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Tarik had his coffee cup to his lips when the smell from the forest hit him. It was rotten, musty, and smelled like mold that had been stewing in its own filth for months. It filled his nose and his lungs, choking him with the strength of it. He set the cup aside and grabbed the brown leather jacket off the back of his chair. The forest was calling to him and he cast a sad glance at the cup. The coffee would only taste putrid now.
He headed for his car and began the long drive into the forest. Tarik's small house sat on the outskirts of the old woods. They'd been untouched for centuries, always watched over by someone in his family. Between their density and old folk tales of hauntings and dangers, most residents of the area stayed out of the heart of those woods, sticking close to the outer areas if they had to go in at all.
At least that's how it used to be, Tarik thought, as he honked his horn to get tourist hikers to move off the dirt road.
There weren't a lot of visitors but enough that there were always some that went missing every year. The others always came back with stories of sights and sounds that no one ever believed. Groups of paranormal hunters would come to the forest from time to time, but they would walk away with nothing. Tarik gazed up at the great trees towering over the car. The forest didn't perform for kicks or TV ratings.
He drove as far as the dirt path would allow and parked in the small clearing in the trees. Several police cars there told him he was right to come. An officer that was bent over at the front of a bumper told him he'd far underestimated the smell. When he got out, the weight of it hit him again. The strength and power in one breath was enough that he had to brace himself. There was magic in that smell. But what? Who?
Without any answers, he could only follow the smell deeper into the woods, so he grabbed his pack out of the back seat and began the walk. He was out of the authorities' sight in moments while they were too occupied to pay him any attention, but it wasn't long before he saw more signs of them along the trail. Every landmark he passed caused the dread in the pit of his stomach to grow like a bad weed. Flares were thrown down where the forest path became dark and he stayed away, sticking to the shadows and deer trails through the trees. The last thing he needed was to have to deal with over-paranoid policemen that were already tense and if he didn't get in their way then maybe they wouldn't be in his.
His dark hair clung to his forehead as he walked. The humidity that morning was stifling, almost unnaturally so. Every step further into the woods made the air harder and harder to breathe and even worse to tolerate. The tiniest relief came over him as he saw the slow flash of police lights shine off a tree trunk, but a little further in, it left as quickly as it'd come when the destination he'd dreaded came into view.
The old ruins stood alone in the forest. The cracked stone was covered in growth at the base but bare anywhere beyond that, greenery leaving the structure mostly untouched save for the slow destruction of time. It had been any number of things during various years, during various stages of construction. Before the stone had been placed on the land, it had been a gathering place, and remnants of past civilizations could easily be found hidden in the earth all around the site. Later, it had become a cemetery with long since decayed corpses fertilizing the land. A church at one point, a home at another. Each era adding onto the structure, expanding it. But during every century, it had always been a refuge. Surrounded, as it was with police cars, it was far from that today.
�Tarik made his way from tree to tree, keeping out of the police's sight until he came to the back entrance, concealed by bushes and undergrowth. The sirens outside had long since been turned off, the police just leaving the area, some hanging around their vehicles, faces pale while they took turns choking up their breakfast. He even choked once before he stepped inside, bracing his hand on the side of the opening. When he looked inside, he knew why.
Every wall, broken and whole alike, was covered in a dark red stain. It was sprayed and splattered, with long streaks from floor to ceiling. Some areas were so thick it still dripped to the floor, the sound dampened only by the leaf litter that was now glued together by the same substance. The smell that had hit him before, that he had followed all morning, wasn't just any smell, in fact, it wasn't just any blood. Now that he was here, looking at the mess of it, he knew what it was. Someone with old blood was killed� no, slaughtered. Someone with enough magic to make the forest cry out in pain and carry the scent and power to anyone that could sense it.��
Outside, the scene had claimed another victim's breakfast. He had to admit, it was one of the worst he'd seen in several years, but not the worst in his life. Not since he'd taken guardianship of the forest.
The floor was covered in it, pooled here and there in such a way that he had to pick his footing as he crossed the stone as he tried to survey the area. There was no rhyme or reason to the scene he entered into. No symbols, no writing, nothing but a bloody mess. Tarik shook his head at the senselessness of it all. It was then the grind of rock on rock caught his ear and his eyes darted to the crumbling corner of the building, part of the ceiling having fallen against the wall created an even smaller shelter. It was dark there, almost black with shadow, but still, the outline of a figure was there, huddled against the broken wall.
He couldn't tell who it was as he picked his way across the room, not quite heading for the area, not wanting to lose his one chance at surprise. Whoever it was hadn't run yet, so they must not have felt he was a threat, or at least not much of one. He liked it better that way.
He looked up, as if examining the blood soaked wall beside the crumbled ceiling and waited until he could hear the soft breathing of the creature there. When he could hear it slow, he darted in, using his body to push the other farther into the corner. Only then did he see it was a woman with a notepad.
A high-pitched shriek turned to a squeak as he thrust a hand over her mouth. He couldn't see the detail of her face but her light hair was up in a ponytail and she was slender in figure, and tall, not quite reaching his six feet.
"Hush, woman! Before you get us both caught." He held onto her as he looked at the entrances to the building, making sure that no one had heard and was going to come in, guns blazing.
He felt her fingers prying at his hand and let go when he was satisfied they were safe. "They're not going to come in here; they're out there flipping their stomachs."
"And you? Why aren't you out there doing the same?"
She glanced around him, one eyebrow raised. "You think this is my first crime scene? It's bad, but I'm not going to toss cookies over it. The only thing that bothers me is that God-forsaken smell." She looked around herself and shivered, rubbing her hands along her arms. "And the energy in this place. It's bad. Very bad."
He looked around the building and had to agree. Whoever had been here was so hateful, so angry that they had left a lasting mark on the land and stone. That type of poison wouldn't be going away anytime soon. But higher on his priority list, was the girl.
"What are you doing here, anyway?"
She straightened herself up and held up her notepad. "I`m a reporter. Name's Jayne, Jayne Whitney."
He eyed her up and down. This was all he needed. "Great. Nice to meet you. And what a nice place for such a pleasant meeting." He gestured around at the building. "Doesn't any of this disturb you?"
"Only the fact that I need to get more of this story and that means I need to get out of here. Speaking of which. Just who are you?"
"Nobody a reporter needs to know." He answered her without looking, his mind going back to the scene at hand. He left the dark corner and began looking up at the remnants of the ceiling in the rest of the structure. Blood was spattered up there as well. He shook his head. There was so much anger in this.
"Okay, now I definitely need to know." She was following him and he clenched his teeth.
"You're going to walk in the puddles if you don't watch it."
"Of course, I'm not. Now, just what is your business here? This'll go a lot easier if you just tell me."
He ignored her. "Where was the body?"
The question stopped her in her tracks and she frowned. "What?"
"Where was the body? Surely you were here long enough to know."
"Well," she looked down as if embarrassed by the assumption, "by the time I got here, they were already taking it out�"
"Woman or man?"
"Woman, I think. Why?"
Druid. The word popped into his head and slipped into place with the ease of the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle. The scent and energy in the air seemed to swirl around that word like a blanket, no longer assaulting his senses, simple remnants of the being that had been in possession of them.
He looked outside and saw the police still milling around. There was nothing more he could do until they decided to leave. It was guaranteed they'd be back, but it would be at least a day before they could stomach it again. He could comb the grounds at that time.
"I need to go. I'm sure you can find your way out, an intrepid reporter like yourself." He winked at her and picked his way back over to where he entered.
"Thanks. I'm sure I can." She turned as he did and at that moment she wasn't paying attention to where she stepped. Her foot came down on a puddle, the slick, undried blood coating the bottom of her boot as it slid out from under her. Tarik saw it just as her knee hit the blood, her hand coming down to the stone to break her fall, coated in liquid.
He moved, but not fast enough to catch her and was stopped, frozen as the energy in the air changed, electrifying and raising the hair on the back of his neck. That was never a good sign. It wasn't some imaginary reaction to something you were frightened of, as people liked to say. It meant something. Usually bad. And when he looked down at the woman, her notepad tossed to the side, her hair almost fallen from the ponytail holder, he knew it wasn't good here, either.