Chapter 1

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Chapter 1

A glint. Nothing more. But he recognized metal when he saw it. They’d tried to hide the signs, but this was the place. Odd, their level of intelligence.

Cloak hanging limp from his shoulders, Ancel Dorn stopped where crimson tinged the white fluff near the trap. A drop here, a drop there, before they increased in regularity. The spots became spatters and then lines of red meandering to the distant tree line where snow dressed the forest in white as if preparing it for the long slumber. A satisfied smile twitched at the corner of his mouth.

The hunt always brought a certain sensation for him: a soothing calm to go along with the steady rhythm of his heartbeat. The promise of a kill, however, now that offered a different story and sang the opposite song. A song that sent a tingle through his body.

After another bout with nightmares that seemed all too real, dawn found him here in the Greenleaf Woods where winter’s chill strengthened its grip. Although no gusts yet howled through the trees whose mostly skeletal limbs reached to the curdled sky, the temperature made him glad he’d chosen to don furs over his leather armor. Some leaves clung to life despite the hoarfrost enveloping their branches and trunks like icy mold. He listened, hoping for the telltale crunch of feet through snow, but he heard nothing. Neither the twitter of birds nor the forest animals’ chatter. The air was expectant, an indrawn breath waiting for release or for the last gasp of a dying man.

The imminent danger might have worried someone else, a person of lesser constitution, but not him. Better this, to hunt and to kill, basking in the thrill of stalking a deadly adversary, than to wake sweaty and fevered from the horrors of his dreams. The visions of the wall to his old home exploding, a man swathed in all black stepping through flames dragging Mother behind him by one arm. Nightmares of himself standing within a city he knew only from stories as he faced the wrath of the gods. From the ghastly images where he used his new power to kill friends and family, bringing the world to ruin.

Ancel grimaced with the memories, squeezing his eyes tight against the sudden pounding in his ears. After a few deep breaths, his racing heart eased. A breath of winter played against his face, bringing with it the crisp scents of the forest and the sharp odor of blood. He opened his eyes and bent to inspect the metallic glint the white drifts should have hidden. Carmine splotches, bits of grey fur, and flesh, covered the jagged edges of iron teeth.

But there was no corpse. At least not that he could see.

Frozen red flecks, crushed grass, and brush, carved a path through the snow. The trail meandered from the clearing out into the woods where weak light filtered through the trees but revealed little of the forest floor. Almost any mound or dappled shadow could hide the wolf.

Several dozen paw prints marred the lily-white fluff, headed in the same direction as the wounded animal. As he suspected, the beast wasn’t alone. The gray wolves of the Kelvore Mountains weren’t known to abandon their pack mates. Lately though, they took to the woods in greater numbers than he remembered. Wolves were creatures of habit; change did not come without a reason.

The remaining folk in Eldanhill blamed the beasts for the lack of game when there should have been plenty. It was almost as if the people preferred to deceive themselves than admit the truth. They went so far as to act as if the ancient protections still held, that the monsters of old could not cross into Granadia, despite the proof provided by the attack on their homes.

He entertained no such absurdity. The images of the dead rising to become monsters before soldiers struck them down and burned them were imprinted in his memory. He had his own idea as to the dearth of forest animals, but he kept it to himself. Dredging up the horrors of the past few months would not go over well with the survivors and the glut of refugees despite the existence of sufficient proof. Regardless, the presence of this many wolves played well into his goal.

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