After another round of vomiting had concluded, Ayalah calmed her breathing and reassessed her situation. She still needed to find Greyson, she was drenched in sweat (her own) and blood (mostly the creature’s, she believed), and her throat felt like someone had dragged a branch of brambles up and down the inside of it. She let her shoulders slump forward, but only for a moment. She could do this. She would not—could not—let this forest defeat her.
She took a deep breath, used some leaves to wipe off as much of the blood as possible, and lifted the bags once more. It was now fully dark out, so dark she couldn’t even see the trees directly before her; she grabbed a torch from one of the bags, fished her tinder out of her pocket, and headed into the trees with nothing but the torch’s feeble light to guide her.
As it turned out, it was still relatively easy to follow Greyson’s path through the forest. By the looks of it, he’d gone crashing through the trees, not caring who or what might be able to follow him later. Anger was a very dangerous weakness, she knew. Worse, she might not be the only one following his trail. After an hour or so, he’d begun to tread more carefully, but his version of careful was still no match for Ayalah’s tracking skills.
After another hour of following his trail, she began to truly struggle. The bags weighed down on her shoulders, feeling heavier with each passing step; her breath came in ragged gasps through her parched and scratched throat; and the black spots had returned, threatening to overtake her vision. She paused for a moment to rest. Maybe if she just let her eyes close for a mo—
Her head snapped up. Something—it sounded like another of the man-bear creatures—roared in the distance. Had one of them found Greyson? She broke into a run, headed in the direction of the roar.
The trees blurred as she ran through them, dodging and jumping over and around branches and tree roots that got in her way. There was a light ahead. She slowed down a few hundred yards away. It was probably a fire Greyson had made, but there was still a chance she might discover the man they had set out to find. She dropped the bags, let her breathing slow, and continued on to the fire unencumbered, silent as a ghost.
She didn’t hear any more roaring, but she heard a good deal of growling and grunting as she approached the fire. She peered through the branches, not knowing what to expect. A den of the creatures, perhaps, judging by the noise?
Her eyes easily found the fire, blazing merrily in the night. Beside it were two hunched figures. One was the man-bear she had heard; it appeared to be struggling to get free of a trap. The other was—she blinked. Greyson! He was sitting in front of the creature, apparently deep in thought. He did not appear to be injured, although it was hard to tell in the flickering light of the fire. Had he made the trap himself, she wondered idly, or had he gotten lucky?
She approached quietly, from upwind, not wanting to alert the man-bear of her presence. She stepped out in four great strides, drew her sword, chopped off the creature’s head, and jumped back to avoid the spurts of blood. It was a clean kill; she nodded in satisfaction.
Greyson had jumped back with an oath at the sight of her. “What—?” He took in her blood-stained clothes, searching her face for a long moment. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
She still hadn’t put down her sword. The adrenaline that had been pumping through her since she heard the roar was wearing off, and her vision had become spotty again. She tried to nod, to tell Greyson she was fine. But instead she felt her sword slide from her grip, and dimly, from afar, she realized she was falling.