The cry was answered just like before. And again, it was answered. It was echoed so many times, I lost count. From behind, and from our sides, those bone-chilling cries rose over the treetops.
Judging from the location of the first call, I guessed they had found our tracks.
I turned to check on the women; terror was written in their faces. The soldiers weren’t concerned. Apparently, their part in this ordeal had been played; with nothing to fear, they simply mounted, turned around, and departed at a leisurely walk.
“How far away are we from our destination?” I asked anxiously.
“Perhaps three or four miles—possibly even five; but no more,” replied Sarah tensely.
An all-out run of that distance, on already tired horses, was asking a lot, if not too much.
I didn’t think Hannah could get any paler, but I was wrong. She said nothing, but resolutely gripped the reins and shot me a look of courage that melted my heart. She really was much stronger than I would have ever guessed before all this happened.
I searched the surrounding countryside for the source of the cries and found nothing. Though I couldn’t see any Brean, I did see the clearest and flattest path through the trees.
“Keep up and don’t spare the horses,” I instructed. “If any of your mounts fail, I will come back for you. The others keep going.”
They all nodded in understanding, and we set off at a fast gallop—one that I knew would stretch their horses’ endurance past their limits.
I opened my vision and left it open, in search for the black vortexes that were the Brean. It taxed my already exhausted body. I wasn’t so much worried about the monster calls that came from behind us; they would have a tough time catching up. The more worrisome ones came from our sides. They were the ones that had a chance at heading us off.
As we galloped, the feeling was surreal. The trees flew by in the crisp, autumn air. Much had progressed in the week since I started this strange journey. The woods were now completely ablaze in a sea of color. Whereas only a few leaves had fallen to the ground before, now they rained down, leaving a thin blanket of the colorful foliage. Unfortunately, it wasn’t thick enough to cover our tracks. As the leaves fell, the cries of the monsters intensified.
Still, I couldn’t see them.
It wasn’t until the town slowly materialized on the edge of my vision, did the terrible, soulless voids emerge into sight. More accurately, it wasn’t the town that I saw, but men manning yet another wall, or what I assumed was a wall, because they looked oddly suspended in the air.
Running in that awkward stance of theirs, weaving through the trees, the Brean poured out of the forest. A wall of Brean began closing in on each side of us, giving the impression that we were hurtling through a narrowing canyon.
I judged our speed and the distance we still needed to go, against the speed at which the monsters were closing in, and my heart sank. It wasn’t enough. Despair washed over me—its dark waves crashing all around, filling my lungs, and choking off all hope. How could we make it through so much, just to fail so painfully close to our goal? It didn’t seem right.
So close, but not close enough. Smoke could have made it, but I couldn’t live knowing I’d left the women I loved to stand alone. Hearing their cries of pain, and to imagine or possibly witness the hideous beasts feasting on them, was too much to bear. Life without any of them would be hollow and empty. I wanted to be where they were, even if it was in these dreadful circumstances.
I still had two pistols and an arrow; if I had to, I would make their deaths quick. Not slowly, not horribly, not to be toyed with, for who knows how long, at the hands of those monsters.
And after that, I wouldn’t care what they did to me.
I closed my vision; it was too much for me to take in.
I bowed my head, as if a heavy weight had fallen upon me. My eyes closed and, unexpectedly, I found myself praying. I prayed desperately for God to do something. I prayed that it be His will for us to live. I prayed for a miracle.
Slowly, I opened my eyes, and noticed the sweat pouring down Smoke, drenching his dark coat and making it even darker. His gallop was still strong, and I knew it would stay that way right until the end. To see his magnificent stride and unbreakable spirit, to know that he wouldn’t give up until he was forced to, kindled something deep inside of me—not hope, but shame. Smoke wouldn’t quit until a pack of monsters drug him down, or until his heart literally gave out. If he won’t give up, why should I? We may die; but why make it easy? I wasn’t going to fail simply because I didn’t try. No. I won’t vanquish myself or the girls. I’ll make the monsters do it—and I’ll make them work for it.
That shame inside me suddenly sparked, and determination ignited in its place, burning slowly but resolutely.
I raised my head and drew the two pistols. Not so much because I thought I’d actually hit anything—it just felt like the right thing to do. Plus, I was tired of them digging underneath my belt—a silly thing to be concerned about, I know.
Still, I left my vision closed. It’s easier to take on one problem at a time than to focus on them all at once.
Our appointed time with destiny grew near. At first, it felt like a trick of the eye through the falling leaves: dark, hairy bodies, blending and merging with the foliage, appeared momentarily, dancing through the autumn sun, only to return again to shadow. One by one they appeared.
As they saw us, they changed course slightly, and plotted our interception. A small one, in particular, ran amazingly fast. It angled and streaked toward me.
I wanted desperately to shoot, but I had to wait. Hitting anything with a pistol, on the back of Smoke’s heaving body, was as close to impossibility as I could think of for me. So I waited.
It drew close.
And when I thought I couldn’t wait anymore, I waited.
Finally, when it was mere yards away, I shot.
The ball blasted into its chest. Despite the obvious wound appearing, all it did was slow him momentarily.
Frantically, not bothering to aim, I fired the other pistol.
The poorly aimed shot was rewarded with nothing. I missed.
I fumbled for the dagger, just as the Brean snarled ferociously... and leapt.
This is it, I thought.
I felt somewhat disappointed. I had imagined a more glorious fight—perhaps it taking three or four of the beasts to stop me. I envisioned being a little closer to the town, where there would be a witness—someone to pen a song about the heroic stranger. I certainly didn’t expect to die at the hands of the first Brean that attacked, and a small one at that—at least for a Brean.
Two things happened at the same time. The first was a crack from a musket, and the second was a huge chunk of the monster’s head exploding before my eyes. Unfortunately, the shot didn’t stop its momentum. Bracing for the impact, I dropped the dagger and ducked. Using every ounce of my strength to hang on, I clung to the saddle and Smoke’s mane The Brean’s bloody, stinking, hulking body careened into me. It rolled and flopped over my back, then tumbled to the ground.
I wasted no time in looking back to see my savior.
Jane smiled and winked, her smoking musket still clutched in her hand.
I returned the smile.
Then she did something I thought quite odd…. She screamed.
There wasn’t anything I could see wrong with her, or Sarah, for that matter, or Hannah.
Suddenly, Sarah’s eyes went wide and Hannah screamed, too.
They were looking at me.
Perhaps the smaller Brean had injured me when we hit. But I didn’t feel anything wrong.
Sarah pointed frantically.
Following their eyes, I realized they weren’t looking at me, but at the huge monster materializing right in front of me.
Naehume was gigantic, towering at least two or three feet above me atop Smoke. I knew he was large, but hunched over in the dungeon didn’t convey the proper scope of his size. Seeing him drawn up to his full height was truly terrifying.
With Smoke’s speed, there was no time to stop, and no going around him at this close range; there was barely time to take in his terrible reality. Our reunion was imminent and Naehume knew it.
I desperately fumbled for the crossbow, sure that I wouldn’t be able to retrieve it in time, but still tried, nonetheless.
His red eyes burned with the eternal hatred that constantly fed his soul. He hunched and squatted, spreading his massive arms wide, as if preparing to wrestle, or snatch us if we tried to pass. He thundered a booming, chilling roar, revealing rows of long, sharp teeth. His putrid breath washed over me. He truly was a demon of the dark—the monster from my nightmares.
Then, for the second time, something remarkable happened. Smoke again burst forward in a blast of amazing speed. What should have taken three or four strides, took only one. I was completely unprepared and, again, nearly toppled off his back.
More importantly, it took Naehume off guard. Smoke tossed his head back and charged into him.
It was like hitting a tree, practically stopping all of our forward drive. The only thing keeping me from flying into Naehume was Smoke himself. I launched into his neck and, reacting naturally, I wrapped my arms tightly around him.
Naehume was knocked flat on his back. Smoke half leapt, half high-stepped over the prostrate Brean.
The women galloped around the entanglement of horse and monster.
Naehume rolled over to protect his face from the trampling hooves and to set up for his retaliation.
As soon as we passed over him, his head snapped up, and he sprung into a crouch, preparing to pounce.
I worked to free the crossbow, but Smoke’s natural defenses took over again.
His hind legs cocked up under his stomach, and then shot back, smashing into the demon.
The sound they made, when connecting with Naehume’s face, was strangely like two boulders hammering against one another. One of the hoofs landed a particularly savage blow, tearing a long, deep red split into his gruesome face, which instantly filled with blood.
Sadly, he wasn’t decapitated; though, for a minute, there was hope.
Naehume howled in pain, trying to hold his mangled face together with his hands.
Smoke didn’t need to be told to run, as by the time I turned my attention back to the women, he was already catching up with them.
They had slowed down, probably to come to my aid; but when they saw me charge toward them, they again took up the flight.
We galloped through the last of the trees and into a large clearing. The town lay a half mile away. It was much, much smaller than Marysvale. From the outside, it looked like a large fort. Wooden timbers encircled it. A few lookouts stood inside watchtowers.
Out of the trees swarmed dozens of Brean. They flanked us on both sides and now outran our tired horses.
One of the ugly beasts paced Jane for a moment, sizing her up; its long, shaggy arms swinging madly. It issued an angry snarl, and cut over to begin its attack.
Sarah drew her musket, with arms trembling from fatigue and pain.
Her shot was off and the gun fell from her weak hands.
The beast flinched at the sound, dropped, and ran hunched, low to the ground.
I unfastened the crossbow, aimed, and pulled the trigger.
The arrow twirled, soaring through the air, and plunged into the monster’s shoulder.
It growled furiously, tore it out, and tossed it away without breaking stride.
Other monsters closed in around us, each of them choosing their prey. Some twitched their long claws in anticipation. A few made strange barking sounds of excitement.
Two angled in from opposite sides of Sarah, another chose Hannah.
Twenty or thirty more Brean poured out of the forest.
With nothing left to defend ourselves, I watched in horror as Jane’s Brean surged forward, preparing for its final strike.
The wait wouldn’t be long before the rest of us joined her fate.
The monster drew within feet, timed its leap, and… with a yelp of pain, it fell, tumbled, and rolled through the dirt.
The thundering boom of a rifle rumbled and rolled across the countryside.
We galloped past the writhing Brean.
A moment later, another fell to a similar fate, and then another. The air was soon filled with the continuous explosion of rifle fire.
Any monster that drew near us, fell. Sometimes it took two, even three shots to bring them down; but they still fell.
Tears of relief streamed down my face as I realized, for the first time since I could remember, that townspeople were shooting to protect me, instead of kill me. I suppose to be accurate, they were protecting us; nonetheless, I claimed it.
We charged on to the town. Along the top of the wooden wall, men and women busily loaded and fired rifles and muskets, even a few of the older children were helping with the loading.
Encircling the entire town ran a deep canal lined with rocks. A small river had been diverted, filling it with water and creating an effective barrier.
At first, I couldn’t see any way across it, or any type of gate. Then, quickly, an entire section of the timbers lowered, bridging the waterway.
The monsters, still driven with insane persistence, continued their onslaught, only to be repelled by the villagers.
We galloped across the bridge.
Some of the Brean tried crossing, but were met with a wall of shot, and toppled off the bridge into the slow-moving water below.
As soon as we crossed, the bridge raised and resumed its duty as a fortification.
The rifle fire died down, and I surmised the Brean were retreating.
With a deep sense of gratitude, I said a silent prayer, thanking God for our miracle. Then I slid wearily off Smoke, and went to help Hannah. Jane followed suit and helped Sarah off her horse. As soon as she touched ground, Sarah fell into Jane’s arms, and they both instantly began to sob. Cradled in my arms, I held a weeping Hannah.
The townspeople began to gather around; and an old man, with silver hair, bounded toward us. He was remarkably energetic, and wore a huge, welcoming grin. We all turned to face him as he gave us a little bow and said, in a thick Scottish accent, “Welcome to Alyth.”