Before taking one step into Oldstead territory, Kin could sense something was amiss.
What began as a knot of emptiness in the pit of their stomach — nothing more than a pang of hunger, they wanted to believe — swiftly worsened with the hasty pace of their approach, growing and spreading until it filled them completely, gnawing their insides and sapping the warmth from their veins.
Kin had felt this before. This preternatural numbness, as Etal liked to call it, or 'absence' as they preferred. Kin had experienced it a dozen times over the last year, yet they were barely any closer to understanding it. It was too rare and fleeting to study properly. As such, there were only three facts they knew for certain.
First, while its symptoms felt physical, the absence was truly spiritual in nature, born in their fae and carried across the ethereal bond that connected their souls.
Second, the absence was a proximity reaction to... something. Sometimes places, other times people, and in some cases, would fade in and out with the passage of time.
Third, in exchange for losing the ability to perceive their body, the absence granted Kin an increased awareness of their surroundings, as well as their fae's senses.
Though their fae didn't understand the absence any better, both of them recognized its purpose. It had to be some kind of warning. A magical instinct that said, 'Hey! You two should pay more attention!" Nothing bad might have come from it yet, but Kin made a habit of listening. Their father didn't raise a fool.
"It's quiet," Kin muttered, their lips moving faster than their thoughts. The words were barely strong enough to reach their ears, both softer than the wind that stirred through the forest and drowned out by the leaves that rustled overhead. "The birds!" they blurted out louder, seizing everyone's attention. Altogether, their crew of hunters and gatherers ceased marching to glance Kin's way, a mix of confusion and curiosity plain on their faces. "Why aren't they singing?" Kin prodded, gazing up at the canopies for any signs of life and finding little. Even the restless buzzing of insects was muted and distant. It was like everything that lived in this area was hiding in fear or had fled elsewhere, leaving naught but the world's hushed breaths.
At the head of their column, Mr. Qop and Ms. Han met eyes, traded frowns, then gestured orders to their apprentice children in the rear. Kin was surprised by how quick they reacted, having expected the Head Hunter to dismiss their observation as childish paranoia. Then Kin realized exactly where they were.
Beyond the next line of trees, the tall stone wall enclosing Oldstead Acres from the rest of the Sallow Woods was visible amidst the shade. They should be able to hear the local folk working at this hour. Whether or not it was related, the lack of birdsongs just made the farm’s silence that more obvious.
Wordless, Mr. Qop raised his wing-shaped halbird and stalked on ahead, vanishing past a curtain of foliage. Ms. Han whispered for the gatherers to stand still and stay quiet before following after him. Dep raised his spear confidently and took his father’s spot in the front, leaving Halek alone in the rear with his own weapon shaking in his grasp. Kin was certain neither would be able to protect them if things suddenly went sideways, so they reached into their pocket for a weapon of their own, grasping the living dirtball that rested within.
Before Kin could pull the fae free, they felt a hand on their shoulder and looked to find Jrana frowning, her eyes squinted. Almost knowingly.
Behind, Belen and his mother inched closer, the former leaning to whisper a question in Kin's ear. "Do you know what's going on?" Fear laced his words.
A slow rumble coursed from Kin's palm. “I wish,” they answered, voice hushed, as they gazed into Belen's copper eyes. “Do you remember the feeling I would get in Hallus? The emptiness I’d feel near the outskirts and alleys? The absence? I can feel it now — have felt it building for minutes — but I still don't know why."
Jrana tightened her grip and pulled Kin closer, glaring daggers at them. Belen responded by gulping and backing away. Neither of them needed the power to read minds to know what she was thinking. Don't you two dare speak another word.
Whether or not they could talk, that didn't mean Kin couldn't act. Follow them, Kin thought defiantly, pulling the dirtball out and letting him go. He fell slowly — slower than gravity should allow — and hit the ground like a very heavy stone, leaving behind a small crater. Fortunately, the impact didn't make a noise that Jrana or the others could hear, allowing the fae to smooth it over unnoticed as he burrowed into the soil. Once he was submerged, he became one with the earth itself, granting him the power to mold it how Kin pleased. Or a small portion of it, at least.
Taking a deep breath, Kin shut their eyes and opened up to his senses. Instantly, they became aware of his six-foot diameter sphere of influence, every grain of dirt within it gaining a vague tactile sensation. It took Kin weeks of experimentation and practice to learn how to decipher the information, and under normal circumstances, it would still be a struggle to make sense of it all. With the help of the absence, however, it became second nature. As if a four-dimensional map was unfolding in their mind.
From it, they knew the size and placement of each stretching root and buried rock. They could mentally trace the minuscule tunnels created by ground-dwelling insects, though they couldn't feel the vibrations of tiny feet marching within, the labyrinths completely abandoned. Kin could even sense moisture and nutrients in the soil, or lack thereof. This land? It was undoubtedly fertile. So why did it seem everything that could move had left it?
Desperate for answers, Kin's fae went searching. He flowed through the dirt like he was riding a current in water, zigzagging up, down, left, and right to gather information and dodge obstacles. When he skimmed the top, he could feel the weight of the Oldstead's wall as he passed under it. Beyond, Mr. Qop's footfalls were easy to track. Even when moving carefully, the man's gait was heavy. Ms. Han, on the other hand, was as light as a feather. While the Head Hunter stalked across the farm's orchard toward its barn, his partner could have been lurking anywhere. Meanwhile, Kin's fae explored the untamed garden and the paths between communal structures. As far as he could tell, it had been a long time since these grounds had been tread on, and yet the absence was just getting stronger. Stronger than it had ever been, in fact.
"I don't like this," Kin said, opening their eyes. "I think we should go find another place to harvest."
Jrana's grip tightened again, pulling Kin even closer. This time, however, it was almost... comforting? Like she was trying to shield her child rather than control them.
Not long after, Ms. Han returned with a sullen expression. "It appears that after three hundred years, the Oldstead community is gone. The freshest tracks I could find were several weeks old and the nests have all been cleaned out, empty save for the dust and some debris. A decent amount of crops look healthy, though, and it's all free. Qop wants you to gather everything you can."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Jrana asked in Kin's stead. "The Oldsteadians must've left for a reason, yes?"
Ms. Han frowned, her gaze pensive. "There could be a million different reasons why, but I found no sign that it's one that puts us in danger. The woods around here are deserted too, so we don't even need to worry about local wildlife catching us by surprise."
"Isn't that a sign of danger on its own?" asked Belen. "Animals sense Fate better than us humans. If they're avoiding this place, then something must be wrong."
Ms. Han sighed. "Look. I don't like this either, but you know how stubborn Qop is when he's made a decision. Let's just be quick about it and move on. I promise I'll watch your backs and keep you safe." Though she was speaking to the gatherers, she finished with a glance at her son, who still cowered behind them. "Come on."
Ms. Nena might not have been aware of Kin's secret, but she was no less worried about what lay ahead, holding Belen tightly as they passed through the farm's gate. It seemed to have been left unlocked and left ajar, its upper hinges loose and the chains that were used to secure it coiled on the ground nearby, both of them crusted with a bit of scarlet rust. Across the pasture of overgrown and yellowing grass, the doors of the egg-shaped nests and the giant domed barn were open too, exposing their hollowed-out insides. As unkempt as the land was, it was a miracle the orchard and garden were flourishing with fruits, vegetables, and tubers. If not for them, Oldstead Acres could have resembled a corpse.