A less than gentle nudge from Titan's boot woke Damar from a sleep he hadn't planned on. He blinked open dry dull eyes, trying to take in the room around him. The lamp on the stove had dimmed significantly signaling at least a few hours had passed, but the light from the windows was no brighter than earliest signs of false-dawn.
"What is happening," Damar said, his voice betraying the fatigued cobwebs in his head, that he tried his best to shake out.
"It is morning, but the storm is still raging." Jamfire paced across the single room farmhouse, speaking as if he were merely thinking aloud. "If we are going to go, now is better than later."
"I agree," stated the dwarf, "as much as I hate getting wet, I am bored to tears sitting in this shack."
Damar looked at Karenna who sat nestled on a wooden stool. The bird looked at the squat dwarf with a silent annoyance. The Tartarean stood, stretching his arms and working the blood back into his limbs. He pulled his staff from the floor and checked his pouches.
"I'm ready enough, but before we go out into the storm," Damar paused, "what exactly are we looking for?"
The chicken stood and hopped down from the stool with an ungraceful flap of useless wings.
"Whoever did this to me for a start."
"I saw something in the storm last night," said Titan, "I say we look for traces of that. Anything that will lead us to the dark creature she saw cast this strange magic.
"And where do we start?" Damar asked.
"The barn," the elf said simple as he pulled the door open.
- - -
They were drenched by the time they reached the doors of the barn. The storm had not let up and much of the field had turned into a mess of mud and growing lakes of water. Damar's trousers were soaked through as he slogged through a torrent of water rushing down the slope of a hill between the house and the outbuilding.
The barn wasn't the greatest work of human architecture the Tar had ever seen. It was little more than a random assortment of wooden beams nailed together to resemble a barn. Hobbled together from a half dozen different species of trees, each roughly cut to similar lengths made up the four walls of the structure. Its doored face was only twenty or so feet wide, but the building backed up against the rocky cliff of the mountain more than fifty feet behind. It was roughly built, but it seemed strong and resilient enough to weather a number of storms far stronger.
The doors of the barn were partially open and throwing away any sense of caution, the trio, with chicken in tow, pulled them open wide enough to slip in and out of the rain. As they left the heavy downpour and into the relative safety of the barn, they were greeted with an awful smell. It hit them like a hot blanket trying to smother them. The foul pungent sent of animals, rot, and death.
The sickly sweet scent of decay clung to Jamfire's nostrils, overpowering his heightened sense of smell. It was nearly enough to make him wretch, but he held his arm to his face and bared through it. Titan, on the other hand, didn't fare so well. He stumbled to the corner and heaved, coughing and sputtering for clean air.
"What in the foul hells is that?!" he managed when he was sure his stomach was empty.
"It smells of death," Damar said simply. His voice was soft and calm as he found himself saying, "something died here. In a foul, horrible way."
"I am pretty sure that is fairly obvious," Karenna cringed in Jamfire's arms. She wriggled to get away from the smell, but only found herself squirming out of the elf's grasp.
"No. There is something else," Damar continued. "It is isn't the smell. I can sense it though."
"What are you talking about?" Titan said nasally, breathing through his mouth as he joined the others.
Damar didn't respond. The Tar pushed forward into the dark barn. Thin bands of light came in through the windows but it was barely enough to see by. Damar walked forward anyway, as if compelled by something. He could sense the feeling of death around him. He had felt it before. But this wasn't as strong as the clawing sensation of death he had felt at the killing of a person. This was primal. It sunk into his mind like the heavy scent of a terrified animal.
He stopped when his toe touched something in the darkness. He broke from his reverie as a swarm of flies buzzed around his head. The smell was overwhelming now, and he fought to keep from gagging. His poor lowlight vision held back the sight, but not for long. The strike of flint behind him startled Damar. He turned and was suddenly bathed in light. Titan had once again lit his small storm lantern and held it aloft. The Tar blinked, holding up his arm against the lantern's brilliance in the heavy darkness.
"Sweet gods of mercy," the dwarf stammered, his face ashen and pale, his eyes opened wide.
Damar turned back, somehow knowing full well the horror he was about to witness.
A black cloud of biting flies swarmed and buzzed around them, but as Damar looked down, he realized they had every right to be there. The dancing light of the lantern bounced off the two blood soaked mounds of flesh and fat.
"Cows," Jamfire stated simply, still breathing into the crook of his raised arm.
They had once been cows, he should have said. For the mounds of flesh were the dead and rotting corpses of two large cows. They lay on their sides, soaking a straw covered floor in a growing pool of gore and liquified fat. The bloated creatures were covered in the wriggling white bodies of the flies' larvae. The squirming maggots were making short work of the cattle, devouring skin and meat that had probably been dead for a few days. But something troubled the elf when he looked at the fallen beasts.
Pushing forward, swallowing hard and squatting down to have a closer look, Jamfire examined the rotting corpse. The cow had fallen on its side in death, but not before giving up a bit of a fight. Thick strings of gore and blood were spattered across the barn wall. The elf followed it upwards, and in the dim light could even see traces of the arterial spray on the rafted ceiling. Looking back to the body he noticed that no marks or trauma had befallen the creatures neck. Nothing had slit its throat or even damaged its head. What then had caused the violent spray of blood?
Swatting away the cloying cloud of insects, Jamfire peered at the bloated round abdomen of the cow. Quickly glancing over at the second body, he noticed a similarity. The gaping wound that seemed to practically tear the animal open. At first the elf thought that the damage had been caused by predators or even the insects themselves devouring the softer parts first. But as he looked closer, there were no claw marks, and despite their disarray and damage, no internal organs were missing. Most damning of all was that the holes in the side of the fallen beasts seemed to radiate outward, as if some great force exploded from within them, sending blood spraying twenty feet into the air.
"Something killed these poor creatures, but nothing I have ever seen before," the elf concluded.
Damar nodded. He could feel it inside him, that sense of dread. The death sense he had tried so hard to run from. There was a foulness to this scene that went far beyond the sight of gore and the smell of rotten flesh.
"Maybe it was those creatures," said Karenna. "They turned my into livestock then kill everything on my farm."
"Perhaps," said Jamfire, "but where could they have gone. I see no tracks or signs anywhere."
"Well they have to be somewhere," returned Karenna with the expected vinegar back in her voice.
"Let's spread out and look. Titan, give me your lantern."
The dwarf complied and handed the storm lantern to Jamfire, who fished two small candles from a pouch on his belt. Lighting each one, he returned the lantern, then proffered of the candles to Damar. The Tar took it willingly, but the tiny pin of light did little to aid his weaker eyes.
"What should we be looking for?" Damar asked, calling over the walls of the cattle stalls that lined the barn.
"Anything, lad," yelled back Titan. "Tracks. Traps. Any sign of anything or anyone being in this barn."
The trio spread out, though Damar tried his best to keep close to Titan to use his light to help him look. He could have asked to switch with the dwarf, but wasn't willing to admit to his own weaknesses. Better light or not, he though, he wasn't well experienced in looking for tracks or signs of mysterious creatures.
Damar looked at a series of carved stone troughs half filled with the rainwater leaking through the roof. He stuck his paltry candle under and around the troughs, looking for anything of notice. A rat chirruped and ran from its shadowed hiding place. Damar jumped with surprise, dropping the candle. He felt like a fool, jumping at rats, and hoped the others had not seen.
Sighing with embarrassment, he looked down to pick up the dropped candle, expecting it to have gone out. Instead, his look of shame quickly morphed into shock and surprise as the straw at his feet suddenly burst into flames. Much of the floor near the troughs was damp and held back the flame, but as it found a path of dry straw, it took off to Damar's right, soon ripping into a pile of old dry hay in the corner.
"Damn!" he shouted, "Someone quick!! A fire!"
The others came running, Titan with his lantern, and Jamfire with his little candle, that nearly went out with the speed of his dash to help. Karenna hopped along at their feet, but keeping back well away from danger.
Jamfire blew out his candle and tossed it to the ground. Thinking quickly he pulled Damar back from the flames. The elf pulled his cloak from around him, slowly drying from the soaking they received on their way to the barn. He plunged the dirt caked coat into the trough, making sure to thoroughly drench it before pulling it out and onto the flames. Slapping the wet cloth down onto the pile of burning hay, the wet coat slapped at the fire. Soon enough, the light of the blaze dimmed and they were once again only lit by Titan's storm lantern. Orange embers sizzled and popped in the shadows as the smothered flame became little more than wet hay and smoke.
"Damned fine work!" Titan exclaimed happily, a broad smile creasing his beard.
"Thank you, as a Watcher, we are trained to..." Jamfire paused. He pulled the wet cloak away and stared at the smouldering hay. "Titan, c'mere. Bring me your lantern."
As the dwarf approached, lantern held out in front of him, the elf swept away the charred straw.
"Well I'll be," Titan said, standing over what Jamfire had uncovered. The others moved closer to see.
Hidden beneath the pile of stray and dirt lay a simple wooden board, now wet and partially charred.
Jamfire knocked on it with his knuckles as if asking to enter a door. It sounded thin and hollow. The elf looked up, beaming with excitement.
"That fire was quite the blessing, Damar. I think you have found our clue at last!"
He leapt up and grabbed the edges of the board, heaving it up to lean against the back wall. It was certainly what they had been looking for. The stone and dirt floor of the barn's foundation was cracked open and the board had hidden a dark opening about twice as wide as the dwarf that stood over it.
"A hidden passage?" Damar asked, unsure of exactly what he was looking at.
"So it would seem," said Titan, looking down the hole with his lantern outstretched. "Not only that, I think I see steps below us."
"If this isn't where our little troublemakers came from, it is at least worth investigating," stated Jamfire, that spark of curiosity in his eyes.
Karenna hopped forward, peering down the hole into the darkness. She looked up at the others with impatience. "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go."
"I really think you should stay, little lady." Titan looked at the others for their approval.
"He is right. It is not safe," added Jamfire. "We will scout ahead, and retrieve you when we find your dark magician."
Karenna turned and launched herself at the elf in a flurry of feathers.
"Who the hell are you to tell me where I can or can't go? There is no way you are going ahead and leaving me here, defenseless against anything that might come along. Not to mention stuck in a dark barn with two dead cows! Seems a little unfair don't you think? Is it because I am a girl, and you want to be chivalrous and protect me?! Or is it because I'm a bloody chicken!?"
"Alright. Alright," Jamfire conceded.
"Take me with you," Karenna continued, her voice calmer now, "and you can keep anything you find along the way. I'll even reward you handsomely once I am back in my real body again. I'll probably end up selling this land now, there is nothing left for me here. It will fetch a decent price, and you may have that for your payment as well."
"I said alright." Jamfire picked up the chicken if for no other reason than to shut her up.
They peered back down the dark opening in the ground. Just what were they getting themselves into.