Sunrise dawned overcast on the day of the hunt for the creature that had killed Joshua Alder and Lars Thomond in Needwood Forest. Assembling outside of the jailhouse where Constable Edwards had his office, townsmen clad in work jackets chatted in the damp morning air, their shotguns loaded and at the ready. Hunting dogs brought along to track the murderous beast bayed at their feet and snapped at each other in playful anticipation of the adventure to come. Inside the jail’s stone walls, however, Savvy Morgan and Alistair McCad pleaded with the constable not to go.
“Look at this picture,” insisted Savvy as she pointed at the drawing of the Krytten in her mother’s encyclopedia. “This is what Jacob saw. This is the creature that killed Joshua and Lars.”
Edwards rubbed a fat finger under his nose and sniffed. “It’s an awful beastie, I’ll give you that, Savvy, but awful or not we need to go after it. The people of this town must be safe and they’re counting on me to see to it that they are.”
“You don’t understand,” insisted Alistair, leaning forward on Edwards’s desk. “Read what the book says. Ordinary weapons can’t harm the Krytten. You’re not making the town safer. You’re leading these men to their doom! It might be that none of you come back.”
Edwards chuckled and reclined in his chair, his hands folded neatly on his broad belly. “Why, Alistair McCad, have you lost your mind? You can’t honestly think I’m going to take some nonsense written in a children’s book seriously.”
“It’s not a children’s book! Besides, why wouldn’t you take the entry seriously? We’re not dealing with an ordinary creature here.”
“That’s enough!” erupted Edwards. “You youngsters run along now and stop wasting my time. I’ve got important business to attend.”
Savvy heaved an exasperated sigh and slammed shut the book. “Constable Edwards, if you won’t listen to us then at least let us go along. We may be the only people who can help if you get into trouble.”
“You two come with us? Certainly not. I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Why can’t we go? After all, you don’t think the thing is dangerous,” sneered Alistair.
“Dangerous? Why I never—of course it’s dangerous! It killed two grown men. What I disagree with is your claim that we can’t harm it. We’ll see how well it stands up to a blast from my shotgun! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve wasted enough time. We must get underway.”
Rising from his creaky chair, the bulky constable moved around the desk to his coat rack. He pulled on his jacket and hat and grabbed a handful of shotgun shells from a box in his desk drawer. Then he hefted his gun and went to the door.
“You two, out!” he commanded, tilting his head toward the exit.
Savvy huffed and tucked the book under her arm. “Come on, Alistair,” she said and striding outside, she stepped into the circle of men gathered in the street. Curious faces turned toward the two friends, regarding Savvy in particular with puzzled smirks. Despite the fact that she had lived in Needwood Village all of her life and had always dressed in boy’s clothing Savvy’s unconventional appearance still drew stares.
“You’re all making a big mistake!” she shouted at the gawkers. “That creature out there is dangerous and it should be left alone until we can figure out a way to destroy it.”
Roars of laughter burst from the men, humiliating Savvy. Her ears turned red and she glowered at them.
“Let’s go, Alistair,” she said. “These idiots are determined to get themselves killed.”
Derisive hoots followed the pair down the street as they marched toward Needwood Pond. After they had rounded the corner to the alleyway, Alistair pulled Savvy to a stop behind a clapboard shed.
“Savvy, what are we going to do? People are going to get hurt.”
“I know they are. That’s why we’re going to follow them.”
“What? But Constable Edwards said—”
“I don’t care what he said. We need to know as much about this Krytten as we can learn and there’s only one way for us to do that. We need to tag along and see what happens.”
“I see. So what are we waiting for?”
Savvy peered around the shed. “We’re waiting for them to leave so we can go back to your attic and collect what we need. Can we get food from your family’s store?”
“Sure, that shouldn’t be a problem. My mom is always bugging me to eat more and she says you’re skinny as a bean pole.”
“Good. Hey, look, they’re leaving!” said Savvy, nodding in the direction of the jailhouse.
Alistair glanced around the shed to see the men mount their horses and file onto the south road.
“It’ll take them some time to reach the place where Jacob said he entered Needwood Forest,” he commented. “Let’s get what we need.”
Savvy followed Alistair back to his attic room where he grabbed a leather satchel and stuffed it with a small notebook, a pencil, and a tin canteen full of water. He added the demonology book and also grabbed his pocketknife, three candles, and a handful of matches for good measure.
“Alright, I’m ready,” he said. “I’m bringing the candles in case we aren’t home by dark. You never know how long we’re going to be gone.”
Hustling Savvy back toward the door, she pushed away from him, complaining, “hold on a second, I need my field hat!”
Running to a peg in the wall, Savvy snatched a wide-brimmed slouch hat that she wore in the forest to keep tree branches from catching her hair. She placed the hat upon her head and turned to Alistair.
“Now I’m ready,” she nodded.
“Good. After you, then,” the boy replied, gesturing toward the doorway.
Pulling the door closed behind them, Alistair followed Savvy downstairs to McCad’s Store. A tiny bell tinkled as they pushed into the shop, bringing Alistair’s father out of the back room. In his hands Robert McCad clutched a small towel on which he dried his freshly washed fingers.
“Oh, Alistair, it’s you … and Savvy Morgan’s here too. Hello to you, Savvy,” he grinned.
“Hello, Mister McCad,” Savvy waved.
The elder McCad came toward them, deftly avoiding barrels piled high with onions and potatoes.
“What are you two getting into today?” he asked as he slipped behind the counter.
“Oh, nothing much,” said Alistair. “We’re thinking of going to the for—ouch! Hey, what gives, Savvy?”
“I’m sorry,” the girl winked, her face tilted away from Alistair’s father. “There was a fly on the back of your head and I had to smack it before it flew away.”
Then Savvy turned back to Robert. “Mister McCad, we’re going to have a lunch picnic at the pond. We stopped by for something to eat is all.”
Robert grinned at them and hooked his thumbs under his suspenders. “Ah, a picnic. That’s a splendid idea. I hope it doesn’t rain, though. You know, Alistair, for a moment I thought you were going to say you’re heading to Needwood Forest. You wouldn’t be going there after your picnic, would you?”
Alistair gulped, understanding now why Savvy had whacked him. His father would never let him go to Needwood Forest after what had happened to Joshua and Lars. He hated to lie, but in this case he had no choice.
“Oh no, sir, we’re not going to the forest. It’s too dangerous with that thing out there.”
“Indeed it is,” said Robert. “I forbid you to go anywhere near that forest. Do you understand? You’ll have to wait until Constable Edwards says it’s safe. Now, about your picnic, what can I get you to eat?”
Savvy peered at the shelves behind Robert with her fingers tapping on her chin. “Let’s see. We’d like two apples, a wedge of hard cheese, a half loaf of bread, one of those big pickles from that jar there, and … hm … one bar of dark chocolate.”
“Dark chocolate, eh?” Robert winked.
“Yes, sir, its Alistair’s favorite.”
“So it is! Now, who’ll be paying for all this?”
“My father will,” said Savvy. “Can you add it to our household tab?”
“That’s fine, Savvy. Edward’s credit is always good here.”
“Thanks, Mister McCad. I appreciate it.”
“Yeah, thanks, Dad,” added Alistair.
Robert wrapped the cheese, bread, and the pickle in brown paper before tying them tight with lengths of twine. Then Alistair took the items and stuffed them into his satchel before bidding his father goodbye.
Walking back into the street, Savvy called, “come on, Alistair. We need to get after the hunting party!” and with a wave she took off around the corner.
The road from Needwood Village ran due south, making the riders easy to follow. They moved faster on horseback than Savvy and Alistair could on foot, however, so by the time the two friends arrived at the place where the old wagon track turned toward Needwood Forest, the riders had long since disappeared into the trees.
Alistair and Savvy entered the woods in their wake and jogged down the track, scanning the forest ahead for signs of the hunting party. Baying hounds in the distance finally alerted them when they were getting close and the two friends slowed to a walk as they approached the clearing where the creature had attacked Lars and Joshua. There, in the space between the trees, Edwards and some of the other men had laid out the bodies in the grass. Some men stood by the horses while other members of the party scoured the brush with their dogs.
Motioning for Alistair to follow her, Savvy stalked into a thicket of laurel and crouched there to watch. She noted Constable Edwards standing to one side with a handkerchief held up to his face. He sneezed loudly and cursed at the pollen tormenting his nose.
“Has anyone found anything?” he wheezed.
“Not yet,” replied several of the men.
Minutes passed as the searchers kept up their hunt. Then a man cried out that his dog had discovered a footprint. Edwards and the others converged on the spot to examine the ground and a discussion ensued that Savvy and Alistair could not hear. Agitation in the group made it clear, however, that all was not well.
“I’m not going any further,” said one man.
“That’s Tom Jenkins,” whispered Alistair. “He works in the grist mill.”
“You’re a coward!” shouted another member of the party.
“Well, I’m not going either,” said a second man. “And I’m no coward.”
Others joined in the argument, heaving insults and complaints at one another.
“Silence!” shouted Constable Edwards. “Gentlemen, enough with the taunting, are you schoolboys? We’ll resolve this with a vote. Anyone who wants to turn back can do so now. The rest of us will continue on with the dogs. All those who wish to leave step over there by the horses.”
Men shifted places, counted by Alistair until he determined that eight had chosen to leave.
“You men return to Needwood Village,” commanded Edwards. “Take the bodies of Lars and Joshua with you for a proper burial, but leave us your dogs. We’ll need them to track this wretched thing.”
Those departing handed over control of their hounds and mounted their horses after picking up the bodies of the two slain men.
“Thank you, gentlemen. Now you may go,” nodded the constable.
Savvy and Alistair shrank into the bushes as the reluctant hunters cantered past. Meanwhile, back in the clearing, Edwards called for the ten men who remained to set the dogs on the creature’s scent. The hounds circled the area with their noses to the ground and then set off howling into the trees.
“Mount up!” commanded Edwards.
The men climbed atop their horses and trotted off in pursuit of the dogs, bringing Savvy to her feet.
“It’s clear now, Alistair. Let’s go,” she said.
Emerging from their hiding place, the two friends ran to the spot where the dogs had first detected the scent. Savvy knelt to scrutinize the footprint in the mud, noting that a creature with four toes and long claws had made it. She spread out her fingers above the print.
“It’s bigger than my hand. Alistair, take out the book. I want to see the thing’s picture again.”
Alistair undid the satchel clasp and handed Savvy the encyclopedia. She flipped through the pages and held up the book for Alistair to see.
“Look at its feet!” she pointed.
Alistair scrutinized the drawing. “That’s it, Savvy. It has four toes too.”
“Yes, this seals it. We’re dealing with a demon, Alistair; with the Krytten itself. Constable Edwards and the others are in great danger.”
Savvy climbed to her feet and brushed the dirt from her knees.
“We need to stop them,” she said.
Alistair scratched the unruly hair on his head and peered into the forest. “I don’t know, Savvy. They went northwest. Do you know what lies that way?”
“No, I’m not as familiar with Needwood Forest as you are.”
“Lilith’s tower, that’s what. The Krytten is leading them to Lilith. She must have summoned it after all.”
“Well, that means the hunters need our help more than ever, then.”
“I don’t know, Savvy. The Krytten is scary enough, but Lilith too? I don’t want to tangle with her.”
Savvy handed the book back to Alistair. “Alright, you can go back to town,” she said, “but I’m going on,” and she broke for the trees.
Alistair shouted for her to wait, but Savvy had already disappeared into the underbrush so he issued a loud groan, tucked the book into his satchel, and set off after her.
Once he had caught up to Savvy, the two friends jogged over the uneven ground for a long time. Try as they might, however, they could not catch the hunting party. Finally, with their shirts soaked in sweat, they stopped by a creek to rest. Alistair tossed Savvy his canteen while he removed his shoes to wade in a pool.
“Ah, this is just what I needed,” he sighed. “You should try it, Savvy. The cold water feels really good.”
Savvy hovered at the edge of the pool wetting her face. “This is all I need,” she replied. “We can’t stay long.”
Leaning back on a large rock, she pulled the cork from Alistair’s canteen and gulped water from it when shots rang out in the distance.
“That’s the hunting party!” she gasped.
Corking the canteen, Savvy dropped it beside Alistair’s satchel and bounded up the rocky creek side into the trees.
“Not again!” shouted Alistair. “Doggone it, why am I always chasing after that girl?”
Alistair sloshed from the water and pulled on his shoes as Savvy’s head popped out from behind a stand of giant ferns.
“Alistair, come on!” she called.
“Darn it, Savvy, I’m going as fast as I can!”
Shoelaces askew, Alistair bolted after his friend and together they raced through the forest. Soon, however, Alistair could run no farther. He slowed to a walk and gasped for breath as Savvy sprinted ahead. Then the light in the forest began to dim and a strong wind kicked up. Alistair peered through an opening in the leaves to see storm clouds churning violently overhead while Savvy, realizing that her friend had fallen behind, turned back and hurried to him.
“Alistair, what’s wrong? Aren’t you coming?” she asked as she came up.
“Too … tired,” panted Alistair. “Look, Savvy. Something … strange … is happening.”
Alistair pointed skyward and Savvy gazed up to see bolts of lightning flash through the clouds. The sky went dark and fierce gusts of wind roared through the forest, sending branches crashing to the ground around them. Then more gunshots rang out, drawing Savvy’s attention back to the hunting party.
“Alistair, hurry!” she shouted and she took off toward the sound of the shots.
Scrambling over the loamy earth, Savvy and Alistair came to a mossy ledge of stone that stretched like a tabletop along the crest of a hummock. They clambered onto the boulder and crawled to the far edge where they gazed down into a shallow glen.
An uncanny fog filtered in from the far side of the vale, its gray tendrils slithering snake-like along the ground. Savvy and Alistair watched the peculiar mist move against the wind and a shiver raced down Alistair’s spine. No ordinary phenomenon could do that. They were clearly witnessing something not of this world.
The hounds barked at the mist until it drew close. Then they ran off whimpering with their tails tucked between their legs. The horses also grew uneasy and several of the hunters dismounted to inspect the mist. Yet try as they might, the men could not hold their horses quiet. The animals pulled against them until at last they tore the reins from the men’s hands and galloped away. Those still in the saddle continued struggling with their mounts, but as the mysterious fog began sifting between the horses’ hooves the terrified animals also reared in panic and threw their riders to the ground. The thrown men looked on helplessly as their mounts stampeded back the way they had come.
“Savvy look, there’s Constable Edwards.” said Alistair, pointing out the portly policeman. “What’s wrong with him?”
Edwards stood slightly ahead of the party grabbing at the tall weeds that sprang from the ground at his feet. The plants surged upward around his legs, holding him fast where he stood.
“It’s magic! Someone is controlling the plants,” Savvy gasped.
While Edwards and the others fought to free themselves, a thick wall of mist billowed in from the far side of the glen. Hues of red, purple, and blue swirled in the fog, silhouetting a creeping humanoid shape. A horrible stench filled the glen and Savvy and Alistair covered their noses.
“Why can’t the wind blow away that awful smell?” asked Savvy, her voice muffled under the collar of her shirt.
“Agh, it’s a supernatural stink!” gagged Alistair. “The book says you can always tell when demons are around by the awful reek they give off.”
Now the men of the hunting party also caught wind of the stench and began to cry out in alarm. Some used their long knives to hack free of the clinging weeds, but as soon as they moved to help their comrades new weeds sprang from the earth around their feet. Several of the hunters dropped to the ground, their limbs bound by dozens of the slithering plants.
Suddenly, a female voice boomed like thunder from the sky. “FOOLS! BRAZEN TRESPASSERS IN MY FOREST! YOU SHALL PAY FOR YOUR INTRUSION!”
“Lilith!” Savvy yelped.
More cries rose from the trapped men as the glowing mist drew closer. It enveloped Constable Edwards first while he struggled on his knees against the weeds. Raising his double-barreled shotgun, Edwards pulled both triggers, sending fiery loads of buckshot at the shadowy creature from point blank range. Unharmed, the Krytten sprang at Edwards, who shrieked as a powerful hand closed around his throat. Feeling the creature’s icy claws digging into his flesh, Edwards dropped his gun and struggled to free himself. The Krytten, however, held Edwards fast, an evil leer forming upon its lips.
Samael stepped in to catch scent of the man’s fear and sniffing the constable it licked his face from bottom to top, leaving revolting strands of spittle dripping from Edwards’s cheek. The constable’s eyes bulged in their sockets and he punched feebly at the Krytten, but he could not escape. Then Samael gave a final squeeze and Edwards went limp, his arms falling motionless to his side.
Dropping the constable’s lifeless body to the ground, the Krytten turned to the others in the group. The desperate men leveled their shotguns at the creature, blasting it with no effect. Instead, the Krytten stepped over Edwards’s body and with a hair-raising howl it leapt high into the air toward another member of the party.
“Oh no! That’s Mason Harris!” cried Alistair, recognizing the man from Needwood Village.
Landing heavily on top of Harris, Samael bit ferociously into his neck near the shoulder and tore out a huge bloody wound. Harris went limp and collapsed into the dirt.
“Souls!” tittered Samael as Harris’s blood spilled from its jaws.
Spinning to claim a third life, and then a fourth, the Krytten slew every man in the same manner until only one remained. Held fast by the vines, this man sobbed loudly with despair.
“Savvy, we need to do something!” yelped Alistair, unaware in his fear that he had shouted at the top of his voice.
The Krytten spun in their direction, its murderous green gaze filling Savvy with dread.
“Alistair, it’s seen us! RUN!” she cried.
Savvy and Alistair scrambled from the rock as a gurgling screech erupted from the glen, telling them that the Krytten had slaughtered the last of Needwood’s hunters. Savvy snatched a peek over her shoulder to see the demon alight onto the boulder where they had just lain. Picking up Savvy’s hat, which the wind had blown from her head, the Krytten held it up to its nose and sniffed deeply. Something special about the way the girl smelled registered in the demon’s mind and its eyes glowed brightly with an evil light.
“Ahhh! A magical ssssoul!” it hissed, and tossing the hat aside it leapt after them.
Savvy saw the Krytten set out in pursuit.
“It’s coming!” she shouted.
The friends sprinted along a deer path that wound through the trees. Up mounds and down gullies they fled, pursued by the Krytten’s terrible hiss and putrid stink. Rounding a large oak tree, Savvy skidded to a stop. Alistair crashed hard into her from behind, sending both of them toppling to the ground.
“What are you doing?” he choked. “That thing is right behind us.”
“Look!” Savvy shouted, pointing to a brown tabby cat sitting directly in their path.
“What the heck is a house cat doing in the forest?” asked Alistair.
“Prrrr, there’s no time to explain,” said the cat. “Follow me if you want to live!”
Savvy and Alistair exchanged a bewildered glance as the cat took off down the path. Savvy shot a glimpse over her shoulder to see the Krytten clambering over a mound behind them.
“It’s coming!” she screamed.
The friends sprinted after the odd cat, which had waited for them around the next bend. The cat dashed onward until it veered suddenly to the left, leading them off the path toward a wall of bushes.
“In here!” it cried, before bolting through an opening near the ground.
“Sssss, your souls are MINE!” screeched the Krytten.
Savvy dove after the cat with Alistair close behind her. They wriggled through the hedgerow and tumbled down a grassy slope on the far side to land in a heap at the bottom. A terrible growl roared behind them as the Krytten clawed furiously at the hedge, but somehow the wall of foliage held fast against it. Soon the awful snarling fell silent and the Krytten skulked back into the woods.
Crawling onto her knees, Savvy brushed bits of dust from her shirt. Before them stood a grass-covered mound, its height ringed with a crown of standing stones. Sunlight filtered in from above, filling the glade with a cheery glow, while butterflies danced in the air and birds chirped merrily in the trees. The sight of the place amazed Savvy and she glanced around in astonishment.
The cat also sat before them, rubbing its ear with a freshly-licked paw.
“Where are we?” asked Alistair.
“You are in a faery rath,” purred the cat.
“A faery rath? But faeries do terrible things to people. We aren’t safe here,” said Savvy.
“Prrrr, you’re safer here than out there with the Krytten, aren’t you?”
“I guess, but we can’t stay here. The faeries will be angry with us.”
“The youngling is correct!” announced a voice from the grassy mound.
Savvy and Alistair looked up to see a small man emerge from behind the rath’s central stone. The faery wore a brown waist-coat, green pants, and a long, gray beard that framed his ruddy face. He did not look unkind, but he wore a stern expression and he scowled at them as he puffed on an ornate pipe.
Taking the pipe from his lips, the faery blew out a ring of smoke and gazed around the stone circle.
“It is safe, my children. You may come out now,” he said.
One by one, small figures clad in green and gold peeked out from behind the stones. Their number grew until scores of tiny faces stared at Savvy and Alistair. Then the elder faery disappeared into the crowd to climb atop the mound’s square stone pinnacle.
Peering down at the cat, he sternly folded his arms.
“You were wrong to bring them here, LeBits,” scolded the faery. “And now they will pay the price. Bind them!”