The smell of charred wood and flesh had reached his nostrils a full mile before he’d reached its source – each step closer making it impossible to not assume the worst.
Corin knew the tangled, unmarked paths of the Black Jungles like he knew his own name – intimately and without effort, moving swiftly towards his worst fears realized. He’d spent most of his one hundred and sixteen years exploring the jungles, hunting them and protecting them, from human exploitation and yuan-ti desecration alike. The jungle was his home, where he felt the most comfortable and the most needed. Over the last twenty years, however, he’d discovered an unnerving longing for a different life eating away at him from the inside.
Tashluta, the human merchant city on the coast of the northern sea beckoned him, tantalizing him with its exorbitant riches, decadent culture and civilized lifestyle.
He’d first visited twenty-five years ago, the youngest of three representing his tribe on a fact-finding mission to identify the supporters of a band of yuan-ti raiders that were destroying crops and livestock in the northern section of the jungle, a fertile valley sitting in the middle of the Hazur Mountain range long contested by the two races. Their actions were nothing remarkable, a regular tactic in their perpetual war against the elves; rather, it was their equipment, finely crafted steel weapons and wands capable of spitting balls of fire, which had suddenly appeared in the hands of the raiding parties, tipping the scales in battle. Such equipment was beyond known yuan-ti capabilities, suggesting an allegiance of disturbing intent.
The elven trio was warmly welcomed in Tashluta, a cosmopolitan port city that was home to peoples of many of the civilized cultures of Faerûn. A representative of the Merchant Council heard the details of their quest and put them up for the evening at the Tashluta Terrace, one of the City’s finest inns owned by the Urthadar family, where they rested luxuriantly from their half-a-tenday-long trek. The ornately carved furniture, the cushioned beds and silk sheets, the gluttonous meal and intoxicating wine – luxuries Corin had never dreamed of but reveled in. He was left awestruck by the view from their room on the fourth floor of gleaming towers and bustling streets; by the tall ships in the harbor and the hectic pace of the docks; by the diversity of the people and their relative wealth. It didn’t leave an impression as much as it carved a permanent place in his brain…and in his heart.
The next day, well rested and well fed, they were granted an audience with Sir Theodor Urthadar, the chairman of the Merchant’s Council. An imposing human, well over six-feet tall, all muscle and business, he listened to their tale, nodding thoughtfully at their suspicions and then, to Corin’s surprise, speaking to them in their native tongue. He’d promised to investigate on their behalf and, apologizing for his haste, wished them well and dismissed himself to attend other matters.
Nothing ever came of his promised investigation – if in fact one was ever conducted – but in the years since, Corin had returned to Tashluta several times, ostensibly conducting his own investigation while satisfying his curiosity about life in the city. Always welcomed graciously and treated as a visiting diplomat, each visit fanned the flames of his desire, lengthening from half a tenday the first time or two to an entire month on his most recent journey.
The sight of black smoke rising on the horizon pulled him back from memory, the acrid smell sharper with each step. By the time he reached his tribe’s village, he had steeled his nerves for what he expected to find.
Nothing had been left standing, no one left alive. Except for him, and the nagging longing for change now writhing uncontrollably in his gut.