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|This is where it all begins, obviously. Hope you like it.||
With almost startling quickness, the crescent moon slipped out of sight, hidden behind a tangled mass of snow-covered branches and twigs. The feeble light it cast faded soon after, dousing the square-jawed face of a stocky, rigid man in shadows.
“Hey, Marc,” a tired-sounding voice called. The man started a little, then turned to the direction of the voice. Almost thirty feet ahead of him, in the bright light of two pole-mounted lamps, several men were marching on without him. Well, perhaps “marching” wasn’t exactly the right word; the captain was not a real stickler for discipline.
The smallest of them, by the name of Ryan, was turned to face Marc with his hands cupped around his mouth. He was walking backwards, trying to keep up with the rest of the troop. Marc watched as the man’s face lit up in surprise as he fell to the ground. Laughing, Marc sprinted up to the scrawny soldier’s sprawled body. “What happened?”
Ryan pulled his lanky arms under his body, and heaved himself to his feet. “I tripped over a bloody tree root,” he explained, dusting himself off. He glanced from side to side, “And these people call this a road? I think path is more like it.” Ryan frowned for a moment. “No, that’d be an injustice to paths everywhere. Maybe trail?”
“Yeah, trail might be about right,” Nathan chimed in. Marc gave Nathan what he hoped was a bewildered look.
“And what would Nathan Thorne, the first born son of the illustrious Dr. Benjamin Thorne, and heir to the family fortune, know about paths and trails? C’mon, admit it. This is your first time outside of New York without a nice, cozy carriage to sit in. Speaking of which: pray tell, oh great enlightened rich one, why you have decided to grace our lowly police station with your presence.”
The well-groomed man cracked a grin. “ It’s tradition. All the men in my family serve time on the police. Been like that for decades. And you’re just jealous that I’ll be able to afford any woman I want, while you’re stuck pinching the bottoms of tavern girls, Marcus Rinde.”
Marc feigned shock. “No! Well, okay, maybe a little.” He carefully stepped over a particularly large and knobbed root in the ground. “Just promise me one thing: When you’re with those rich-man women, you’ll remember who I’m with.”
Nathan cocked an eyebrow. “And just who would that be?”
“Your mom!” Marcus cracked. Even the normally proper Ryan was having trouble keeping his face straight. In fact, the only person not cracking up was the stiff-looking Nathan.
“Marcus, you of all people should know that adultery is a sin. And so is fornication. Anyways, you probably wouldn’t be any good at it… So as far as I can tell, you’re a bad mother—“
“Shut your mouth!” Christopher hissed. “Both of you! We’re almost there. Once we’re on the side-path, it’s a mile to his house. I don’t want any excess talking on that road. I don’t want anybody knowing we came this way.”
Marc sighed. “You still haven’t told us why we’re going into the middle of nowhere. You keep saying we’re almost there, but you don’t tell us where ‘there’ is exactly, never mind the why.”
“Look, I don’t force you to stay in formation or march or do anything most other captains would. I’d say I’m a pretty loose officer, wouldn’t you?” Marc nodded reluctantly. “Then don’t look the gift horse in the mouth. I’ll tell you what you need to know when you need to know it, and not a moment before.” Christopher stopped suddenly, turning sharply to his left. For a long while, he said nothing.
“What is it?” Harold, a squat farm-boy with beady eyes and a bulldog nose, asked. Almost as soon as he started, though, Chris cut him off with a gesture and a shhh noise.
The officer gestured wildly for a moment, and the group exchanged silent looks. What was he doing? Then Christopher began to point at the pole-mounted lamp in Harold’s arms. Suddenly it clicked, and Marc took the light from the pudgy ensign. Shaking off the others’ looks of confusion, Marc walked over to his superior, and handed him the lamp.
Marc tried to follow Chris’s gaze, frowned, and tried again. It was just a bush. Not even a particularly interesting one, at that. No flowers, the leaves were nothing special, it didn’t even have that piney smell some bushes have. Marc doubted he would even have noticed the thing. He turned to his friends, shrugged, and then opened his mouth.
Before he could even speak, Chris put a finger to his mouth, and pointed at the plant in front of him. What was he thinking? It was just a stupid old shrubbery.
Slowly, Chris reached deep into the plant, smiled, and pulled the leaves aside. Marc gaped for a moment, then turned to his captain. He pointed to his mouth, then made little gestures with his hand. Can I talk?
Christopher shrugged. “ I don’t see why not,” he said loudly. Marc stared at him blankly.
“Why’d you hush all of us up just then?” Marc’s mind raced for possibilities. “Did you hear an echo or something in there?”
“No, I just didn’t want to listen to you for a while.” Chris grinned. “Silence can be really relaxing, you should try it some time.”
“You’re terrible!” Marc accused.
Chris shrugged. “So…what’s your point?” He smirked.
Marc bit back a cutting retort. Now was not the time or the place to get into a name-calling contest. With one last dirty look at his captain, Marc called his comrades over.
When they arrived, he gestured at the hole in the bush. Nathan frowned, and stooped over to peer through the hole. “I can’t see much of anything in there. It seems to be path, but why is it hidden? Anybody have any idea where it goes?” Chris raised his hand, almost sheepishly.
“Yeah. It leads to the house of a man named James. He’s wanted, and we’ve been told to find him. Those higher-up than me want him alive if possible, but if he puts up any resistance, we’re to execute him immediately.”
“What did he do?” Nathan asked, eyebrows furrowed. “That’s an awfully harsh punishment.”
“He murdered his wife,” Chris replied stiffly. “He killed her just after she had borne him a child.” There was an awkward moment of silence at this.
The captain took a deep breath of the rapidly cooling air. “Well, lets get going. I don’t want to be out if the weather starts to go sour on us.” He strode over to the bush and after several minutes, stepped clean through it. “Hey! You gotta see this!” he called.
Marc stepped over to the shrub, and pushed his way through, and bit back a gasp. There was a path, but he’d never seen one like it before. “Will you look at that?” he breathed. He pointed to a distant light. “This path goes perfectly straight. No game trail does that.”
Chris nodded. “And look at the trees. All the upper branches have been stripped away, or broken off by something.”
Nathan plowed through the shrub. “But what can break branches that high? Birds can’t, squirrels don’t, and no man could climb that high.” He stared ahead for a moment. “Do you think that light is the guy’s house?”
Marc shrugged. “Only one way to find out. Hey, Ryan! Harold! You two stay behind and make sure we can still find the road when we come back. Nathan? You come with us.” After the two had reluctantly agreed, Marc began to walk toward the distant spark.
Marc walked along in silence, becoming glummer all the time. What if this James resisted? He’d have to be executed, of course; orders were orders. Maybe he would simply come along easily. Marc hoped so. This was only Marc’s third assignment; he didn’t want to see dead bodies. Christopher coughed loudly, and Marc glanced to the noise. What the-?
The officer was almost deathly pale in the warm light of the torch. For some reason, his breath was coming in shallow gasps, and he kept glancing around him, almost like he expected to be attacked at any minute. A sudden click brought Marc’s eyes to the rifle in his captain’s arms. Was he loading the thing?
“What are you doing?” Marc asked as the officer poured powder into his rifle. Chris gasped in shock, then grinned sheepishly.
“Did I show you the scar I’ve got on my stomach? No? Well, now’s not the time, but its huge. Wonder I’m still alive, really; the doctor really knew his stuff. Knife wound.” He rubbed his midsection for a moment. “I was in a search party, trying to find a guy we all knew was dead.” He shrugged. “You know how the bigwigs are: ‘Not dead until we have a body-”
With a small cry, Chris suddenly whirled around to face a sharp snap from the dense woods. Quickly shouldering his rifle, he pointed the weapon about haphazardly.
Marc grabbed the gun quickly, and pointed it to the air. “Captain! Captain! It’s just some kind of animal! Nothing to shoot at, you trigger-happy lunatic!” Slowly, the officer’s breathing returned to normal, and he stopped trying to raise the gun.
“Sorry,” he stammered. He smiled feebly, “ I guess I’m a little more on edge than I realized. Anyway, back to the story.” He started walking toward the not-so-distant light. “We were searching for a body. It was a night just like this. Clear, crisp, and so cold you had to keep your rifle butt under your coat, or you wouldn’t be able to hold it long enough to shoot.” He shivered, lost in memory.
“The woods were tight, the trees almost seemed to grab at you as you walked past. We were walking through a small path, and I’m talking to this buddy, when all of the sudden this guy just drops.” To demonstrate, he clutched his chest, and mock collapsed. “I bend down to see what happened, put my hand on his chest, and stand up with a foot-long arrow in my hand.”
“Indian’s?” Nathan asked. “But I though the reds had guns.” Marc nodded. The Indians have had guns for some time. They hadn’t used bows for a long time.
Christopher shook his head. “They did have guns. Good ones, too. They used the bows so we couldn’t tell where they were coming from—so we couldn’t see the muzzle flashes, see? Killed three men before we figured out where they were. We hid behind the trees, and began shooting blindly in the general direction,” he waved off to his left, “ that the arrows were coming from.”
He slowed a little. “I was setting up for a shot, when all of the sudden, boom! There’s this horrible pain in my stomach. I scream, go down, and look down to see this gigantic knife stuck in my gut, and this Indian standing over me with another. The bleeding redskin wanted my scalp. Well, I put a bullet through his heart, then leaned back up against the tree I’d been using as cover. Once I stopped shooting, the reds came running at us, overran our lines with no trouble, and-, and…” he trailed off, choking and wiping his eyes.
“What?” Nathan asked. “Did they kill everyone?” The officer nodded.
“Yea,” he said quietly. “Every one was scalped alive. Only two men survived. Me, and this recruit who was even greener than you. I still don’t know how I got out of there alive; but this guy, he’d scurried off at the first sign of a fight.” He stopped walking, staring ahead vacantly. “I sometimes wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t run like a little girl. If we’d had just one more gun, we might have held them off. Well, as far as I know, this guy’s off living in some little hole in the wall.” He shrugged. “And that’s that, I’ve never been really comfortable in the woods since, so sorry if I’m a little jumpy.”
The three walked in silence towards the rapidly approaching light. Would Marc be able to even look at the forest after something like that? How would he react?
“You should find this guy and let him discover just what a bullet tastes like.” Nathan made a pistol with his thumb and forefinger. “Boom! Lead in the head, you know they’re dead.”
The path opened into a small clearing, just over a hundred feet across. The moon, obscured by the trees on the path, shimmered brightly upon the snow that covered the space. There was a small house in the middle, with a lamp over the door, the light they had been aiming toward. Marc couldn’t see any windows, but the cabin looked so drafty that he doubted the tiny shack even needed them. .
To the left of the house, a small garden was barely visible, only recognizable by the orderly mounds where plants would be, if it were warm enough to grow any. Propped up next to the door was a large wooden bow, and what seemed to be an empty quiver. But who used bows anymore? Guns were cheap nowadays, and probably more accurate than that old thing.
The trio walked up to the door, and knocked, then backed away. The captain quickly raised his gun, and Nathan followed suit. Marc hesitated, weren’t they supposed to take him alive? The door opened suddenly, and in the bright light a man could be seen.
“Who’s there?” a thin, worried voice asked. “What do you want?” Chris laughed hollowly.
“Well, I’m insulted! You don’t remember your best friend in the military? What would your commanding officer have to say about that.” He lowered the gun from his shoulder, but kept it in easy firing position.
The man seemed to squint into the darkness. “Nothing. He’s dead. Now, enough games, who are you?”
Christopher stepped into the glare coming from the doorway.
My name is Christopher O’Brien.”
The man shook his head. “That can’t be, he’s dead. An Indian scalped him almost a dozen years ago. So, again, who are you? ”
Chris grinned at him. “You’d be surprised at what you would know if you had actually stayed in that fight, James.”
There was a loud snort from the man in the doorway. “I had a wife! I had to get back to her alive. Besides, why should I risk my life for the body of some dead man I don’t even know.”
Chris shook his head slowly. “Because, James, the dead have memories, and they hold grudges for a long, long time.”
“Is that a threat?” The man sounded almost disbelieving. “You come up to my house and threaten me on my property?”
“Oh, no… I don’t make any threats. But didn’t you ever happen to wonder how your first wife died? You know, the one you didn’t kill…the one whose baby you didn’t slaughter?”
“Jessica?” James whispered. “She was poisoned. They never did find the man who…did…it…” Suddenly he jumped back into his house and slammed the door shut.
Or, rather, tried to slam it closed. Chris had leapt forward and rammed his shoulder through the space between the door and the frame. Try as he might, the man couldn’t close the door.
“You killed my wife, you bastard!” the man screamed hysterically, leaning as hard as he could on the door.
Christopher slowly braced himself against the doorframe. “She brought it upon herself,” he hissed, “by marrying you.” With a snarl, he heaved the door open. The man hurtled away from the door, and cried out as his foot caught on something in the floor.
Marc glanced at Nathan, and the other nodded. They ran into the room.
With almost agonizing slowness, Captain O’Brien advanced on the sprawled form, gun at the ready. The man scrabbled frantically away from the officer, and gasped when his shoulders collided with the wall he had backed into. Chris leisurely raised the rifle to his shoulder, and pointed its black maw towards the quivering form.
Marc watched, transfixed with horror, as the officer took careful aim at the man’s heart.
With a painful slowness, Marc sprinted toward the pair. “No!” he yelled. Was he going to make it? He willed his legs to move faster; he had to stop this!
He felt his hands close around the barrel of the rifle, and gasped as a blinding light and deafening roar assaulted his senses. In agony, he dropped to his knees, holding his eyes.
When the blinding spots had faded, he stared dumbly up at the officer. What had he been thinking? Their orders were to take the man alive…he hadn’t put any resistance. Why had O’Brien shot him? That poor man—the man!
Quickly crawling to the blood stained form, he picked up the head and cradled it in his arms. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I tried to stop him, but I wasn’t fast enough.”
The man pulled in a labored breath, and gurgled something unintelligible. Marc started, nearly dropping the head in his arms. The man was alive? Incredible!
“Just hang on, I’ll get some help. Just hold on a little longer!” Marc whispered. The man coughed, blood dripping out of his mouth. Slowly, his dark brown eyes turned to meet Marc’s. Marc leaned his ear close to the man’s red-stained lips.
“Don’t let him hurt-.” He stopped as spasmodic coughs racked his body.
Marc glanced down at the man’s abdomen. The bullet had missed his heart, but he wouldn’t last long. Marc swallowed. “What is it? Don’t let him hurt what?”
The man drew a shallow wheezing breath, and gulped. “Don’t let him hurt my child,” he pleaded. Marc looked up at the captain, who scowled down at the body in Marc’s arms.
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of the baby.” The man nodded at him thankfully, then let out a rattling, shaky, breath. His entire body went limp in Marc’s arms, and a dull film formed over his eyes. Marc bit his lower lip. What had this man done to deserve this? Nothing; and now he was dead.
Marc quickly stood up, and glanced around for the first time. Along one wall was a small stove that somehow managed to heat the entire cabin. Just below the stove, a small sleeping pallet, with blankets so thin that Marc wondered how they even stayed together. Howling on the mat was a small boy, no more than one year old.
Suddenly Christopher pointed his gun toward the baby. Quicker than he could think, Marc found himself standing in front of the gun. What was he doing?
“No,” he heard himself say. “You’ve already killed too many undeserving people today. I won’t let you shoot a child.”
Chris stared at him for a moment, then laughed. “You think that James was undeserving? Because of him, seventeen good men are dead. Because of him and his cowardice,” Chris sneered. “Now, get out of the way.”
“I won’t.” Marc met his officer in the eye. “I gave that man my word that I wouldn’t let you hurt his babe.”
“Your word?” Chris sputtered. “It doesn’t matter what you promised him, he’s dead. You could leave and he’d never know.”
“I’d know!” Marc yelled. A man’s word was all he really had; the only thing that was actually his.
“If you don’t get out of the way in three seconds,” Chris fumed, “I will execute you for treason. Three.”
“Just get out of the way, Marc! It’s not that big of a deal,” Nathan begged.
Marc regarded Nathan for a brief second. He’d thought Nathan had been stronger than that. It was really disappointing, to find out someone was a coward.
“Two. I’ll do it” Chris warned.
“If you’re going to shoot me, then shoot me.” Marc chided. If only his dad could see him now. He’d always thought Marc was too proud…
Marc held his breath, closed his eyes, and braced himself for the bullet he knew was coming. From somewhere distant seeming, a boom resounded, followed by another, stranger roar.
Marc opened his eyes a tiny fraction. Chris still had the gun pointed at him, but the barrel was twitching from side to side. With a groan, Chris dropped the rifle from his shoulder. “Fine, keep the damn babe. It’s not worth losing a good man over. Besides, I suppose enough blood has been spilt on that cowards account. But if it slows you down—and thereby slows all of us down—there will be very severe repercussions. Do you understand?
Marc nodded coldly. “Sir!”
“Did you hear that noise? Sounds like the other two ran into some trouble. We’d better get back.” Chris stared into the darkness. The captain turned to the door, opened it, walked outside, took a few steps from the door-
And vanished with a spray of blood and a flash of green.
“Merciful hell!” Nathan screamed. “Did you see that? It just carried him off! What was it?” He sat down heavily, and began repeating the same questions over and over. Marc simply stared.
It had been so fast… Nothing moved that fast. Well, maybe an eagle, but those couldn’t carry a man off like that. Could they?
There weren’t any animals that big anywhere around here. He’d heard rumors about huge beasts in other parts of the world, in Africa, but those were just stories!
A soft, wet thud outside the door stopped Marc short. What? He glanced at Nathan, the other nodded, and together they crept over to the door. As quietly as possible, Marc opened the thin wooden door, and carefully peered out. Nothing to his left except that small bow, nothing to the right at all. He took another step and toppled over something thick and unyielding.
Groaning, he quickly rolled over onto his back, glanced to his feet, and frantically scurried backwards. He stared at the ruined, smashed body he’d tripped over.
Nathan stared at it for several seconds, jaw near his toes. He made some unintelligible noises, and backed away from the open door. His legs gave out; he dropped to the ground, and began to crawl away from the door. He backed up against the wall nearest the stove. “Chris…” he whispered. He cowered against the wall, repeating the name over and over.
A loud, beastlike roar shook the house to its foundations. The foundations… Marc glanced around at the walls of the building. They didn’t look too sturdy. If that- that- thing could carry off a full-grown man, probably wouldn’t have much trouble with the shoddy walls of this building.
“Nathan! Get away from the walls!” He hissed. Nathan only stared at the body in the doorway. “Get in the middle of the room. Now!” Still Nathan did nothing. Marc ran over to him, and heaved his seemingly lifeless body to the middle of the floor. Grabbing the still screaming baby, he doused the shack’s single lamp, and joined Nathan in the center of the room.
A loud thump outside the cottage stopped Marc’s breath cold. The thing was outside… he could hear its deep hissing breaths.
The two men hardly breathed, hardly moved. The child, however, was becoming more and more noisy, making happy little baby noises. Marc tried to shush it, but the baby only made gurgled louder. It was going to them killed!
Slowly the monster outside paced the house. Every s often, its regular breaths would be punctuated by a sharp sniffing noise. It could smell them, Marc realized. In its rounds, it would occasionally stop for a moment, it stayed a long time by the point where Nathan had been leaning up against the wall. The noises stopped again at the spot where the baby’s dead father’s, body still sprawled. After what seemed like an eternity, a bellow of what seemed to be rage and pain filled the house.
The wall exploded outward in a spray of wood and pitch. Nathan screamed at the noise, and tried to stand, but tripped over something, and hit the floor with a loud thump.
Marc simply stared at the hole in the wall. He could see pale moonlight streaming through, and the small mounds of the garden. Then a huge black shape filled the opening, and with a soft scraping noise the thing began to crawl through. Nathan stood up quickly, and bolted for the open door in the wall opposite the beast.
“Nathan, no!” Marc yelled as Nathan sprinted out the door. A loud scrabbling noise came from behind him, and when he looked, the hole in the wall was empty.
He could hear a steady beats of rushing air from above. Suddenly, it struck him: the thing could fly! That’s how it moved so fast. He stood up, and ran to the door.
Where was he? There! Marc could see Nathan’s silhouette in the pale moonlight. He was running for the woods, but he’d never make it. Marc watched helplessly as a massive black shape swooped down. Nathan’s screams echoed in Marc’s mind for several minutes.
So, this was it. He was going to die out here. Marc stared at the monster’s black shadow for a moment. He wouldn’t die running, though. He’d be a man, just like his dad had taught him to be.
If he was going to die tonight, he’d at least make sure this beast never forgot him.
He set the baby down in the only warm place he could think of. Near the stove. For a minute he worried that the child would crawl into the stove, but it simply sighed and closed its eyes. Marc stood up and unsheathed the dagger strapped to his belt. He stepped out of the ruined house into the moonlight. Steel glittering, he slowly walked toward the creature.
It noticed him almost immediately. Cold glints in the shadow, its eyes never left Marc’s approaching form. With unerring grace, it stood up. Slowly, the distance between them closed.
Soon, though, Marc was close enough to touch the beast. With great care not to make any sudden movements, Marc bowed to his would-be-destroyer. The monster lowered what seemed to be its head to the ground. Marc raised his knife, and charged the beast, hacking with his knife.
The blade met only air, however. Above him! Slowly rotating in place, he listened. He could hear the thing beating its wings, but he couldn’t see it in the blackness. Suddenly, the heavy wing beats stopped.
Marc leapt to his left, and gasped as a razor sharp claw grazed his back. The wing strokes began again, and the demon rose into the sky again. Marc slowly stood up.
“Fight me on the ground, you coward!” Marc yelled into the night. A loud roar answered, and something huge blocked out the moon.
Fanning its massive wings, the creature landed gingerly before Marc. Its back to the moon, it stood up to its full height, and Marc took an involuntary step back. It had to be over ten feet tall, and it’s wingspan looked to be twice that. What could he do against it?
No. He would not let this monster hurt an innocent child, not while he still breathed. He couldn’t let the thing know he was afraid.
He took two steps forward. The beast stared at him for a minute, then settled onto four legs. It folded its wings carefully, deliberately, to its sides.
“Come get me, you monster!” Marc shouted at the thing. He charged ahead at the beast. A sparkle in the moonlight grabbed his eyes. He cried out and dodged the massive talon that raked the air above him. With a shout, he plunged his dagger into the beast’s side. It wasn’t so tough, he might actually be able to beat-
Marc felt his feet leave the ground, and grunted as he struck the grass some eight feet from the beast. He looked up and watched as the beast bellowed in annoyance, swung its long neck around, and pulled the dagger out of its side.
The blade gleamed in the moonlight, appearing like some strange, luminescent tongue sticking out of the creature’s mouth. With a flip of its serpentine neck, it tossed the knife to Marc’s sprawled form.
He stood up, tried to take a step foreword, and grunted as dull pain throbbed through his leg. Taking shuddering breathes, he reached down and grabbed glittering blade near his feet. Why had it given him the weapon back?
Marc grimaced, resisting the urge to vomit. It might kill him, but it would never see him cower. He gritted his teeth, raised the knife again, and raced toward the monster.
With a flowing grace, the creature flicked its long tail around, clubbing Marc squarely in the chest. He felt himself fly through the air like a rag doll, and strike the earth more than six feet from where he’d been standing not two seconds ago. Where was his dagger? No matter. He’d die with or without the weapon, but he would not let that poor dead man down; he would not break his word.
Grimacing as pain lanced through his body, he placed first on hand beneath his body, then another. With a grunt, he heaved himself onto hands-and–knees, and rested for a moment, wheezing, tasting bile in the back of his throat.
A soft thump brought Marc breath short. Raising his head, he glanced up to the beast towering over him, eyes, teeth and claws casting their cruel sparkles. He would not let this thing see him back down. He spat, and set a foot into the snow. He staggered slowly, painfully, to his feet, and met the creature’s eyes.
Almost faster than he could follow, the beast reached out and closed its huge claws around Marc’s torso. He couldn’t move: his arms were pinned! He fought to free himself from the thing’s grasp, but it just clamped its claws together tighter. It lifted him off the ground easily, and he found himself level with its eyes. The moon shone on one side of the beast’s face, revealing a narrow muzzle covered in pebble-like scales. Its snout was coated with dark blood, and three-inch-long teeth sparkled from within the creature’s huge jaws. But Marc could only stare at its eyes…bright green in the moonlight, and full of a cruel intelligence.
“Kill me! C’mon, kill me! Maybe you’ll have enough of me. Just leave the child alone! Eat your fill. Do it! Eat me!” Marc raged. The beast’s emerald eyes widened, and it hissed in what Marc could only guess was surprise. It quickly sprang into the air, Marc still shouting at it, still clasped in its powerful claws.
Several seconds later, the beast lighted carefully to the ground, dropped Marc, and flowed into the nearby trees
For a moment, Marc could only stare into the black forest. Why was he still alive? Strange noises began to emanate from the shadows of the woods, odd pops and grunts. What was making those sounds? Marc slowly crept up to the tree line.
“Come any closer, and I’ll have to kill you,” a powerful yet quiet voice warned. Marc stopped, gaping into the shadows.
“You can speak?” Marc boggled. “ I’m speaking to that monster which slaughtered my friends, aren’t I?”
“Monster?” the voice asked, incredulously. “Not a monster. But yes, I can speak just as well as you, if not better. Few men have ever managed to stab me before. For that, I should kill you.”
“Then why don’t you show yourself? We both know I can’t beat you in a fight, so why hide in the shadows?” Marc took another step forward.
“Because you already know too much. Normally, I’d have to kill you for simply seeing me. My kind has to be…careful.” Marc held back a gasp. His kind? But that means…
“There are more like you?” Marc sat down heavily. No answer came from the forest. “You said something about killing me under normal circumstances. You won’t kill me now. Why not?” A loud rustle came from the blackness.
“What makes you think I won’t rip you to shreds?” The voice hissed. Marc shook his head. This voice spoke with a strange lilting accent he had never heard before, but the threat was unmistakable. Unmistakable, yet hollow.
Marc shrugged. “You haven’t killed me yet. You’ve had more than enough chances. Now, stop stalling. Tell me why!”
“I have some questions, and possibly a favor to ask.” Marc’s eyes boggled in shock.
“You killed my good buddies, and now you dare ask for a favor. Why should I answer your questions, much less do anything for you?”
“Because the longer you talk, the longer you stay alive.” Marc could just imagine a shrug. “Or I could just kill you now, if you prefer. No? Okay, first question: You spoke of a child, whose child is it?”
Marc’s mouth dropped open. That was hardly the type of question he’d expected. After taking a moment to gather his thoughts, he shrugged. “It belonged to the man who lived at that house.”
“And who are you to speak of protecting Airethen?” the voice raged. “You murdered the babe’s father!” Airethen…was that the child’s name?
“What? No! I didn’t kill him. I tried to save him. It was O’Brien who killed him. I tried to stop him.” Marc narrowed his eyes. “You killed him first.”
“Did I really? All the better.” Marc clenched his fist as hatred welled up from deep within his soul. The blasted thing seemed pleased to have killed Christopher. “But why go to such lengths to protect the son of a man you don’t know? Why get yourself killed to save some dead man’s brat?”
Marc stared into the darkness. “Because I gave my word. The man asked me to save his boy with his dying breath, and I told him I would.”
“So, you gave your word,” the voice snarled. Let’s see how well you keep it!”
Marc’s breath caught. “What do you mean?” No answer, just more of those pops and grunts, but they were quicker this time; louder.
Suddenly, the beast charged out of the trees, and leapt to the air. Marc felt the blood drain from his face. The creature couldn’t mean to…
“No!” he screamed. He sprinted toward the tiny shack, but in his heart he knew it was hopeless. The thing was faster than him; he didn’t have a chance to beat it to the house.
“But I have to try,” he puffed. Yet even as he said this, a black shape fell from the sky, and disappeared behind the shack. Marc could distantly hear wood being destroyed as the beast plowed its way into the building. .
“Leave it alone! Don’t touch him, you demon!” He was almost there… If he could just get to the house in time…
He burst through the door, looked to the mat by the stove, and bit back tears. He was too late. The beast had already killed the poor child. He’d broken his promise; he was a liar. Too late…
Something like iron closed around Marc’s legs, and he gasped as he toppled to the ground. He stared the huge claw wrapped around his legs, then followed the beast’s arm up to its head.
It glared at him, then twisted its long neck around behind it, and plucked something from between its wings.
It placed a small rag bundle on the ground near its feet. Marc stared in astonishment as small arms and legs—baby arms and legs—reached up to the monster. Marc could hear small cooing noises coming from the rags, and Marc’s eyes nearly left his head when the creature lowered its massive head and began to nuzzle the child, almost lovingly. What was going on?
The monster slowly gathered the child up in its mouth and turned to Marc. It slowly dropped the baby near his sprawled form. With a massive claw, it pointed at Marc, then at the child, and then to the forest.
Marc mimicked its movements stupidly, and shook his head. “What?” The creature repeated its motions. Marc’s mouth slowly dropped.
“You want me”—he pointed at himself—“to take him”—he turned his finger to the baby—“into the forest?” The shape shook its head violently. It thrust its claw toward the trees, and then repeated the gesture for emphasis.
Marc eyes followed its talon. It was still pointing at the woods. Suddenly, something clicked in Marc’s mind. It was pointing west into the woods, to be exact. And to the west was…
“The town!” Marc realized. “You want me to take him to Grafton? The town to the west?” The beast nodded its head vehemently.
“So, I was right,” he smirked hollowly, “you aren’t going to kill me.” The beast hissed a warning. “Fine, I’ll do it. But not for you.” He looked down to the bundle near his chest. “I made a promise, and I always keep my promises.” Cradling the baby in his arms, he staggered to his feet. He faced the creature. “If we meet again, I will kill you.” The creature flared its wings and nodded, clearly accepting the challenge.
There was one thing Marc couldn’t quite put his finger on, though. He frowned at the hulking monster. “Out of curiosity, why does a winged, man-eating monster care about a man and his child?”
Marc watched, astonished, as the beast’s wings drooped and sagged. It stared at him for a long time, not making any noises, save the long slow hiss of its breath. Then, a glittering orb fell from its snout, splashing onto the grass. Another drop shimmered as it fell to the earth, and then yet another. Marc simply stared, mouth agape, for several minutes. It was-
“Crying…” he whispered softly. The creature took a step forward, extended its long neck, and gave a long, sorrowful scream. It must have heard him. Good. Let it feel the pain of loss. It had certainly given him enough of that this night.
He glanced down at the child again, and realized he wasn’t even sure of its name. Only one way to find out. “You said a something earlier. ‘Airethen’, I think. Is that his name?”
The monster nodded its massive head, then turned away. With one last glance at Marc and the tiny Airethen, it spread its massive wings, and took to the air. Marc watched in amazement as it circled above once him, and then flew over the trees and out of sight. How could something that big actually fly?
He stared up into the sky for several minutes, then turned toward the path to the road. Grafton was nearly ten miles away, and snow was quietly beginning to fall again.
|Moonlit Knight Issue #1: Shades #1||A Christmas Tale|
|Dragon Awakening, Chapter 4|
|Dragon's Awakening, Chapter 3||Heart's Song, Chapter 4|