It came in the night, a death that left no sign that the villagers could follow.
When the first bodies were found, they suspected wolves. The winter was hard and cold, and in such times, the wolves were known to grow bold, coming into settlements to snatch away straying livestock and careless children. But wolves left tracks. Wolves did not slip through doorways and rip apart men at their hearthfires.

Wolves did not tear hearts out of bodies, and leave the shredded corpses to rot. Wolves did not tear women limb from limb, and scatter their pieces about their husbands. Wolves did not leave children asleep in their cribs, untouched, to wake in the morning amidst the corpses of their parents.
Marshall Erkenbrand, finally arriving on his great black charger, stared at the most recent carnage-this time, the men who'd set up a watch on the western end of the settlement, closest to the woods. He slipped off his horse and paced the gruesome scene, standing at last before the beheaded body of the village farrier. The watchmen had made it too easy for the killer, posting as they did in the shadows at the edge of the village. The land swept up across a snow-covered rocky meadow; beyond it, the dark ancient forest, where the killer could have sat in wait, watching the light of the torches, watching as the men passed about a bottle of spirits to chase away fear and cold. It might have seen that the other watchmen, posted across the village, had no clear line of sight to their partners on the edge of the forest. No one had seen the murders. No one had even heard them.

The killer might, Erkenbrand thought, be watching even now.

"What is this evil?" asked widow Brewster, the matriarch of the village. The young men of the village, armed with pitchforks and bows, some of them hardened by the war, stood in grim silence behind her.

"There are many demons that could be stalking the night, madam. You must leave the scene just as it is. No one will take the bodies for burial yet, no one is to venture out across this snow. The killer has left sign; we must only learn to read it."

Erkenbrand sent a Rider to Orthanc, summoning a Ranger to help him study the sign. The man arrived as the pale winter sun slipped down behind the mountains. A young man with a scar that ravaged half of his otherwise handsome face, Althan squatted over the bodies, studied the jagged, shredded edges of wounds. He held his own hand over a set of gruesome slashes, where the killer had ripped away the flesh of the chest in its quest for another heart. As the Ranger did this, Erkenbrand nodded his head in understanding. Though the wounds were many, cutting across eachother and ruining the flesh, Althan's gesture brought immediate understanding to the pattern. Sometimes four lines were together, sometimes a fifth gash hooked over the flesh.
The killer had hands.

Althan looked up at Erkenbrand. The villagers, superstitious, had talked about a winged demon, a monster that could appear and disappear at will, a thing that crept in on the cold mists. Althan curled his lip and spat, "Orc."

The creature, Althan said, had simply devised some way to conceal its tracks. Some of the snow was frozen over with a thick layer of ice. Where the snow was soft, the killer had swept over his tracks, perhaps with a pine bough. Althan suspected it wore boots, or had wrapped cloth over its clawed feet. The Ranger led the Marshall into the forest, moving carefully along the tree line, keeping an eye on the scene of the most recent carnage. And there, in a tangle of thorns just at the edge of the wood, the ranger found tracks in the snow where the Orc had crouched in wait, watching the watchers, preparing itself for the kill.
"The hour grows late now. The beast will be rising soon. Let's organize the villagers and set a proper watch, and perhaps the beast will end its evil against the steel of my sword. And let us lay traps along the forest edge, perhaps the creature can be caught like any wolf or bear, and we can be rid of it that way. Soon, according to the will of our King, we'll be rid of this menace entirely."

"I don't like this," Erkenbrand said, as they strode back across the snowy field. "Orcs generally raid and hunt in packs, making it easier to find and destroy them. This creature is solitary. It's not, as far as I understand, Orcish way."

"Indeed not, but understand that as their numbers dwindle, we may see more of this: surviving Orcs, working such evil as they may in solitude. I needn't tell you, certainly, of the attack on Orthanc just over a week ago. A chieftan of Dunland has informed us that this great calamity was the work of three: two Uruks and a single Orc, who crept into his village and then fought their way out again, and used an ancient tunnel under the chief's land to breach our fortress."

"I'd not give much weight to the words of a Dunlending," Erkenbrand warned. "They allied once with the Enemy. They'd give aid to Orcs now for a handful of silver."

"That may be, but as we rout the creatures, we must expect such isolated events as has happened in this village. They must, of necessity, trade their strength in numbers for stealth and cunning. As we see here. Let's set our traps, and form our watch, and catch this demon before he can do more harm."

The night came and passed, and for the first time in five days, there was no death in the village. At first light, Althan made his way through the forest, expecting to find the creature caught in one of the springing traps he'd laid. But to his fury, he found only a pool of black blood where a trap had been.
"It can't have gotten far!" Althan said, spinning about. "We've got its scent now, we'll use hounds to hunt it down and put an end to it!"
The men ran back to the village, returning with a huntsman, two hounds, and ten village men armed with pitchforks and sickles. The hounds began to bay immediately, racing after the scent of the creature. They led Althan and the others to the trunk of a tall pine tree, where more black blood smeared on the trunk. The village men shouted in excitement, thinking the beast was treed. But Althan looked up the trunk, looked at the branches as they stretched out and wove with others. He cursed, but was undaunted. The trap would have dealt the Orc a grievous wound. It was perhaps a clever beast, but it would be weakening. Althan's satisfaction was delayed, but it would surely come soon. They spread out through the forest, until the hounds became excited again, leading the men over fallen logs, and through gulches, and ever up the mountainside. The animals came to a stop before a small cave, and Althan drew his sword.

Within the cavern, Althan found the missing heads of several villagers, set up as macabre, rotting trophies. One of the skulls had been picked clean of meat, yet its sunken eyes had been left in place. And the Orc-frightening in its obvious gruesome enjoyment of its evil-was not in its bone-strewn lair.
It was as if the villagers were right, and the beast could disappear entirely.

"We'll find you," Althan swore. Even his steely stomach was turned by the horrific display, and he felt more rage now than ever for a creature so in love with fear and death. "We'll find you, you ghoul! You'll not escape justice much longer!"

Erkenbrand, his own jaw clenched tight against the bile in his throat, said, "We need more dogs."