Artwork by Nici Bueckert
After hours of nerve rattling wailing, the beasts fell silent once again and showed themselves. Six of them in total. They circled the outer edge of the light cast by the fire, somewhere between darkness and light. Occasionally, a flicker of light from the fire would reflect on their demonic red eyes. The hatred in those eyes was palpable.
The shadow beasts were easily several hand spans higher at the shoulder than Wolf, but they did not resemble a wolf at all. Their movements suggested feline grace. Powerful muscles rippled under a hide of pitch black.
“We’re surrounded, Tinker, What we do?” asked Sinner. He was on edge. After hours of adrenaline laced waiting, Sinner was just about ready to snap. They all were.
“They’ll wait until we wear down and make mistakes. Then they’ll attack,” said Tinker as he took several practice swings with his staff. “We won’t give them that chance.”
“What do you suggest, Tinker?” asked Rayn.
“We make a run for the river at the bottom of this valley. The beasts don’t like water. If we can get across…” Tinker’s voice trailed off.
“I don’t see the Huntsman,” added Kara, Wolf still at her side.
“I know,” said Tinker, with a haggard expression. “It’s the best chance we have. I’ll lead. My staff will light the way. Everybody stay together.” Tinker pointed at one of the circling shadow beasts. “Rayn, kill that one to make an opening.”
Rayn nodded at Tinker, then sighted and loosed his arrow. It struck the shadow beast broadside. Immediately, it let out a terrible wail and staggered.
Tinker didn’t wait. He ran full force at the beast and knocked it down with a mighty blow of his staff, which flared brightly. Kara and Wolf raced right behind him.
Sinner leaped the felled beast and plunged into the forest behind Kara. He was immediately disoriented, consumed in darkness. Branches tore at his face and arms as he ran blindly forward. The forest floor sloped toward the river, so his speed increased. Sinner could only hope that he wouldn’t step into a hole or trip over a log as they raced toward the river. The light of Tinker’s staff flickered in and out somewhere ahead.
His head was pounding and his breath was torn from his lungs in ragged gasps, but Sinner ran on. He thought he heard wolf snarl somewhere to his left, but he couldn’t be sure. He couldn’t see Kara at all. He hoped she was still in front of him. He started to panic when he lost sight of the bobbing and weaving light ahead of him. He forced the panic down. He would not survive if he lost control. Keep going downhill. Eventually, he would hit the river and find the others. So he prayed.
Sinner stumbled and his left shoulder glanced off of a tree. The bark tore a gash on his left cheek as he reeled away. He fell to the ground and gouged his knees. His cheek stung and his shoulder ached. He touched the left side of his face with his free hand. It came away wet and sticky. He gripped his staff with both hands and knelt on the ground in an effort to catch his breath and think. He had to think. He had lost the others for sure now.
All was eerily silent, save for his ragged breathing. The snap of a twig to his right alerted him to the attacking shadow beast. He felt the weight of the beast press down on him, and the stench of its breath on his face as its snapping mouth reached for his jugular. Instinctively, he rolled with the beast’s momentum and pushed it from him with his staff. He regained his feet in one fluid motion and ran on with renewed zeal.
Now he understood why Tinker had always insisted on such rigorous training exercises. He and Rayn had often practiced the rolling maneuver that had just saved his life. He would have to thank Tinker later. The shadow beasts were stealthy. He was lucky to have had split second warning before the attack. But, that was all he needed.
He heard the river before he saw it. A mighty rushing torrent of sound filled his ears. Just then he burst from the deep darkness of the canopy of trees overhead. Pale moonlight cast an ethereal glow over his surroundings. After the near complete darkness of his flight through the forest, the light was a welcome sight. The wild river shimmered under the moonlight. Sinner wasn’t sure how they would cross. A narrow stretch of grass divided the river from the forest with the limbs of some trees actually overhanging the water. He scanned the immediate area for his companions. To the right, the river stretched out as far as he could see under the moonlight. Nothing. To the left, it turned sharply only a few hundred paces away.
He would go that way in the hopes of finding someone. He kept a wary eye on the edge of the forest. With the sound of the river in his ears, he could not rely on his hearing to warn him of another attack. As far as he knew, there were still five shadow beasts out there, including the one that had attacked him, plus the Huntsman. The thought of the Huntsman made Sinner’s skin crawl. He fingered the pouch at his side. He just needed time put the pieces of the puzzle together and he was sure he could figure out the mystery of the orbs. But time was not on his side at the moment, and he had more pressing concerns—like finding his friends.
To be continued…
© Peter Wiebe 2013