Chapter 13

Her initial exultation at having won the admittedly petty argument waned quickly, and she was left feeling sheepish, alone with the bags. She dozed against the tree on and off, waking periodically to check that the bags were still there, until the sun began to set, taking away the little light that peeked through the leaves. Then, finally, she tried to shake off the languor caused by the heat and rouse herself. How long had Greyson been gone? An hour? A few hours? Longer? She’d lost track of time. And she was so, so thirsty.

He wouldn’t have tried to run off—she knew that much. He was too honest, too honorable. But could he have run into trouble? Curse that peaceful smithy and his unwillingness to use weapons!

She decided she’d better go look for him. She heaved the remaining saddlebags onto her shoulders—the weight wasn’t unbearable, now that their water supply was depleted—and headed off in the direction he’d gone. He had left a path that was easy to follow, what with the trampled grass and the broken branches, but once the sun had fully set she knew she’d be in trouble.

Her embarrassment at how she’d acted now turned into regret. In forcing him to go out on his own, had she led him into trouble? She should have been there to protect him, regardless of how much he irritated her or whether or not he knew a piece of the prophecy. That was her duty as warrior, after all, wasn’t it?

Once she’d determined that he was too honorable to stab her in the back, she had offered him a knife, an axe, at least a heavy walking stick as a weapon to protect himself in the forest. He’d staunchly refused, no matter the weapon. At the time, she hadn’t pushed him—so long as she was with him, he was safe. But why must he insist on not carrying a weapon, even when wandering off on his own? He was a fool. And a liability.

She sighed as she made her way through the trees in the dim light. Why was this forest so cursed hot? Where was this man with the stone? What was so valuable about the stone, anyway? And where had all the animals gone?

She stopped abruptly. Where had all the animals gone? The trees were eerily quiet; she could hear nothing but her own breathing.

She slid her sword from its sheath as quietly as she could and grabbed her knife with her other hand. Then she lowered the bags to the ground.

The split second of warning she got from a twig snapping to her left was all she needed. She tucked and rolled, narrowly evading the gigantic, roaring form that hurtled toward her. It was like nothing she’d ever seen before: the entire body was covered in dark fur, like an animal, but something about it reminded her of a man’s body. She slashed at its side, and it roared mightily as its blood began to flow. Was that a bear snout? There was no time to figure out what she was fighting—it was too quick; she’d have to kill it first and analyze later.

The creature lunged toward her, and she ducked out of the way once more, aiming her knife at its chest. She threw it as hard as she could, and it lodged in the creature’s chest with a satisfying thunk—but the creature continued on, apparently not bothered by the blade digging into the place where its heart should be. She hesitated for just a moment. How could she kill this thing?

A heavy paw caught the side of her head and sent her reeling. Then the creature was on top of her, and her sword was knocked out of her hand. The creature appeared to have fingers, which it was clumsily attempting to use to strangle her. She struggled for a moment against its big, furry arms, but her strength was no match for it.

She searched desperately for a way out: the knife in its chest! She reached up, grabbed hold of the knife—she was struggling to breathe now, gasping for air—and ripped the knife up as hard as she could, through layers of skin, fur, and nerves.

She couldn’t see. Blood filled her vision and her open mouth, and she jerked back instinctively, repulsed. The creature had fallen off of her—she could hear its gurgling breath nearby. She wiped the blood from her eyes, gasped for breath—and vomited. The stink of the blood was all over her, and she could feel it dripping down her torso, her face, her arms. The blood smelled unnatural: acidic and sour. Her throat, already dry and swollen from the heat and too little water, was in agony as she hunched over, vomiting up her insides. The more she thought about the smell, the more she gagged.

She had to regain control of herself. The creature was injured, but it wasn’t dead. She had to finish this.

She wiped her mouth and stood up, ignoring the black spots that clouded the edges of her vision. The creature—whatever it was—was lying on the ground, its insides hanging out. It was still alive, though; never before had Ayalah seen a creature so determined to live. The thing couldn’t roar anymore, but a kind of hiss escaped from its mouth. Now that she could see it fully, a chill ran down her back. This thing was a monstrosity—some kind of unnatural hybrid not even heard of in the tales parents told their children to scare them into obedience. For the most part it looked like a giant brown bear, but its arms and legs were shaped like a human’s, and it clearly had fingers underneath all the fur. What made Ayalah flinch back, though, were its eyes, so humanlike in the way they glared at her with unholy hatred.

She staggered to her sword, picked it up, and sliced off the creature’s head.

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