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Beautiful one

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It had all started one blissful spring morning.

Ethari had taken average of the beautiful spring weather, which was wafting the sweet scent of spring flowers through the open window and door of his workshop to do some much needed spring cleaning.

He had swept out the forge after letting it go cold, run a duster along all the banisters, shelving and with some effort, rafters. The floor had been swept, and mopped with that spicy sweet cleaning fluid that his wonderful husband despised the scent of, and now Ethari was waiting for it to dry, sitting on the steps that wrapped around the tree that housed his home and work place.
From here he had a good view of the lotus pond, with his husbands lotus drifting serenely across the mirror like surface.

He was, currently, out on a relatively safe scouting mission in to the north, scouting out a new caravan rout for some earthblood noble having ‘Minor bandit trouble’.
He was not due back for another couple of months, but that lotus gave him peace of mind all the same.
That and at some point, Runaan had gotten hold of a messenger bird, probably by force, so Ethari would get the odd grumpy update in the post.
He could practically hear the grumbling about sand.

It was at this point that Ethari caught sight of the slip of paper that saw tucked into the workshop’s mail slot.
Nothing too unusual. Some elves were not overly talkative, and preferred to drop work requests in the mail.
He lazily stretched and got up to his feet, walking up the mail slot and plucking the peace of parchment out of the slot. It only had one line written in a messy hand on it.

How are you so beautiful?

Ok, that was… not so common. Not unusual, Ethari was a good looking guy, and there had been more than one disappointed elf in the village when He and Runaan had made their relationship official, and some elves would still playfully flirt with him, but getting anonymous note was… not very common.
With a shrug, Ethari stashed in one of his cabinets and went on with his day.

-

Another note appeared the next day, and the next, and the next.
They were all sappy, flirty, complimenting his looks, his work, him in general. It was getting kind of weird. At first, he kind of hoped that it was Runaan sending him little notes to keep his spirits up whilst he was gone, but the writing was definitely no this (way too messy) and the language used was all wrong.
Plus Runaan had a habit of turning any love letters he wrote int spontaneous poetry.

Tiadrin found it amusing at least.

“I bet you a sunfire golden aureus that some school kid has a puppy crush on you.” She explained to him over mugs of tea. “they are too embarrassed to tell anyone, so anonymous notes in the mail it is.”
She stretched in her chair as Lain trundled out to join them in the garden with some fresh snacks in hand, stopping to give Tiadrin a peck on the lips.
“besides, I remember all the amusing dancing you and Runaan did around your feelings when you were first starting out, remember? That poor fool could not even be in the same room as you without getting all tongue tied.”

Ethari had to laugh. Yep. Runaan. A vison of deadly beauty and grace. Until you stuck him in a room with someone he found highly attractive and tried to make him talk to that person.

“yes. And a certain someone else making me give lain a multi-page ‘will you go out with me’ note. And was rather insistent that things would never work out between you” Ethari paused at the scowl that Tiadrin aimed at him.
“what, it’s true. and look at you now. Marred for two years, and 3 months pregnant. Just wait until the bump discovers the feels for the first time.”
Tiadrin stuck her tongue out at him as Lian cracked up. Ethari joined in the laughter, forgetting about his troubles for a while in the crisp spring air.

-

Even with the support and reassurances of his best friends, and a lot of his neighbours, Ethari could not help but feel increasingly nervous as the days trickled by. The notes left by this mystery elf had.. evolved. Whereas the notes had started out like the first couple, sappy but harmless little love notes detailing and complementing what the elf liked about him. His hair, body, the way he walked. But then they started getting ….. weird. Weirder.

One waxed lyrical about the way He picked moon berries and spring flowers from the community garden, another about the way he sung to himself whilst in the cooking in the kitchen, pretending to dance with his absent husband. They way that the author detailed the little things, like the way that Ethari moved his hands when talking or the happy trill his voice gained when talking with Tiadrin about the soon to be baby.

-love the way the moonlight plays on your skin, beautiful one. They way your hair is mussed and messy after you towel it dry post bath. How I wish run my hand through your hair my dear-


Things that meant that whoever they were, they were watching him very closely. Very, very closely. Ethari found himself looking over his shoulder more and more as the notes started to detail more and more of his day to day life in detail.

and then the gifts started.

If he looked at sweetmeats in the market one hazily evening, there would be some waiting for him when he got home. Flowers, pretty rocks, sliced fruit, a stack of befuddled adoraburrs. Little things that could be tucked into the mail slot, all with the same notes attached, now talking about how they hoped he liked his gifts on top on of the now usual creepy love declaration. Ethari never ate any of the food left for him. Something always seemed a little off about it. He could never tell what that something was, but it always made his skin crawl. Plus, sometimes, just sometimes, he could swear that he could feel someone in the room with him, sending goose pimples up and down his back.
Runaan could not come home soon enough.

-

They day that the love of his life came home it was blowing a complete and utter hoolie, complete with rain that was borderline hail, and the smaller branched of his thankfully very sturdy home whipping to and throw in the wind.

But like hell was he missing Runaan’s arrival home, so he was there, huddled under two layers of cloaks, along with a crowd made up of the families of the rest of the squad all huddled next to the entrance to the village like soggy penguins, waiting impatiently.
Mercifully, they did not have to wait long, and one by one the equally as drenched returning elves were spirited away back to their nice warm, dry homes as they stepped through the barrier and into the waiting arms of those waiting.

Runaan found himself being pulled into one of Ethair’s famous bear hugs, before the two of them made a mad dash for home, dodging puddles and giggling like a pair of school children playing truant from school as they went.
They crashed through the door of the workshop, and landed on the floor in a soggy wet, laughing heap.
Ethari had left the forge going, so it was nice and toasty in the main workshop, perfect for drying out wet clothing and husbands.

“You seem to be in an awful rush to get me out of my clothing” Runaan mused as Ethari started to help him strip off his outer layers.
“you just got back, and the last thing you need is a cold you silly goat” Ethari informed him, having chucked the drenched cloaks he had been wearing onto the wet clothing pile as well.
“oh, is that the only reason?” Runaan replied, tugging lightly on Ethari’s belt. “or do you have… oh.. a different motive in mind, I wonder” he smirked up at Ethari in the way that he knew quickened the tinkers blood, and pulled him down for a kiss.

-

Ethari swore that the next gust of wind, seemingly coming from right outside, sounded like a disappointed moan.

-

The letters and gifts stopped completely whilst Runaan was home. As the days bled into weeks, and then a month, there was no signs of any notes or strange gifts anywhere, as if whoever it was scared of his big bad, willowy husband who was very happy to be home. So happy that he actually took a couple of days off to just lounge with Ethari, keeping him company in his work shop as he worked on commissions for the next village over.

Pretty trinkets, necklaces, rings, horn cuffs and a small pile of dangers with hidden poison chambers where being churned out by a very happy tinker elf, and Runaan was more than happy to test out some of the daggers for quality control.
Ethari called him a show off. Runaan just smirked and pulled a trick shot with the next one.
Commissions like these, plus some stuff that Ethari was making for his on and off market stall, He hoped to swap for some nice soft fabric, to make some cuddly somethings for the Tiadrin’s as yet to be named bump.

She was now five months along and really starting to show much to her disgruntlement. She had finally been taken off active guard duty, and instructed to take it easy from there on out. Passive training such as knife throwing only till the bab was born. Not that the free time she suddenly had was going to waste- her and Lain had spent a lovely afternoon with the two of them trying to brainstorm baby names that would not end up with the poor kid having ‘the second’ as part of their name.

Things had ended with a silly battle over desert, which involved a low flying flan, and Runaan not ducking fast enough.

-

As the saying went, time flies when you are having fun.

Runnan had not even been home two months when he was handed his next assignment. And actual assassination assignment, hand was given two weeks to sort things out at home, join his assigned team and head out. No arguments, no exceptions.
Ethari was not a happy elf to hear that he was leaving again so soon, but he knew that this is what he was getting in to, marrying an assassin. But moon above, it was frustrating.

“I don’t mean to be rude, my heart, but I can’t wait for you to move up the ranks a little” Ethari mused to his husband, one night before his departure. The cold new moon night was safely locked away behind thick curtains and walls as the two of them snuggled in the wee hours, not wanting to get up.
“oh?” Runaan asked sleepily, savouring his warm bed and husband “why is that?”
“then you get to choose your missions, and not have to be gone on back to back missions. Again.” Ethari sighed. “I do miss you, you know.”
“as I miss you.” Runaan muttered into his hair, breathing in the soft sent of soap and metal “we will be back befor you know it, you’ll see.”

Ethari had no words for him, and just pulled him tighter, not willing to let go just yet. The late spring insects outside chirped a chorus to go with his melancholy mood.
“you better, my heart, you better.”

-

The day came too soon, and Ethari gave Runaan a good bye hug before his beautiful, stubborn husband left the village as the sun started to dip below the horizon, and the village behind them stated to come to life. Ethari was not privy to where he was going, or who he was being sent after, but Runaan had assured him that they were not leaving Zadia this time.

He stood and watched as Runaan’s long braid flicking in the light wind as he melted trough the barrier, and then he was gone. Gone for however long he was going to gone. Ethari sighed, made small talk with one of the other families, then decided to head over to see if Lain and Tiadrin where home.
For some reason, he did not want to be alone at home right now. Something.. just felt off.
besides, he could take the opportunity show Tiadin some of the fabric samples he had, like the lovely soft, plush fleece that would make for a brilliant blanket.

That was a plan.

The evening bled into night as time flew by in the shade of the trees, with Tiadrin and lain working together to help to lift the gray cloud that had formed over Ethari’s head. By the time they all decided to turn in for the day, the tiny sliver of the waxing moon was starting to set in the sky above them, and a myriad of glowing bugs and pollen spores had come out, in the pre-dawn light making the short walk home like walking through the night sky. The village was quiet and serene, has he walked, with the odd night bird singing somewhere above him.

He hopped up the stairs to his front door, one floor above the door to the main workshop, and let himself in to the empty house.

The first day alone was always the worse. Always.

Ethari trundled into the kitchen, and came nose to nose with a large plush moonstrider, made of the softest shimmery fabric he had ever seen, sitting to attention in Runaan’s chair at the table. The note around its neck was in Runaan’s neat looping hand writing.
Hope this will keep you company whilst I’m gone- R
Ethari snorted.

That assassin was a softy, really.

-

The good mood that Ethari was in that evening evaporated like water on a hot skillet the next evening. He had decided to get a head start on the night’s work, so had unusually been up with the last of the sun. He got up, got dressed, and sat Runaan’s gift on Runaan’s side of the bed before eating a quick breakfast and heading into his workshop.

Then he checked his mail box.

Sitting on top of the usual letters and small packages of things he had ordered, was a note. And with that note, was a small package.
Gingerly, he plucked the note and attached parcel out of the rest, and opened them.
The package had a mooncake, moulded into the shape of a heart bloom, a popular admission of love. And the note had a very stark message.

You are too good for him, beautiful one. I would never leave you.

Ethari felt ice slip down his back.

Looking closer at the cake, flipping it over, he could see that it had been oh so subtly tampered with, it looked like someone had made a small incision in the bottom, for reasons unknown. He used the cake as part of the starter fuel for his forge.
The note went in the box with the other ones. Ethari vowed to show Runaan once he got home.

-

They kept coming.

Day after day, the notes just kept coming. If they were creepy before, then now they were just getting out right scary.

I want to touch you……. Feel you…. Make you mine…. Keep you forever.

Each and every one made his skin crawl.

And now he was getting paranoid. Each little creak of the living tree his home was carved into made his hackles rise, the wind whistling through the leaves and branches at night chilled his blood. Sometimes, when he was cuddled up alone in the too big bed with the plush moonstrider tucked in his arms, he could swear he could feel eyes digging into his soul. Eyes that followed him around the room if he got up to go to the kitchen, or bathroom, or anywhere.

Etheri, understandably did not sleep much.

Tiadrin in particular had cottoned on to her friends turn in emotion. She started spending more time with him, hanging around in his work shop whilst lain was on patrol. Ethari was more than happy to let her, he was a social elf after all, and so was Tiadrin. They spent hours a day gossiping about anything that came to mind, with lain joining in when he could, and some of Ethari’s customers were happy enough to have a chat when they came in.
Anything to lighten up Ethari’s mood. The whole village knew that he worked better when happy.
But the night had to end at some point, and under the light of the setting moon, Tiadrin slipped off home, grumbling about her growing belly. The baby had started really moving in earnest only the day before, which was exciting! So, so very exciting, but the bump had decided that Tiadrin’s bladder was a brilliant target for kicking practice.
She was happy that they were doing so well, but was finding it very annoying.

Ethari locked the door behind her after seeing her off.

Something in the air was still making him feel.. off. Unnerving. But he could not tell what it was. After double checking every window in his workshop, and shutting down his forge for the night, he headed up stairs.

He swore that he could feel something brush is back as he ascended the stairs, but looking back, there was nothing.

-

It was the first truly warm day that year when the assassins finally returned home, a week behind schedule.

One of the team, Castello, had been clipped by a spear thrown by one of the target’s body guards, and was moving slower as a result. The whole team had managed to stop once safe to tend to him the best they could, but the injury had proven problematic.
But they were home safe now, and Castello had His stubborn ass shuttled straight to the healers lodge to be tended to the moment that he limped through the barrier, escorted by his siblings and mother.

Runaan felt a shard of worry stab him straight in the heart when, after scanning the small crowd repeatedly, he realised that his loving husband was not here to welcome him home. Ethari always welcomed him home, come rain or shine or that blizzard last year. It was the one thing he could always count on.
Was he sick?
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a very relieved looking lain approaching quickly, a look of muted panic on his face. Runaan immediately turned to him to ask what was wrong, but lain shushed him and quickly started to lead him away from the dispersing crowd, towards his and Tiadrin’s home.

“Don’t kick up a fuss, ok. Something has happened and Ethari needs to speak with you in privet. Right. Now.”
“wha-“
“something bad. He’s ok, but for the love of the moon let him talk before you open your big mouth, alright?”
Lain pulled him into the kitchen of his home, and Runaan’s eyes immediately found a shaken Ethari sitting hunched over a mug of strong tea at the kitchen table, with a very round Tiadrin standing guard by the sink.
Lian slipped passed Runaan to join his wife, gently shaking Ethari’s shoulder as he passed. Ethari lifted his head just long enough to realise that his husband was there, and Runaan felt his jaw drop slightly.

He.. looked a mess. only half dressed, hair going in all directions, Runaan could clearly see that he had not been sleeping, and had been crying to boot.
He sat next to him, cupping his beloved hears face his hands as Ethari fell apart in front of him, crying and sobbing, unable to speak.
After another cup of tea, and some cuddling, Ethari started to talk about what had been going on over the last few months, from the first couple of letters and gifts appearing in the mail, to it stopping, to them starting up again, and they way that the letters got more and more creepy as the days had ticked by.
And then the gifts.
And then the tampered gifts.
And the search that had come up empty.
And then……. This.

It had started when he had gotten up that evening. Ethari had just been tired. So tired. The last couple of days had been bad ones, with both the invisible something sitting on his mind and worry for his husband keeping him up way past sunrise.
He had blinked the sleep from his eyes, and rolled over to find that the plush moonstrider that he had fallen asleep with was no longer in the bed. He had half expected it to be on the floor next to the bed- it would not be the first time that he had accidently kicked it off the bed as he tossed in his sleep, but the moment he sat up to search for it, his hand touched … something that had been placed on the pillow next to his head.
It was another one of the notes.
In his bed.
With another gift.

He had been completely alone when he locked up and went to bed.
Ethari had panicked.
He had stuffed his boots on his feet, threw on a rain poncho, and bolted to his friend’s house as fast as his feet could carry him, bringing only the note and a his keys along with him.

-

Runaan sat and listened to everything his Husband had to say, becoming more and more angry as he spoke.
Not only had someone been tormenting his Husband whilst we had been away, but whoever it was had managed to do so under the noses of an entire village full of assassins, druids and generally observant people.
Add that to the fact that they had broken into their house to do so.

He. Was. Mad.

Taking his still crying in his arms, pulling him close in a comforting hug, Runaan vowed to find out who was behind this whole stalking campaign. He sealed the vow with a soft kiss to the top of Ethari’s head, right between his horns.
Pulling away, his eyes darted to a single small detail, small enough to be over looked at a distance, but this close? It was plainly obvious.

Ethari looked ashamed as Runaan softly brushed Ethari’s fringe, fingers ghosting over the chunk of hair that was missing. “I didn’t notice until I got here” Ethari whispered, watery eyes wide with fear.

-

Runaan pushed the front door open, arrow knocked, ears pricked to pick up any little sound that may or may not ring out in the empty house.

They had already cleared the workshop, finding nothing out of place, not a smidge. It was all the same way that Ethari had left it the night before, with all the jobs that he put out to work on still on the work bench.
Even the gems laid out for a neckless were untouched.
It was almost eerie, in its stillness.
Ethari was glued to Runaan’s back as they checked the lounge (clear, with no sign of interference) , the balcony outside the lounge (door was still locked, only the odd bird on the deck) , then they moved on to the kitchen.
It was as clear as the rest of the first floor, apart from one, large thing that was very out of place.

The plush moonstrider was at Runaan’s place at the table, definitely not where Ethari had last seen it, still looking as regal and composted as ever. With a large knife thrust into its fuzzy chest.

A knife that was not Ethari’s.

The knife was buried up to the hilt, pinning a note to the plush fabric above the approximate location of where the plush toy’s heart would be. Gingerly, Ethari pulled the note free, and he read it out loud for Runaan to hear.

You could do so much better. I will never leave you, like that stone hearted murderer dose.

The look on Runaan’s face could kill a dragon at 50 paces.

-

The notes kept coming. But now they were complimenting Ethari in one line whilst insulting Runaan in the next.
And the things they called him. The things they said.

Murderer, cold heated monster, worthless long haired wuss. Shade soul. You are blind to the anguish you cause him. Why don’t you just leave and stay away? It would be better for him. Better for you.

Sweet moon above, these notes made Runaan mad.

They were poking at nerves that he tried to hide away from everyone, even his husband.
Yes, he always felt bad that he left Ethari behind whilst he was away, and yes, he did feel guilty about it some days, even on days when he was home and safe. But the facts where that Ethari was no assassin, for the love of the moon, and way too valuable to silvergrove and the rest of the moonshadow forest to risk like that. And, there was a reason that Ethari had made those lotus when they started dating, as peace of mind for all.

They had talked about this. And continued to talk about things as they came up.
But dang, it hurt to read them some mornings.

-

One warm morning, as the two of them slept peacefully in bed, Runaan half-awake mind felt something, that felt like a gust of wind whispering across his ear. The thought nothing of it, until it happen again, with more force.

Someone was breathing in his ear.

He bolted awake, instincts kicking in as he pulled the dagger out from its hiding place inside his pillow, ready to strike at the intruder. Only, in the daylight that was streaming in from the half open curtains, there was no one there, only the faint movements in the sunlight lit dust particles showing that there had been any one there at all.
Ethari startled awake as Runaan vaulted over him to get to the door, intent on running the intruder down, and getting answers out of them.
He returned minutes later with no results, and very angry. They had gotten away from him. It was like they was never there to begin with.

Like a ghost.

Ethari met him on the stair case, gingerly holding a note in his hand, the only tangible evidence that someone was there at all.
“it was on the bed” he whispered, handing it to Runaan.

He will be mine, soulless one. All mine.

-

The notes stopped the next night.

The two of them were on tender hooks, waiting for the mystery person to make their next move, only ever leaving each over’s sides to go to the bathroom.
but nothing changed. There was no more notes, no gifts, no waking up in the middle of the night with a sense of foreboding dread.
It seemed that the sight of a very angry Runaan chasing them, blade in hand and murder in his eyes, had finally scared them off.

They hoped.

A week after the incident of the intruder in the night, Lain, with a heavily pregnant Tiadrin in toe, payed the husbands a visit. In his arms, was a wiggly baby shadowpaw, which was protesting being held, at top volume.
Ethari was in the middle of patching up the plush moonstrider as they entered, yowling cargo in hand.

“his mum rejected him last night, too many growing cubs, not enough milk to go around.” Lain explained to Runaan as Ethari cooed over the bundle of black and midnight blue fur that was now padding about the floor of the lounge, squeaking as he bumped into the furniture and Runaan’s legs.
“figured that the two of you could use a distraction from the hell you’ve been going through” Tiadrin added from her spot on the loveseat. “we would take the little tyke ourselves, but..” she made a motion to her belly. She was due any week now. “we are going to be very busy, very soon. Plus Teige has no patience for cubs”
Runaan rolled his eyes at the mention of the older Shadowpaw that had been a companion to lian’s family since they had been children. He was a fine beast, but was getting a little grumpy in his old age.

Ethari had stashed the sewing kit out of the reach of little paws and was now playing with them on the floor, eyes alight for the first time in so long.
He looked so happy. Runaan could not bring himself to say no, even when the cub peed on him.

-

Two days later, the little cub had a name, Artturi, and a bed in the lounge all to himself. The little cub did still need to be fed every couple of hours, so the two of them took turns to give him his bottle, and to try to convince him to try some ground up meat as a first step to weening.

It was a bit tedious, since Artturi liked to kneed on the elf feeding him, and even at his young age, he had very sharp little claws. And that was when he decided to eat at all.
Runaan was upstairs in the lounge, trying to offer the cub some of the milk/meat slurry that had been recommended by his friends as a next step food, whilst keeping an ear trained on the sounds of Ethari at work in the forge the floor below.
As the sound of the grinding wheel starting up echoed up to him, Runaan gave Artturi a disappointed look as the cub face planted into the food, painting his muzzle and chest with the mush. Then the cub promptly started licking the mush off of his self, apparently deciding that the food that Runaan had been, very patiently, trying to feed him for the last quarter hour, was delicious after all. As Artturi inhaled the rest of the bowl of mush, Runaan’s eyes drifted to the plush moonstrider that was sitting on the loveseat, repaired and proud.

Maybe a playmate would do Artturi some good. He knew that one of his teammates moonstider bitch was due to welp soon, so perhaps, if all went well, he could adopt one of the pups. He thoughts of the dramatic adoraburrs with legs and a tail that where moonstrider pups were cut abruptly short by a cry of pain erupting from downstairs, followed by the sounds of a scuffle. Runaan had known Ethari for long enough to know that this cry of pain was not the sort that came from Ethari having a ‘incident’ down in the workshop, and oh boy, had he had some of those before.

The forge could be vengeful.
This was different.

Runaan was down the ladder to the workshop before he knew it.
Running on pure instinct, he grabbed one of his swords from is hidey hole by the stairs, leaped down into the workshop ready to confront whatever had made his husband shout.
Then he caught sight of Ethari.

He was slumped over, back against his work bench. The square stool that he usually sat on was knocked to the side. It was bloody.
Runaan crouched next to Ethari’s still form, cupping his chin in his hand to get his attention. Ethari was still responding, just. He was pale, and had a hazy look in his eyes and was trying desperately to stay awake. The smell of blood suddenly hit Runaan, and looking down, the source was blinding obvious.
There was a lot of blood seeping out from around and in between Ethari’s fingers, coming from what he quickly realised was a stab wound in his ribs.
Ethari gasped in pain, gaping as he tried to speak.

“r- ru?”
“not now, my heart. You need help” Runaan hushed him, using his shirt to try to help to stem the bleeding.
“ru- I.. I got them too.” Ethari rasped, indicating loosely to the blade that was lying near the toppled stool. It was the one he had been working on, and it was freshly sharpened. And covered in what could only be the blood of Ethari’s attacker.
As was the stool, by the looks of it.

Thinking quickly, he made a note of the blood trail leading from the work bench to the door, and the fact that the drops were positioned in a way that said that the bleeding person was moving fast. He could track that. He was going to track them. and they would pay for this.
Plan decided, He scooped up Ethari and made for the healers lodge, as fast as possible.

-

They told him that Ethari was going to be alright.
He has gotten him there as fast as he could, a wound like that meant that every second counted, but after a tense wait in the lobby, with a certain mewling shadowpaw cub who had somehow made it down stairs and had followed him sitting in his lap, Ethari was given the all clear.
He would need time, and care, but he would most likely make a full recovery.

Runaan thanked the medics profusely, asking one of them watch little Artturi whilst he hunted down the barsted who had done this.
He would be back soon, after all. This time around there was a trail to follow, and Runaan was very good at his job.

By the time he had gathered his bowblade and some other supplies form the house, the rest of his troop had assembled, grim faced, with lain and a pair of stone faced druids at the head. A small pack of hunting moonstriders had also been assembled, and where already starting to pull in the direction of the blood trail, champing at the bit it excitement.

They were going hunting.

Lain had his shadowpaw, and handed Runaan the rains of one of the moonstriders.
No words were exchanged, but as one, the hunting party set off, Runaan leading the charge as the trail lead out of the village, and into the woodland beyond.

-

The trail lead them deep into the woods, the moon cast thin slivers of light tough the branches above, providing ample light for sensitive moonshadow eyes to see by, but the rout that they were taking was leading them into parts of the forest that not even the fall moon, or the sun of the day, would be able to reach.
The parts of the forest that people did not go, for very good reasons.
The shadows were darker than a raven’s feathers, and there were signs now that something injured had come through. Blood smears on trees, scuff marks in the dirt. They were flagging, but the hunters had plenty left to burn. It was just a game of getting to the target before some of the deep forests less then pleasant residents did.
Down, they went, out of the thick trees and into a small gorge that emptied out to the river.

The trail took a sharp left into a small divot in the side of the gorges rocky walls. It was just wide enough of a slender elf the fit though, and there was more blood, dark and congealed smeared on the stones around the entrance.
There was, as far as he could tell, no signs of the injured party leaving again.
Runaan handed the rains of his moonstrider to lain, separated his bow into its two separate blades, and headed into the cave. Castello and one of the others, a druid, soon followed, the rest standing guard outside so if the target did manage to get passed Runaan and co, the would not get far.

The cave was damp, tight and stank of blood.
In the dark, dank space, Runaan had to use his hearing and touch to feel his way along the passage, moving slowly and silently towards the dim light that signalled a chamber just up ahead. Taking a deep breath, wrinkling his nose at the increasing smell of blood, he slipped into the small chamber, and found himself reeling at what he saw.

The chamber was lit by lanterns full of enchanted flames, the lanterns looking like they had been through some sort of violent incident, since they were dented and chipped. Bedding filled the space. There was a mass of blankets and pillows in varying states of raggedness. Runaan heard one of the druids that had come along to document the hunt mutter something about one of the blankest looking like one that had gone missing from her home days before.
But that was nothing compared to what was all over a stone ledge that took up the back wall of the cave.

Things from Ethari’s work shop. Things that Ethari had been scratching his head over the disappearance of. Small things. Gemstones, metal scraps, bits of projects. A missing shirt. Runaan felt his stomach twist at the realisation that, in between the things that had gone missing from his husbands workshop there where poppets, bottles of liquids and jars with what looked like bits of magical creatures floating in them. And there were candles. So many candles, all lit, casting early shadows over the collections of things, sending long shadows across the craven. A portrait sat front and centre of this macabre shrine of sorts. Looking closer, Runaan realised that the portrait was of a younger, teenaged Ethari, smiling softly for the artist.
Ethari’s late mother had one just like it. It was an old school portrait.
The missing lock of hair was sitting, bound with some plants that Runaan could not identify, right in front of it.

“moons above!” Castello hissed from just behind him “what is this place?”
“the lair of someone not right in the head” the druid replied.
Runaan took a cautious step towards the shrine, poking at the blanket pile with his blade as he did. Some of that stuff looked like dark magic in the making, and needed to be destroyed as soon as. Only, as his foot came down, it landed of something that was hard, yet slightly yielding, hidden under the blankets.
He froze, and took a step back.

Castello looked at him, then back at where he had stepped. Without prompting he used his spear to hook the top most blanket, and pulled, exposing whatever it was that Runaan had stepped on.
A leg.
A muffled cry of shock came from the druid.
Runaan use his blades to help Castello pull the rest of the blankets off of the prone figure, exposing in the candle light a thin, unnaturally pail, ashy haired moon elf, unmoving, and curled up on their side.
A swift prod with the druids staff, and the fact that there was no movement in the elf’s ribcage, soon assured them that this husk of an elf was dead.
The trio stood in silence for a while, trying to work out what to do now.
“well…. At least we don’t have to kill ‘em.” Castello stated flatly. “now what?”

-

They cleared the shrine first.

The bits from Ethari’s workshop were dumped into a bag to be sorted through later, and the bottles, jars and other…. things, where gathered up and put into another bag, much more gingerly. The druid, who was called Masha, wanted to find out exactly what this elf had been up to, or at least what they were trying to do.
Finally, the dead elf’s still cooling, pliable body was wrapped in the blood soaked sheets that they had been lying on, and was dragged out through the tunnel they came in by, and was draped over the back of Teige the shadowpaw’s back, much to Lain’s distaste. Finally, the candles were extinguished and gathered along with the lanterns.

They left the blood and rest of the cave as is. Nature would deal with what was left.
And with that, the whole party tuned around and grimly retraced the path back to the village in the thin pre-dawn light.

-

That evening Runaan was summoned to the mortuary under the healer’s lodge.

He had spent the day attempting to sleep in the chair next to Ethari’s sick bed, much to the amusement of Ethari himself whilst the tinker was awake. The healers had pumped him full of sedatives and varying medicine to stop any infections from forming, which meant that he was in and out of consciousness.
He barely noticed Runaan slip out, pausing only to ruffle Artturi’s fur.

- The elf was laid out on a cold stone slab.

They were even more gaunt and pail then they looked in the cave. The elf’s face and hand showed the greyed, distorted effects of the use of dark magic. That made Runaan’s stomach twist. Dark magic use, right under their noses. Who knows what could of happened if he had not of been stopped.
It made the bottles and jars, and whatever was in them, even more sickening to think about.

The druid got his attention, and started to speak.

“That husband of yours managed to clip a major artery in his gut, long story short, he bled to death, and truth be told, was probably dead a good half hour before you found him.” The wound itself was small, a simple stab from a slim blade, but deep. It had been a very slow death. Painful too, but a small part of Runaan was mad that he did not get to run them through himself.
Runaan rolled his lip.

“and of course, as you can see, they have very clear signs of dark magic use. Ashyness of his hair, darkening of the skin at the extremities, black eyes and so on, and so forth.” The druid, looked displeased “we had good look at some of the, ah, potions that you found with them. it looks like they used bits of themselves to make some of these. We have an expert coming in from Moonarches to find out exactly what they were trying to do, and to try and identify them.”
Runaan looked up in surprise
“Moonarches? They have a dark magic expert there?”
“yes, yes. Understandably, He don’t advertise his services outside the professional spectrum ”
“I wonder why.” Runaan muttered. “when will he arrive?”
“tomorrow, we hope. And, quick warning, He will want to talk to Ethari too.”

With that, Runaan was dismissed, and walked back up the stairs to the ward, mind turning. He was two doors down from Ethari’s door before things clicked. Moonarches was the name of Ethari’s home village. The village that he and his late mother had both very abruptly moved from when Ethari was in his teens, a year before Runaan was transferred from his home to continue his own training with the special forces.
Ethari had told him it was so he could take up the smithing apprenticeship that was open, since there was nothing going for him. His mother, when asked, had always been slightly more evasive when it came to her responses.
His beautiful husband was barely awake as he pushed the door open, but still gave Runaan a sweet, very wobbly smile before clonking out again, making Runaan chuckle.

-

The expert from Moonaches slipped into the village in the evening light, but did not approach Runaan and Ethari for the ‘chat’ that was needed until the next night.

By this time, Ethari had been sent home, and was propped up on the love seat in the lounge, taking the order to rest up as a good opportunity to catch up on some reading that he had been meaning to do. Runaan was not quite sure what he was reading, but the notes on still making that was materialising on the table by the love seat was… suspect.

Artturi bounded over to the front door, yowling, at the sound of someone knocking.
Runaan hopped up, and scooped the cub up to stop him from attacking the feet of whoever was at the door, before opening it.
The expert was a kindly looking older elf, with laughter lines deeply ingrained in his round face.

Finnigan, as he introduced himself, sat across from Ethari and Runaan as they talked.

“you have tuned out well, young Ethari” he smiled “you were quite the lanky thing when I last saw you, all those years ago.”
“you knew each over?” Runaan asked casually, eyeing Finnigan.
“Yes, love, we were neighbours . Never knew your profession tho.” Ethari replied. “mum used to use poor Fin here as a recipe tester”

Runaan rolled his eyes at the memory of some of the… interesting… recipes that Ethari’s mother had come up with other the years. Ethari still had the book she jotted them all down in somewhere. “haha, yes. Now, down to business. Tell me, Ethari, do you remember you school mate, Gwent?”
Ethari got a confused look on his face, that morphed into a look of shock as he nodded, slowly.
“Do you remember what happened to him?”

At Runaan’s completely confused look, and Ethari’s look of confused horror, Finnigan relayed the events that had transpired back in Moonarches, over a decade ago.

Gwent had been a… odd child, popular, but slightly weird. They had been in Ethari’s class in school, and after a while, had started to develop a crush over the course of a long summer. A crush that, in a mirror of Runaan’s own crush, had flown completely over Ethari’s head.

And then the autumn term had started, and things started to go downhill.

Ethari had had a growth spurt over the summer, becoming tall, lanky and even clumsier than he had been when he was a child. Because of this, and the fact that Ethari’s father, and the family’s main bread winner, had died that summer, some of the other kids had started a campaign of relentless bulling that continued right into the winter.
Children could be such cruel creatures.

Then the first one had vanished on the way home from school.

Then that bullies’ body had been found hung like a deer in the woods behind the school, gutted and beheaded.
Then another bully vanished and came up dead, and another, and another, each time the body had been eviscerated and mutilated to the point that some of them could barely be identified.
Throughout it all Gwent had been doing his best to woo Ethari, acting like the perfect citizen as more and more of his friends and classmates went missing.
It had all come to a head when Ethari. Feeling creeped out by something he could not quite describe about Gwent’s whole demeanour and the way that he was almost flippant about the growing sense of paranoia of the town, had turned down a courting gift.

Gwent had snapped, and had attacked Ethari in his own front yard. Finnigan had been witness to the frenzied attack, and had been one of the people who had kicked down the door to Gwent’s blood drenched ‘workshop’.

The boy, and he was still only a boy, had been behind the horrors, in what only could be described as a twisted attempt to protect and woo the elf he had become fascinated with.

Most of those he killed where people who had called him friend, who had trusted him, and who had probably not realised the danger they were in until it was way too late.

Finnigan was sure that the only reason that Gwent was not executed was because of his age, and the fact that his family as of an exceeding high standing, both in Moonarches and beyond. So the boy had been shipped off to a nearby secure mental facility, and ghosted for good measure, from his home village and many others.
Including silvergrove, where Ethari and his mother had fled to to get as far away for any retaliation that might unjustly come their way.
The fact that there had been a smithing apprenticeship going when they had arrived was the icing on the cake, and provided a perfect cover story.

“That mad man was declared dead by the institution he was sent too about a year and a half ago, but there was no records of his body being buried. Then a sunfire merchant was attacked and killed just outside the village.” Finnigan explained “And then one of his sibling that he famously never got along with had a.. accident, lost a horn.”
The husbands sat in silence.
“some of those potions you found with Gwent’s body, who was looking rather well for someone who died a year and a half ago, had moon elf horn in them, so did the poppets.”
“did.. did you.. work out what he was trying to do?” Ethari wisped, voice shaking. Runaan reached over to squeeze his hand in what he hoped would be a reassuring way.

Finninagn looked grim.

“stealth and love charms, my boy. Some of them were to get into this village, and to disable part of the ghosting spell, so he could see you, but you could not see or hear him. And as for the love spells, well….” Finnigan looked at Ethari very flatly. “he never stopped loving you, in his own twisted way. It was wise of you not to touch any of the food he gifted you. Potions of the type and strength you found are banned across the fire stream for the effects they have. I don’t think I need to elaborate.”
“no, no you don’t” Runaan whispered, then he spoke up “and the attack?”
“well, that kid never handled rejection well, and the fact that Ethari was still loyal to you after everything may of triggered his violent side. We will probably never know for sure.” Ethari bowed his head, and Runaan pulled him into a one armed hug of support.
“He can’t harm you, or anyone else any more lad. You made sure of that.”

-

As the dog days of summer passed, the final pieces fell into place, as did a new member to the little cluster Ethari called family.

Baby Rayla, named in honour of Ethari’s mother, cooed at him from the sling her mother had put her in as the 5 of them enjoyed a moonlight pick nick out near the lake.
The letter from Finnigan had been short, but informative. As it turned out, the same sibling that had the accident had been manipulated by their brother into stealing books from Finingan’s own library, an act that had been encouraged by the siblings own father, for unknown reasons, who was now in hot water himself for what had happened.
(“finally” Ethari had snorted, “the sod was always wiggling out of trouble, sliver tongue and all”)

Gwent had then used the knowledge he had accrued to track down and terrorise those who he deemed responsible for his imprisonment, until he had managed to pry the location of where his ‘lover’ had moved too, taking there sibling’s horn as warning to them to keep their sweet mouth shut and to use as resources.
Which kicked off the months of hell that Ethari had gone through.

Rayla babbled and squeaked as her father placed a stray adoraburr on her downy little head making the adults all laugh.
“this doesn’t feel like closure love” Ethari whispered to Runaan over the top of the letter, as he watched the happy family play.“but … I think I can live with that.”
“You are alive, he is dead, and the people who are responsible are liable to end up in jail, that sounds like closure to me, my heart.” Runaan replied, a rare soft smile on his face.
Ethari frowned and opened his mouth to speak again, only for his words to be stolen away by a tender kiss form his husband.

“let’s just enjoy what we have for now, ok?”

Ethari nodded, and lent against Runaan’s side as they watched Lain and Tiadrin come under attack from a bouncy shadowpaw cub on the hunt for unattended food and pats, up-endeding a bowl of salad as he went.

“love you, my little mouse.” Ethari muttered into Runaan’s ear as lain tried to wrestle a smoked ham away from Artturi, as Tiadrin cheered the cub on.
“I love you too, my heart bloom.”
they sat together in bliss for a long moment, before resigning themselves to helping lain with his fuzzy little problem.