Darkmalian moved slowly into the village, listening intently. The sunlight cast a bright patina over the smouldering buildings as wisps of smoke floated by, twinned with soft shadows. Although, as his eyes drifted over the squat wooden buildings of the empty settlement, he could not sense the presence of daemons, he knew they could come at any time. Most broods were weakened by sunlight and many were destroyed completely by it – but not all. Like tangible life, the Fell had many forms and evolutions, and even against the bane of a thousand broods there were those that were immune.
His nose caught a scent upon the air, a noxious reek that all Windchasers recognised instantly: brimstone. Ordering Pagan and Merrick to wait beside the stone-built well, Darkmalian moved to the opposite end of the village. He noticed splashes of congealing blood on the hay-strewn ground, as well as other signs of the massacre: here a gnawed limb hung from a doorway, the body to which it belonged concealed by a broken building; there a torn strip of cloth – the hem of a dress doused in blood – was caught on the window bar of a small house, flapping in the breeze. The bodies were most likely indoors, where the daemons would have taken them to feed. This brood were blood-drinkers then, Darkmalian reasoned, and – given that the coagulation of the spilled blood indicated that the slaughter had taken place around six to seven hours ago – they feared moonlight rather than sunlight. The Windchaser swore: without further immediate evidence, this deduction still left over fifty possible broods.
Following the acrid stench, Darkmalian came upon the treeline and knelt to examine the scorched ground. It was still warm to the touch and the sulphur stung his eyes. He lifted his black hood over his hair and pulled the mask of his threft up around his mouth and nose, the specially woven mesh lining blocking out the stink. He found three more Hellsprings upon the ground, which meant at least four daemons but possibly as many as twelve; the tracks in the dirt suggested the latter. The brood still eluded him, but out of the fifty or so species singled out by aversion to moonlight, less than a dozen moved in packs. Standing, he returned to where the scribe waited with Pagan. Merrick seemed visibly shaken but the Amberchild looked almost angry.
‘Where are the villagers?’ the scribe asked, his tone indicating that he already knew the answer.
‘Dead,’ Darkmalian told him anyway, his eyes sweeping the still, silent buildings. ‘We should move on – with haste.’
‘What is happening, Merrick?’ Pagan asked, sensing the tension.
‘I don’t know,’ replied the scribe. ‘Was there a battle, Darkmalian?’
‘A slaughter. Bring the girl.’
As he turned to walk away he caught a sound in the air, carried to him on the high wind. It was a male voice, quiet, broken. He froze, holding up a hand to halt his dependants. Looking to the eastern side of the village, beyond the high chimneys of the smithy, he located the source of the noise. His eyes widened and he raced forwards, rounding the large stone building and halting as he beheld a vision from nightmare.
A single tree grew here, gnarled and ancient, rising into the sky like a titan above the forge. Cut into the trunk were runes that Darkmalian recognised, each archaic glyph glowing with a faint red light. The leaves of the tree were rotten, the branches scorched and curling upwards so they pointed to the bright sky like the spikes of a perverse crown. Thick roots had burst through the earth and now writhed like fornicating lovers, intertwined and pulsating with false life. The very air around it was dark, crackling with flashes of crimson and white energy, and upon the tree, a splinter of oak speared through each black wrist, hung a creature as insubstantial as shadow, slowly burning under the murderous afternoon sun.
The roots became alert as the darkling approached, rising up from the ground as though regarding him hungrily. He extended his shadowsteel blades, stepping lightly, just beyond the tree’s reach. Pagan and Merrick halted near the side of the smithy and the scribe gasped, his hand flying to his mouth. ‘Saints!’ he breathed. ‘What the Hell is that?’
‘It’s a Cano Tree,’ Darkmalian told him, looking back. ‘Once used to imprison and execute sinners, but now corrupted beyond even that.’
‘Well, look at it, scribe.’
Signalling for silence, Darkmalian focused on the tree. He had read of Cano devices in the Kade Bestiaries, though they were not actually daemons at all. Traditionally stones were used, but there were instances in Old Realm lore of mirrors, orbs, animal-corpses or plants serving as alternatives. The object would imprison a soul until the owner performed whichever duty the controlling Old Realm deity desired, then the soul was released in payment – absolved of all transgressions – and the sinner’s physical body was executed. What stood now before Darkmalian, however, was a perverse incarnation of that ancient device. Instead of taking the offered soul of a willing and repentant servant, whoever had constructed this device had unleashed the spiritual residue of all the sinners who had ever been executed upon the tree’s branches. Its purpose was not to contain a soul for bargaining, but rather to keep its Loro’cai prisoner held fast in the bright sunlight – and to hold any would-be rescuers at bay.
The darkling edged forward, testing the reflex speed of the sentient tree. As he moved closer, one of its roots lashed out and he sidestepped to avoid it. He refrained from counter-attacking, instead turning his eyes away for the briefest instant. Immediately all eight roots speared towards him and he jumped back out of reach. He had learned what he needed to: the abomination was fast, but he was faster; it was aware, but he wouldn’t give it the chance to surprise him. He darted forwards, rolling his left wrist, his shadowsteel blade cutting a cold arc in the air. One of the roots rose up as though studying him and suddenly split, its tip flaring open like the head of a horrific flower to become a fang-lined mouth that chomped hungrily at the air. A moment later the other seven roots underwent the same transformation.
Darkmalian retreated a step, slashing his blades in front of him, loosening his shoulder muscles. There was only one way to do this: he spread his arms and leapt forwards...