When the tracks skirted past the hill country, his blood ran cold. Gods, is this…is this really what it looks like? A wide swathe of trampled grass stretched a few hundred paces to the footpath he’d followed out of the woods just a few hours ago. And sure enough, right beside one of his old footprints, Owen found a fresh pugmark the size of his face.
So, the Beast is retracing my steps.
At least he knew where this trail ended: on a bloody patch of sand. But once he fumbled through the dark forest, would the blood still be dry? What if Rhys had already met the same fate as the billy goat and the old man?
Brushing the horrid question aside, Owen gripped his sturdy spear with both hands and pressed onward. Broken branches fringed the narrow path as it plunged deeper into the woods. A scrap of tattered blue fabric dangled from one of them. Rhys? The blue matched his tunic — one of his clean ones, anyway — and the branch wasn’t broken this morning, so it seemed like a safe guess.
Squinting through the deepening twilight, he scoured nearby leaves for any trace of blood and came up emptyhanded. Meaningless on its own. Even fatal bites wouldn’t bleed too much if a predator kept its jaws clamped around the wound as it dragged its kill away. But maybe his failure to find a single drop of blood meant the nekru had exercised a lighter touch, like the way a cat carried her kittens. Maybe it wanted live bait for its trap.
For the boy’s sake, Owen prayed he was right.
Moons rose, stars drifted across the sky, and their mingled light filtered through the thick canopy while he tracked the man-eater deeper into the forest. A cacophony of crickets and nightjars drowned out waves crashing against the distant beach. Hints of salt danced on the wind. But as those hints grew stronger, deer sounded their warning calls. Just like they did last night… Silence fell quicker than a headsman’s axe.
Then the sobbing started.
Only a few dozen paces separated him from his old perch in the oak tree. Spear at the ready, Owen sidled over and pressed his back against its gnarled trunk. Where in damnation are you, you bastard? A gentle breeze rustled the tangle of bracken, holly, and ivy right in front of him…or was it the nekru about to pounce? Something twinkled for a split second, then vanished. Two predatory eyes or just moonlight glinting off droplets of dew?
Gods, if only my eyes were sharp as an akor’mar’s!
But they weren’t. Darkness washed most color out of the world, forcing him to rely on motion, and everything was in motion thanks to a cool wind from the west. Better get off the ground before the nekru finds me. At least the perch from last night would offer some protection. After glancing about one last time, Owen propped his spear against the oak and clambered from one knot to the next until he reached its lowest limbs.
Rhys still sobbed somewhere out on the beach.
Hold on just a little longer, boy. Once he settled into the lush boughs, Owen unslung his crossbow and fished a windlass from his haversack. Calloused hands quickly fastened them together. Boot in the stirrup, he braced himself against the tree and cranked. A soft click announced the bowstring had latched in place. Then he dropped both windlass and haversack to the forest floor, fit a bolt into the flight groove, and scooted forward. This nightmare of a day is almost over.
A few splotches of dry blood still littered the beach, but most were simply… gone. Buried beneath a low mound of churned-up sand. The little face poking out of that mound glistened with tears. Rhys?! Every instinct screamed for him to scramble down and dig until he freed the boy.
But the Beast of Saltern was counting on those instincts. Maybe it would spring the trap as soon as he stepped onto the beach. Maybe it would wait until he started digging. Either way, he didn’t stand a chance so close to the underbrush, not when nekru could cover a dozen paces in a single bound.
Chills swept down his spine at the sheer cunning on display. Bait left out in the open, a hunter poised to strike from the forest, darkness for additional cover… the nekru sought to kill him with his own snare. Clever. But was the man-eater clever enough to realize he might see through the whole charade?
Legs wrapped tight around the bough, Owen scoured the woods for anywhere a nekru might hide. Under the rocky ledge just south of here? Amongst the brambles along the beach? Then again—
Wood thumped against a root, and his gaze flicked down. Something dark and burly crouched over the fallen spear, yellow eyes aglow. Rays of silver glinted off retractable claws as they sank deep into the bark. The Beast counted on me recognizing the trap, he realized, and falling back on the same perch as last night. Every decision he made had been accounted for. Every. Single. One. Horror flooded his veins with ice.
Then the nekru came barreling up the tree trunk.
Time slowed to a crawl. Owen twisted around to bring the crossbow to bear, but his foe darted between the branches with liquid grace. Before he could fix his sights on that gray blur, the thick bough swayed and groaned beneath their combined weight. A roar thrummed through him as the blur lunged and spittle splattered his face. For one awful instant, silvery rays caught those wicked claws again.
Three arcs of agony slashed across his chest as he tumbled backwards. Silver and black and brown all swirled together. Branch after branch lashed his face, the crossbow slipped away, and then the forest floor came rushing up to meet him.
Bursts of color blotted out the world. Air hissed through clenched teeth. At first, he couldn’t breathe. Then a groan welled up from somewhere in his shredded chest. Pushing through the pain, Owen rolled over and blinked the colors away.
Yellow eyes glared down from the canopy. Muscles bunched beneath gray fur as the man-eater crouched against the sturdy limb. My spear, he thought. Finding the weapon before nekru fangs sank into his throat didn’t seem too likely, but nothing else offered even the faintest hope of survival. Where in damnation is my bloody spear?
Something glittered off to his right, and Owen sprang toward the sparkling steel. Above, a low growl rumbled like distant thunder. Wood groaned hideously. Even as calloused fingers wrapped around the smooth spear shaft, an unseen movement rippled through the air. A lifetime of woodcraft told him to turn now.
For a split second, the tableau held: a nekru pouncing at his throat with a savage snarl. Saber teeth flashing in the moonlight. Massive paws outstretched. Mane of spiny quills bristling like a porcupine.
Then he thrust up to meet the Beast of Saltern.
Neither its thick pelt nor corded muscles could turn aside the broad spearhead. Keen steel scraped against two ribs before piercing its heart. If not for the lugs, momentum would’ve carried the feline horror right up the shaft of his spear. Instead, those two little “wings” of metal on the spear’s socket stopped it cold. Claws swished a hairsbreadth from his face. Harnessing its momentum, Owen pitched the monster over his shoulder like a stack of hay.
Bones crunched as it slammed into an elm across the footpath. Although the Beast wasn’t long for this world, he backed away from the thrashing heap of fur and fangs. Even a dying man-eater could still notch one last kill. Worst way for this to end is as some cautionary tale for the next batch of foresters. Especially since his mission wasn’t finished.
“Sir Gibbs? Sir Gibbs, are you out there?”
Dropping the bloody spear, Owen stumbled toward the beach. Briars ripped at his boots and trousers the whole way. “Aye,” he called. “Let’s get you home, Rhys.”
Every second stretched into an eternity as he blundered through the darkness, but thorny underbrush eventually gave way to soft sand. Rhys gasped at the sight of him. “You’re bleeding, Sir Gibbs!”
“Bah, just a few scratches. My last encounter with an auroch was bloodier than this, so don’t worry for me.” Owen sank to his knees beside the sandy mound and started digging with his hands. “Are you alright?”
“My arm hurts.”
By the time Owen unearthed him, every muscle in his body burned… but he didn’t care. Despite a few dozen scrapes and scratches, Rhys was safe and sound. Mottled black and purple bruises marked where the nekru had clamped its jaws around his upper left arm, but the teeth had only broken Rhys’ skin in a few places. Miraculous. Escaping a man-eater with such light wounds couldn’t be described as anything less.
“Come,” he said, picking up the sand-encrusted little boy. “We should tend our wounds. My haversack has ointment and bandages.”
After another grueling trek through the underbrush, they stood beneath his perch in the old oak tree. Owen plopped Rhys down on one root, fetched the haversack from the heap of leaves where it had landed, and glanced across the trail. Blood pooled around the dead Beast. The sight should’ve warmed his heart. Instead, he felt…pity.
Despite the obvious differences, they were both hunters. Veterans. Peers, in some ways, fighting a war the rest of the world considered over. Aye, this was a vile beast, but also a strangely human one. At a guess, its rider had died at Gilsa. Did it mourn them? Did vengeance drive this rampage just as much as obedience and hunger? Did it dream about that bloody raid the way he dreamt of Glassock?
Memories bubbled up immediately. Wicked blades clashing against wooden shields. Air heavy with the suffocating stench of blood. Terror. Sheer, primordial terror as the foe hunted him like a rabbit. Before trudging back to Rhys, Owen cast one last glance at the Beast of Saltern.
At least this war is finally over for one of us.