there, I figured out the rest of this mystery. â€śThis explains why the trail got fainter and fainter. Someone must have carried this bearâ€”already killed, maybe half eatenâ€”from the west. By the time the person got here, there was barely any blood left to fall. The only reason we touched blood was probably because we cut into places that werenâ€™t already split open while we were digging.â€ť
Artemis nodded. He may have acted like a stupid athlete, but he was capable of thinking when he wanted to. He understood what happened, I was sure.
â€śAnd the killer saved some for later,â€ť Art inferred, â€śjudging by the amount of the bear left. Plus, he hid the carcass for a reason, right?â€ť
I nodded. â€śHe didnâ€™t want anyone else taking his game.â€ť
â€śHeâ€”or she, I guessâ€”must have been pretty strong to carry a bear that far.â€ť
â€śNo shit,â€ť I said. â€śRemember the sliced tree? Or rather, it could have just been a human whoâ€™s really good with Synergon. Maybe heâ€™s a Master.â€ť
There was silence for a long moment. Then, Artemis said what neither of us wanted to admit.
â€śUnless we arenâ€™t dealing with something human.â€ť
I was beginning to regret this whole journey. What did either of us really gain in the end? So some swordsman was lurking in the Pines, savagely killing and eating animals. What did that have to do with me?
I shook my head. Always finish what you start, I believed. And this certainly wasnâ€™t over.
â€śKuro,â€ť Artemis said suddenly, â€śhow the hell did you smell this thing from so far away? I didnâ€™t start to smell it until we were only minutes away.â€ť
â€śI have a good nose,â€ť I answered simply.
It was insignificant. I smelled the cadaver, and here we were. Period.
â€śMaybeâ€”â€ť Artemis was cut off by a loud noise that came from our right. It sounded like the howling of a wolf and the growling of a bear fused together and lasted for several seconds.
Both of our eyes widened in very real fear, as we realized that the noise was getting louder and louder.
â€śArtemis!â€ť I yelled, despite the fact that he was right next to me. â€śRun!â€ť