The mist hung heavy over the hilly landscape, as it did every evening, making the journey from the citadel back to Aynamaede tricky at best. Allynna quickened her pace a bit, her keen vision scanning each tree she passed. In addition to the undead and the orcs that made their nightly rounds of the forest, there were rumors spreading that a monster was loose and no one of her kind was safe. She dug into the ground with her staff as she went, her bow slung over one shoulder and secured with a leather strap to her quiver. Instead of the school’s backpack, she carried her essentials in two packs tied onto her belt. Allynna’s blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail that bobbed as she walked ever faster yet resisted the urge to break into a telltale run for her treetop home. The voice of her guild master rang in her ears, repeating over and over the lesson about when to stay and fight and when to run. “Remember, if you run, it’s a sure sign of weakness and your enemy will pursue as you open up your vulnerable backside to attacks.” She had to return, drop off her things, and then she could be off to meet her new protégé at the stone circle.
Allynna took a deep breath as she focused on steadying her steps. Suddenly she felt her tunic snag on something, most likely a low branch, and she turned, swearing under her breath, to free herself.
“Evening, ma’am,” came a deep, resonant voice that seemed to surround her. She looked around wildly for the source of the voice but saw no one. “Down here,” said the voice, and she felt another tug at her tunic. She looked down and gasped as she spotted the teal feline eyes gazing back up at her.
The scream rising in her throat never made it to open air. A large clawed hand wrapped around her neck like a vice, and she felt herself lifted off the ground.
“Mm yummy,” said the voice, pulling her into the shadows. Before her was a Qatu, an Oranian race of cats that walked upright like humans. Allynna kicked and squirmed, but the giant cat just laughed. He tightened his grip with one hand as he ran the tips of his massive claws on the other down the sides of her face and chin. She grimaced as his fingers slowly circled her cheek. Suddenly, his teal eyes locked onto hers. Allynna could not speak. She merely stared back into those beautiful and terrible eyes as they glowed in the moonlight like precious stones, and she trembled from head to toe.
“Sad,” the Qatu said, smirking at her. “I would have liked to have heard your voice before you died.” Her eyes widened as he tightened his grip, and then the light within them seemed to snuff out, like a torch extinguished. Her head lolled over as her broken neck could no longer support its weight. The Qatu pressed her body against his face and inhaled deeply before he dropped her to the ground. A quick search earned him several gold and silver coins, two belt packs of food, a bow of turned dark wood, and a quiver full of brand new arrows.
“Ranger, eh?” he said as he made a final sweep of her pockets for money. Finding none, he turned her lifeless body over on her back. The moonlight caught something shiny around her neck and he leaned in to investigate. It was a silver necklace with a single ornament: a round piece of silver with something engraved in the language of the Elves. After giving her a few more shoves to make sure she was dead, the Qatu stole off into the night to investigate his treasures.
Ginolwenye, a young wood elf, sat studying at the kitchen table, spell book open, as she anxiously awaited her mentor’s return from the citadel. Allynna, who was several seasons her senior and her schoolteacher, had agreed to take her on as an apprentice, teaching her the skills needed to hunt with a bow and fight. She could hardly wait.
The sound of shouts outside caught her attention. She closed the spell book, which belonged to her mother, checked in to make sure that her younger sister Lairceach was soundly asleep, and then crossed the room to the small round window that looked out into the forest. The warriors were swarming down out of the treetop city and forming ranks by the lift on the hill north of her section of town. Gin, as she was known by most, scurried out of her tiny home that she shared with her parents and siblings, and ran to the edge of the platform to get a better look. A hand catching her arm and yanking her back from the edge startled her.
“You’d better go back inside, Gin,” said Garrik, her childhood friend and classmate, now a handsome young man who would soon be training to be a bard. His nimble fingers lingered on her arm a moment and then released her. She smiled at him, hoping he would not take this opportunity to tease her as he usually did.
“What’s going on? Why have the warriors been called in?” she asked.
“Another killing.” Garrik’s face fell. “Someone we knew this time, Gin. Oi’deh Allynna was found not long ago in the Forest, her neck broken. I suppose that our time in school is done, no?” Oi’deh was the Elvish word for teacher, and at the news, Gin felt as though she had been punched in the gut.
“No…” she whispered. “NO!” Her eyes blazed, remarkably void of tears. “Who? Who did this?”
“They’re not sure,” the young bard said in hushed tones, “but the gossip is that it was the Qatu again.” He took Gin’s hand and stroked the back of it. “I’m sorry, Gin, I know she was important to you. She was an incredible teacher, to be sure. You’ve come so far in your schooling, and you will excel in training to be a druid.”
“I suppose I have no choice now,” she said, hanging her head. She sighed loudly, then her eyes widened. “What if it was the Qatu, Garrik?” she said, her voice trembling a bit. “I didn’t think he was real, but there have been so many deaths…”
“Aye, it is intriguing,” Garrik said, his eyes twinkling. “Perhaps one day I will compose an epic poem about the mighty druid Gin taming the Qatu Bane of the Forest?” Gin smiled and Garrik grinned in response. “Ah, there we are, much better.” She hugged him, and then took a step toward her house.
“Inside with the doors locked for me then?” she said. “Cursik is out and my parents are away, so it’s just me and Lairky in tonight.”
“Aye Gin, for your own safety. I’ll be round to let you know when I find something out,” Garrik said. He suddenly grabbed her arm, pulled her to him, and kissed her on the cheek. “It will be all right, Gin,” he whispered, and then seemed to disappear off the side of the platform.
“Show off,” she said, grinning as she shut and locked her door behind her.
The necklace twinkled in the candlelight as it hung over the Cat’s giant claw. “Very pretty, this will sell well,” he said, a purr behind his words. He thought briefly of the neck that used to wear the bauble, but quickly pushed that thought from his mind. He instead focused his attention on carefully placing the necklace into one of the belt pouches he’d looted from the dead ranger, and then settled back into the soft grass of the forest with some food he’d found in the pouches. He soon dozed off, his stomach full and his work for the night done.