Whispers in the Wilderness

A whore in a brothel once told me I had a heart as cold as ice,” Ronove said, his thumbs sinking into the eye sockets of the winged man pinned to the cold forest floor, his screams echoing through the night. “But I told her she was wrong because I do… what I do… for love.”

The forest air was heavy with the scent of decay, and the rustling of dry leaves added to the eerie atmosphere. Moonlight cast ghostly shadows through the gnarled branches, illuminating Ronove’s hooded figure. His bat-like wings arched menacingly, their clawed tips poised to strike.

With a fierce snarl, Ronove drove his claws into the bloodied pelican wings of his victim. “So, I say this with no malice. Die, you son of a bitch,” he growled, pressing his fingers and shoulders forward with brutal force.

The man’s yelps ceased, leaving only the haunting silence of the forest. Ronove withdrew his thumbs from the lifeless eyes and jerked his wings back. The corpse lay motionless in the dust as Ronove wiped his bloody hands on his cloak, his dark deed complete.

Tonight was the tenth man he had killed this month, each death a unique masterpiece of violence. Yet, he felt nothing but emptiness gnawing at his soul, despite the vengeance he wrought for the attempt on the life of his mother’s Naamah. She had been the reason for his relentless pursuit of the men who vowed to kill her, and Ronove had sworn to eliminate every one of them.

They both lived in obscurity now, a necessary precaution so he could carry out her dark bidding, and the woods of Everguard had become his hunting ground, and he was its most ruthless predator.

Ronove drew his blade and gutted the corpse in hopes the bloody scent would ward off any woodsmen and cutthroats. He started a fire, its flames casting a warm glow in the cold night. He tied off his horse and ate a meager meal of a rabbit he had caught earlier; the taste was bland as the sense of satisfaction that eluded him.

He lay down to rest, but sleep was a fleeting visitor, chased away by the whispers of the dead that haunted his dreams. A snap of twigs caused Ronove to spring to his feet, sword drawn, eyes scanning the darkness. His horse was gone, the empty tether swaying gently in the night breeze. The forest seemed to close in around him, and he felt the prickling sensation of being watched.

“Who’s there?” Ronove’s voice cut through the silence.

With every one of his senses on high alert, he circled the dying fire. For days he had felt this presence, dismissing it as paranoia. But now, with his horse stolen and the wood unnervingly quiet, he knew someone was out there.

A shadow moved at the edge of the firelight, and Ronove’s grip tightened on his sword. He lunged toward the figure, but his blade met only air. The shadow slipped into the darkness, elusive and silent. A cold sweat broke out on his brow as he realized he was facing an enemy unlike any other.

The hunter has become the hunted, Ronove assessed.

The forest remained silent, save for the distant call of a nightbird. Ronove’s breath came in ragged bursts, his heart pounding in his chest. He could sense the presence, feel its eyes on him, but it refused to reveal itself.

Minutes felt like hours as Ronove stood waiting for the shadow to strike. But nothing happened. Finally, he lowered his sword, realizing the game his unseen foe was playing. They wanted him to be afraid, to be off balance.

Ronove rotated his back to the pile of diminishing embers and faced the darkness head-on.

“You think you can scare me?” he shouted. “I’ve killed ten men this month. I’ll kill you too, whoever you are.”

Silence answered him, a silence that felt mocking and eternal. Ronove’s eyes narrowed, his resolve hardening. He would find this shadow, this elusive enemy, and he would end them. For his mother, for his peace of mind, he would hunt them down.

As he set off into the creepy woodlands, leaving the embers behind, the emptiness inside him seemed to grow. He was a killer, a harbinger of death, but with every life he took, he felt more like the prey than the predator. The shadow that stalked him was a reminder of the darkness he could never escape, no matter how many enemies he vanquished.

The hunt had begun anew, and Ronove knew that this time, the stakes were higher than ever, and sprinted through the dense foliage.

The rustling behind him grew louder, more insistent, confirming his worst fear—he was being stalked not just by one man but by a group. The foliage was a maze of shadows and twisted trees, each one a potential hiding spot for his pursuers. Branches whipped at his face and arms, but he didn’t slow down. He had to keep moving, had to outpace them. His mind raced contemplating his options as his wings, folded tightly against his back, arched to spread and take flight.

The thick canopy forced him to fly low, and ahead, he spotted a narrow ravine, its sides steep and rocky. It was a risk, but it could provide the cover he needed. He veered towards it, descended, and his landing echoed off the stones. The footfalls of his assailants grew faint, but he knew they wouldn’t give up so easily. He needed to set a trap, to turn the hunters into the hunted.

Reaching the bottom of the ravine, Ronove pressed himself against the rocky wall, catching his breath. He probed his surroundings, looking for anything he could use. There, to his left, a pile of loose rocks precariously balanced. With a calculated shove, he dislodged them, sending a cascade of stones tumbling down. The noise was deafening, a signal to his pursuers, but also a potential weapon.

He climbed a short distance up the opposite side, finding a vantage point where he could watch the entrance to the ravine. His sword was ready, his muscles tense. Moments later, the first of his hunters appeared, a shadowy figure slipping into the ravine cautiously. Ronove waited, patience his ally. Another figure followed, and another, until four men stood at the bottom, looking around warily.

With a sudden, powerful leap, Ronove sprang from his hiding spot, his wings unfurling to aid his descent. He landed among them, his sword flashing in the dim light of the moon. The element of surprise was his greatest weapon, and he struck with lethal precision.

One man fell instantly, his throat cut. The others reacted quickly, but not quick enough.

Ronove’s wings lashed out, their spiked tips striking like spears. Another man crumpled; his chest pierced. The remaining two circled him, weapons drawn, their eyes filled with a mix of fear and determination. They lunged at him, but Ronove was faster, his movements a deadly dance. He parried their blows, driving his sword into one man’s gut and spinning to slice the other’s hamstring. The last man fell to his knees, a look of agony on his face.

“Who sent you?” Ronove said in a low growl. The man coughed, blood bubbling from his lips. “Who wants me dead?”

You’re… a pawn, Ronove. A pawn in a game… you don’t understand.”

Ronove knuckled his eyes. “Tell me? Is it that forsaken Human King or those Guardian Knights?”

The man’s whispers turned to a wheeze, and he collapsed, lifeless, at Ronove’s feet. Frustration surged through him. He was no closer to understanding who was behind these attacks and watching him.

Ronove flicked blood from his knife’s edge and turned to leave the ravine to find his mother to warn her that their enemies were more numerous and organized than they had imagined, and the forest was no longer safe conservation; it was a battlefield, and Ronove was at the center of it.

As he made his way through the shadows, he knew the hunt was far from over and was just the beginning…

"A whore in a brothel once told me I had a heart as cold as ice...But I told her she was wrong because I do... what I do... for love."