Tracker looked calm as he lounged against the gnarled oak that marked the entrance to Howling Wood, which sat between the palace and the outskirts of the city, but he was anxious to get started. The only thing he hated besides being late for anything was to be kept waiting. Irk agreed to meet him at dawn but the brilliant blue sky had long since shed its pink and purple shroud as night faded to day and still there was no sign of the crotchety Dwarf.
Ah, to hell with it! Tracker thought and stepped into the shadows to undress. He closed his eyes and reached out for the unseen moon, bright and full mother. He fed on her power, almost heady as he drew it inside and felt his hair grow thick and long. His ears began to stretch, his face growing long and narrow. Muscles expanded and he dropped to all fours as his body lengthened. He stretched, his muscles and senses singing as if replenished from a satisfying night of amorous congress. He raised his head and howled his release. Many Lycanthropes feared their transformation and succumbed to it only when the urge was too great to resist but Romulus reveled in it for as a Wolf he felt truly alive.
Concealed in the shadows of the dense forest, the black Wolf padded his way along the path, sniffing the air for any hint as to what occurred days ago. Deep grooves and hoof prints marked the path well-traveled by the elite few who were privileged to be clients of Ravenshade’s Fantasma Boutique. Though they feared, loathed, and lamented her, none could argue the skill and beauty of Ravenshade’s designs. The gentry paid handsomely for a Fantasma original and didn’t seem to mind having to travel so far from Phaeton’s fashionable Elysian district, facing fearsome monsters and bogs of quicksand, for it only added to the allure of the shop’s exclusivity. Many a time he’d overheard the tale of a valiant lord risking his life for a treasured garment to present to his lady fair. Judging by the fops he’d encountered though, the Wolf knew it was more likely than not that whatever beasts lurked outside Nightwell Keep probably stayed hidden and posed no threat at all. But the ladies ate it up, Tracker shook his head and snorted. He never would understand the female mind.
The Wolf picked up the delicate bouquet of a virginal maid, rose-scented satin slippers having touched upon the path before leading away. Slowly he followed the trail, the trees whispering and weeping quietly as he passed. The scent grew stronger and he frowned. There was no fear or distress of any kind although traces of something foul hanging in the air made his nose wrinkle. The smell grew stronger and the trees sobbed louder the deeper he went into the forest until his nostrils burned like he’d snorted vinegar. His eyes watered and he snorted and sneezed trying to rid himself of the noxious odor.
“Tis about time ye git here.” A gruff voice said and Tracker felt Irk’s beefy hand on one shoulder to steady him as he waved a bottle containing salt, sage, rosemary, and fennel under his nose.
In moments, the assault on Tracker’s senses ceased and he realized suddenly he was at the crime scene. The caustic smell remained though not as strong. However, the stench of blood, fear, and despair seemed to coat everything around them. Something wasn’t right though. The blood, it smelled off somehow.
“This is where she was killed?” Tracker asked.
“Aye, though there nay footprints to be found save her own,” Irk said from behind the kerchief tied over his face.
Tracker nodded at him. “You smell it too?”
“Fifty years on the force I dunna ever seem nay to reek it, though it’s stronger here somehow.”
Tracker dropped closer to the ground near a blood-soaked patch of earth. Strands of the princess’ golden hair were still nestled among the leaves and blades of grass and indeed, he could see the fading imprint of her small feet but nothing more. Slowly he walked the perimeter gingerly tasting the flora and the air, sniffing deeply and focusing his gaze on every detail. He couldn’t shake the feeling that his senses were in disagreement.
“Whoever murdered the princess did a right job of covering his tracks.” Irk was saying.
“There was no one else here save the girl and the huntsman.” Tracker responded, shaking his head. “Perhaps not even the girl.”
“What do ye mean, could the huntsman be the killer?”
“No, his tracks came long after.” He raised his head. “Whoever this is, they were alone when they died.”
“Impossible! An’ yet… she could nay have murdered herself, female suicides are nay so violent an’ how come all the way out here to do it?” Irk frowned. “An’ how come do ye keep sayin’ it’s nay her?”
“Because it isn’t.”
Tracker returned to the bloodiest patch and closed his eyes. He pressed his nose into the grass and sniffed deep. He was quickly inundated with the foul odors that’d rocked him before, foul and fowl both. It was an odd combination of rotting wood, decaying flora mixed with mud and peat, mold, and… chicken?
Tracker’s eyes snapped open and he stared at the ground in disbelief.
“No human was murdered here, Irk. This is poultry blood.”
“What?” The Dwarf roared. “Have ye gone mad?”
Tracker chuckled. “That’s entirely possible but this crime scene is definitely staged.”
“Well, we’ll be givin’ it a right going over afore we’re through.” Irk drew out several small boxes and tools from his sack. “I’ll sample the area for the Godmother. I think she’ll want to see this.”
Tracker nodded, then padded away from the area to get his bearings. He was surprised when his thoughts strayed to Pepper. She was an odd duck, eight years his junior by all accounts, but he’d dallied with maidens her age before. His appetite was insatiable and he wasn’t choosy about who he satisfied it with so long as she was willing. And oh, was Pepper Crimson willing. He could scent her just upon meeting. The wanton cry that slipped out accidentally when he sniffed her nearly undid him but he was also aware that she was hesitant. That was the strange bit, pretty young ladies from the country were the most eager in his experience yet Pepper fought strongly against her urges. She was also quick-witted, not something he often found in country maids.
No, Tracker decided, he would bide his time and study his quarry. He would learn what made her tick, what made her weak. Then, when she was ready, he would pounce!