The scent of the forest was as clear to her as the trees were. Decaying leaves, animal droppings, new growth, insects and birds - the smells wove a tapestry for her. Around her the sounds of small creatures scurrying about their business made her black-backed ears twitch here and there.
Ami stalked through the forest on silent feet, nose twitching with the scent of something familiar. In the distance, she spied a deer nibbling on the underbrush, and slid quietly closer to her prey. She was in her natural form, as she often was when hunting alone. Copper fur, a white-tipped bushy tail, black-furred hands and feet, a narrow snout - Ami was a kitsune.
Somewhat in front of her she spied a large animal grazing the underbrush. A rack of 9-pointed antlers crowned its head and Ami's first assumption was that it was a deer. But something was off. The deer was huge - not a deer after all, she realized, but an elk. An enormous elk almost a foot taller than her at the shoulder.
She hid herself behind a shrub and peeked through the leaves, marveling at the size. That was when she began to notice details - the animal was blown, sweat-covered and almost staggering from exhaustion. Long shallow cut marks on its belly told her someone had tried to kill it with a blade.
The thought of anyone approaching this monstrously huge animal close enough to cut it with a sword made her fur stand on end. Whatever had attacked it wasn't something she wanted to confront without knowing what she was dealing with. She quickly slung her bow over her shoulder and climbed the nearest tall tree.
Her decision came none too soon. Out of the gloom of the woods came seven orcs - strange orcs, these. They were hulking and lumbering, making no effort to disguise their movement. The elk snorted, nostrils distorted in fear, and tried to run, but the orcs were quicker and the elk was exhausted. They bludgeoned it to death and it fell, bleeding, upon the carpet of dead leaves.
Ami opened her mouth to breath more quietly as they set to their gruesome work. With bare brutish hands they ripped the elk open and began to remove its organs - liver and intestines, heart and lungs, all were ripped out without the use of tools and stashed into bags. Fear and hatred thrilled through her as she realized that these were no ordinary orcs - they were undead, rotting flesh hanging from skeletal frames, chunks of muscle missing entirely from certain individuals. One of them lacked eyes, and it was this one who paused in the destruction to lift his misshapen head and sniff. Ami thanked the Goddess of the Hearth that she had thought to mask her scent with animal dung before setting out. Finally the orcs worked together to sling the giant carcass onto burly shoulders and left the scene of the carnage.
She slipped down the tree and became a fox, choosing the stealth of four tiny feet over two. They were unaware of her, and made their way through the forest, uncaring of the noise they made. Uneasiness gripped her and she began to worry, as they were drawing near to her village. Thoughts of her family flashed through her mind - her parents, her aged grandmother, her two older brothers, and her younger siblings - two sisters and another brother.
An inaudible sigh of relief escaped her when they branched off toward Dire Bear Cave. And that's when she saw it - just outside of the cave was their camp. It looked well organized, and Ami's hackles rose. She counted dozens of undead orcs, and within two cages, a pair of trapped halflings. This was wrong - the undead didn't organize. They were mindless, destructive things, incapable of planning on their own. The fact that they had harvested organs from the elk was out of character, too. Someone - or something - must have been controlling them.
Ami turned tail and ran the entire five clicks back to her village.
Just outside the village perimeter, under cover of the trees, she slipped into her human form and finished the journey into the village on two feet. In this form she was slight and attractive, with copper hair and almond-shaped amber eyes and strong arms from years of training with the bow. Her entire family usually appeared human, because they lived in a mostly human village. People tended to distrust kitsune, but her family, pranks aside, just wanted to live in peace. She ran straight for the chief's hut.
"I need to see the chief!" Ami shouted at the guards posted outside his door.
"Why?" asked Cedric, raising an eyebrow. He was a few years older than her and had tried flirting with her on more than one occasion, but she'd had no interest. He'd taken that in stride and now had a pretty girlfriend in the tanner's daughter.
"Orcs!" she said. "d orcs! A whole camp of them up at the cave! And two captured halflings!"
"I'm getting him," Zander said, and held out a palm to her to wait at the door. Zander was the cobbler's son, with aspirations of becoming a great knight, someday. Cedric stared at her, not happy about her agitated state. Quickly, the chief came out. "What's this all about?" he asked.
He was a tall, beefy older man, with an impressive silver beard, and apparently human, but there was something a little off about him. His skin glistened in a vaguely strange way in direct sunlight. "Ami? Care to tell me what you saw?"
The story tumbled out of her too fast, she was tripping over her words. Silently, the chief took a flask from his pocket and handed it to her. "Here," he said. "To calm your nerves."
Ami took a sip, and it burned down her throat, causing her to cough a bit, but instantly the calm swept over her. She stopped shaking, which she hadn't even realized she was doing until just now.
"Now, start at the beginning," the chief prompted. Cedric and Zander stood behind him, wide-eyed.
"I was stalking a deer," she started. "Which turned out to be an elk. A huge elk, six feet tall at the shoulder, easily."
"An elk?" the chief said. "We're too far south for those."
"I know, right?" Ami agreed. "As I moved closer I realized that it had been attacked with blades. I decided to climb a tree in case whatever had the guts to slice at an elk that size was still following it. I'm glad I did, too, because a few minutes later seven orcs came out of the underbrush and killed it. I realized that they were undead - gods, you know I hate them." She clenched her hands into fists and took a deep breath to continue. "I decided to follow them and tracked them to their campsite - just outside the cave." She pointed. "Five clicks that way."
"The Dire Bear Cave?" the chief asked.
Ami nodded. "The same. There are more there, a lot more. And just outside the entrance, in two cages, are a couple of halflings being held captive. Once I saw all of this, I came back to the village to warn everyone."
The chief thought about this for a second, and then nodded once. "Right. We will send scouts to see if they can't rescue the halflings. It seems these orcs must be coming from the north - the nearest halfling lands are north of here, as you know."
"We need to evacuate the women and children," Ami said. "Immediately."
"Yes, I agree. Tinker!" he said, bellowing the name of the gnome paladin nearby.
Tinker jumped up and squeaked out. "Yeah? What do you want?"
"Begin the evacuation of the women and children. Then we need to prepare the village defenses."
"I"m on it!" Tinker said in his strident little voice. "I'm just gonna stop by the tavern real quick."
"There's no time for that!" Ami said. She reached down to lay her hand on his shoulder. Tinker sniffed and grinned slyly at her. "Foxy," he murmured. Ami ignored him, too worried about the undead only five clicks from her village to worry about her family secret being exposed. "This is our families. My family! We need to get them out!"
"No problem," Tinker assured her. He pivoted on his heel and marched off - and he did pass the tavern, but instead of going in he used Mage Hand to grab himself a tankard. Ami did a double-take. He downed it in a few great gulps and then began to bellow evacuation orders.
"We're going to need you in the tower," the chief said. "You have the best eyesight, and you're our best archer."
Ami nodded. "Alright. I'll just say goodbye." She ran to her family and embraced her grandmother, her mother, her younger brothers and sisters.
"Mother," she said, and her mother, Naho, hugged her tightly to her breast, her warm breath stirring Ami's hair.
"You stay safe," Naho said. "Remember your training and run away if you need to."
"The Goddess of the Hearth wants you to live," her grandmother told her gravely. "Don't do anything brave."
She hugged her younger sisters together - they were twins, Chiyo and Junko, alike as two peas in a pod. "Stay with Grandmother and help her," she told them. "She can't walk fast, so you make sure that she keeps up, alright?" The nodded, serious as only 12-year-olds can be.
Little Ravi, all of eight years old, brandished a knife. He seemed excited, not realizing the peril they were all in. "Look what I got!" he said proudly. "Just in case!"
"Just in case," Ami agreed, kneeling down to be eye-to-eye with him. "Remember, stick them with the pointy and, and then run away."
"The pointy end," Ravi agreed.
"And then run," Ami stressed.
"Okay," he said. "Then run!"
And then they were off, carrying the essentials on their backs. Ami's older brothers, Emon and Gen, stayed behind to protect the village, as well as her father.
"I'm going to scout the camp," her father told her. He was in his early fifties, with the charming good looks of a half-human-half-elf. Of course, he was neither, but the villagers didn't know. He held a drawing of her two dead sisters. One had died of sickness a couple of winters past, and a couple of years prior to that the other had been killed by undead, along with her favorite cousin. Carefully, he began to roll up the parchment and tucked it into his satchel. "To keep it safe," he told her and her brothers. They nodded in understanding.
"Does it have to be you?" Ami asked, worried.
"Yes," her father said. "Don't worry, you know I'm careful."
At the direction of the chief, another man, also an excellent scout, joined her father and the two of them melted into the forest.
"I need you sharp, Ami," said the chief. "Get provisioned, and get some rest. Take this." He handed her a potion.
"It'll help you sleep. Four hours, and you'll feel like you had a full night. You've been going all day, I need you at your best. Get rest, that's an order."
She took it and nodded, though somewhat reluctantly. Then she spun around and made her way to the tower, ensuring that it was fully provisioned for the coming battle. Flint and steel, arrows of all kinds, extra bows, an extra blanket to shield the fire, some water and snacks, just in case.
And then she crawled into her bed and took the potion, and slept deeply.
Four hours later, Tinker shook her awake. "You good, Foxy?" he asked chipperly.
"Don't call me that," she grumbled. "I'm good. I feel great. Is my father back yet?" She stood from the bed and began reaching for her weapons.
"Not yet," said Tinker. "We're starting to worry."
Fear gripped Ami's guts and she hurried out of the hut, making straight for the tower to take her station. On the way she saw the chief bellowing orders and shouting encouragement. Every time he said, "We will prevail!" the people seemed to straighten, as if imbued with strength. She passed Emon and Gen, and they nodded to her, and then she was up the stairs, checking everything over one last time. She took up her bow in her left hand and held an arrow in her right, ready to knock it and fire as soon as she could see anything worth shooting at.
She was the first one to spy her father and the other scout shambling into the village.
"They're back!" she screamed down at the defenders below. She could see that they were each carrying a halfling, that they were bloody and battle-worn. All thoughts of staying at her post fled her mind when she realized that her father was missing an arm.
She flew down the stairs and straight to him. "Help!" she screamed. Her brothers were right there with her. When her father realized he'd made it home, he collapsed, completely spent. The unconscious halfling tumbled from his arms, and Gen caught him. Ami and Emon caught their father and Ami desperately started putting pressure on the stump of his arm that was bleeding at an alarming rate. "Help!" she screamed again. "Tinker!"
Tinker was there, and he seemed to panic. "Oh, no! What do I do?!" he screeched.
"Heal him!" Ami screeched back.
"Oh, right!" Tinker said, and held his hands out. A warm glow emanated from his hands, which he pushed toward her father's stump. Ami watched as the skin grew over it and the bleeding stopped, and a bit of color came back to his cheeks. And then she was a bit horrified to see that his half-human-half-elf form began to give way to his true form, long snout and ruddy fur. "Eep!"
"Don't worry," Tinker said, and whipped out a potion which he fed to her father. He appeared to become human again - but not his own self.
"He needs to go to the temple," Ami said. Emon grunted and picked him up with Ami and Tinker helping. Well, Ami helped. Tinker was more of a hindrance, at one point actually hanging off of the downed scout. His short stature did not lend well to carrying bodies.
The chief was there. "Ami," he said. "We'll take him up into the mountains with the other evacuees. Get back to your post."
"But-" she stopped short and looked down at her father. A healer came over and raised his eyebrow. "Who is this?" he asked grumpily.
"That doesn't matter," Ami said. "Just heal him."
"Must be one of ours," the healer muttered as he began his work. "I recognize the armor. Hmph."
The chief stared at her, and Ami bent to whisper her love into her father's ear, and then turned and ran out into the deepening twilight. Overhead, stars were beginning to appear in the purple velvet sky. The village was dark, with decoy torches far off; hopefully the orcs would be drawn to them. She paused at the steps to the tower, feeling a bit discouraged, but the chief said, "We can do this! We will!"
The villagers looked to him and he continued. "Remember the saying that the king protects his people, and the people protect their king. For us, right now, that's our king." He swept his arm back, and pointed to the row of torches dimly seen retreating into the valley. The evacuated villagers making their way to safety. "Your mothers and grandmothers, your brothers and sisters, your children. Your families. Protect them as you would protect a king. The village can be rebuilt if needed, but they… they are worth fighting for. Worth killing for. Perhaps even dying for. Protect your king!"
"Protect them!" the villages roared back, imbued with intense purpose.
And the chief gave Ami a little vial. "Break this on your bow," he told her. "It will help."
As she accepted the vial, the village's name welled up in her throat, and Ami cried out, "For Sweetwater!" All around her, the chief and the villagers took up the cry. "For Sweetwater!" A sense of determination rose up inside them all.
She shouldn't have left her post.
As soon as she got up there, she saw the damage that the approaching undead had done on their march toward the village. Trees were on fire, the forest quickly catching and fire spreading. The winds swept the dark smoke directly toward the village and all too soon the acrid black cloud enveloped her. Ami leaned over the tower and shouted down. "They've started a fire!" she yelled. "But they're undead, why would they do that?" She knew, as did others, that fire was one of the few things besides magic which could destroy the undead. It was only further proof that the orcs were being controlled by something.
Tinker raised his hands, intense concentration on his face, and then brought his palms together in a thunderous clap. A white flash, and then Ami realized that the village was enveloped in a protective magic bubble. "It won't last long!" Tinker bellowed.
The bubble's perimeter was only a couple of feet from Ami. She reached a hand toward it, and realized that it felt hot - the heat of the fire was impressing upon it, being kept from the village by Tinker's impressive feat.
And then she saw something.
The elk lumbered toward her, but it was more than the elk, now. It had been chopped up and parts of its body had been joined together with the body of the Dire Bear from the cave. The body and forearms of the bear, with the hind legs and head of the elk. A monstrous abomination, it was taller even than the little wooden tower she stood up. It wasn't quite in range of her bow, yet. Ami leaned over the tower and stuttered out a description.
"Can we trust her eyes?" Tinker wondered.
And then it stepped closer, and the villagers could make it out. There was a collective gasp, and a few stepped back. "Trust me now?" Ami shouted back, and she took the vial and smashed it against her bow as the chief had instructed. As soon as she did so, a warm golden glow enveloped the weapon, and it glittered with golden light. In wonder, she stared at it, amazed by the spell. And then she knocked an arrow. As she pulled, the bow seemed to work with her to make the pulling easier. Her nerves made her aim unsteady, but the bow, almost with a mind of its own, corrected the course and she loosed, and the arrow flew true.
A fire arrow, it was, and it streaked across the gloom, straight for the monstrous abomination's heart. It hit so hard that it went clear through the creature's shoulder and out the other side, embedding halfway up the haft into the dirt on the other side. The monster bellowed and the arm fell clean away from the body.
The villagers cheered, and Ami felt heartened. "I can do this," she whispered.
Her next arrow was a Tangleshot arrow. The monster was advancing, and it needed to be stopped. Again, the magically-imbued bow aimed true and fired hard. The arrow hit, and the adhesive splashed around it, and entangled it. It thrashed and roared, but couldn't move from the spot. It was very close to the tower, and Ami was scared that it could smash it or hit her, because it was so very large. The loss of an arm and being entangled had it distracted for now, but it was only a matter of time before it realized that it had at least one enemy within reach.
"One more should do it," Ami said, and reached for another arrow. A stone arrow caught her eye. She didn't know what it was, but she picked it up, anyway. There was only one of its kind and she knew it must be special, powerful.
"Where are the orcs?" someone shouted, and it was as if ice water doused her veins.
She peered into the darkness and saw them. They were tracking the line of torches that pointed the way, clear as could be, to the evacuating villagers.
A choice lay before her. Kill the elk-bear, or fire the strange arrow at the undead orcs chasing her family and everyone she knew and loved. It wasn't much of a choice in the end.
She aimed, the bow glowed, and as she pulled, the arrow changed into an enormous ballistic missile. She'd never seen one and didn't really know what it would do, but she let it fly.
Across the space it sped, fire trailing from it, going farther than she thought possible. It slammed into the side of the mountain just above the party of undead orcs. A tremendous explosion sent a shock wave so powerful that it knocked her onto her ass and sent many of the defenders diving to the ground. Ami struggled back to her knees, she had to see -
The mountain collapsed, an avalanche of boulders and shale and tons of dirt quickly burying the orcs. All of them.
"Thank the gods," Ami whispered. Then a flicker, and the protective bubble popped and was gone.
And then a second impact caught her, caught the tower. She flew through space, splinters flying all around her, stinging her skin with their deadly trajectories. She could hear the roar of the beast, and screams of the defenders and the stars were above her, then below her, as she tumbled over and over until she slammed into the ground.
Sounds ceased, and her breath left her. She was broken. Her heart stopped entirely and the stars dimmed and went out. The only visions she saw were in her mind, now. Her family, gathered around her, smiling in the hearth light, singing and talking and laughing. Hunting in the woods, the cool green light casting an eerie glow on her fur and soft loam against her paws. Running as a child with her siblings, her cousins, her friends, the hot sun against their skin. Being held by her mother, being tossed playfully into the air by her father, having her hair brushed by her grandmother. Praying at her mother's side to the Estanna, the Goddess of the Hearth. Her life played out in her mind's eye, and she knew that she was dying, now. She knew that this was the end.
She let go of all of it, and accepted her death. She'd done her part, she'd defended her family, stopped the beast in its tracks, buried the undead orcs. And though the mastermind behind the attack remained undiscovered, that was someone else's job, now. She was done.
A peace overcame her, and then…