We keep to a side path hewn from the thorns and brambles by some large creature we’d rather not meet. The air turns cloying and rank as the shriveled dead trees around us shirk back from the border of the Hallow Wastes. Brambles give way to squat brown shrubs choked with cobwebs and skittering Black Widows. The soft ground of decayed vegetation gives way to dry, hard packed soil until finally we wrestle free of the Onyx entirely.
We pause at the edge of a steep embankment and stare at the endless grassy savannah that sprawls below us. Dry riverbeds crisscross the Hallow Wastes like infected scars. Stunted, scraggy trees dot the flat countryside and cluster in small groups as if for protection. The crimson sky boils and bleeds above us while dark clouds eat at the slight curve of the horizon, devouring it by slices.
Kamion scratches the back of his neck. “Looks like we landed in the Midwest.”
“After an atomic bomb, maybe,” Dace modifies.
I can feel the tingle of the tether’s location pressed against my pelvis. I spin on the balls of my feet until I face the northeast. “The Sepulcher is that way.”
We follow a switchback down into waist-high grass the color of rotted wheat. With no canopy of branches to blot out the sky it seems to stretch for eons but does not provide any suitable light. We find a narrow trail that cuts across the savannah in the general direction we wish need to go and we follow it.
“You say there are werewolves out here?” Dace’s attention darts left and right. I can almost feel his uneasiness. With each step the tension coils tighter around us so that we jump at each small sound.
“Among other things, yes. This is their territory.”
While we shuffle across the Wastes, I tell them about Gjinna, how she befriended me and in our brief times together taught me about the politics of Ater’s inhabitants. I share with them what I’ve learned from the occasions that Andhakar placed me on display to his court, dangling from a cage like an exotic bird. I detail the different kinds of creatures I’ve seen, their perversities, their frightening abilities and ruthless pursuit of power.
“How are our weapons going to protect us against monsters like that?” Bitterness taints Dace’s voice.
I shake my head.
“Do you have any idea what the druid meant by believing in our patron elements?” Kamiron turns to Zakk, eyeing the ink staining his skin.
Zakk’s thick lashes shield his eyes as he gazes at the lifeless soil crunching beneath our feet. His silence stretches a full minute before he shrugs. “No clue.”
Kam grunts but before he can press on, Zakk silences him with a quick motion. “But I can speculate.” He pauses and balances the shaft of his polearm in his hand. “These were not gifts from Divine, but the elements. They are manifestations of our connection to them. When we pulled out these weapons, we formed a bond. As that bond deepens, further manifestations will occur. Most likely in the form of blades.”
We gape at Zakk. He blinks self-consciously. “What?”
“Look at you, Gandalf, all educated.” Dace teases, shoving his friend playfully.
Zakk’s smile is rueful. “But I didn’t say how we get our powers to manifest. My guess is there has to be a need--”
Zakk’s sentence falters when a howl arches through the Hallow Wastes and is joined by a series of similar wails. I drop to my knees so that the grass conceals me. The boys follow suit.
“That what I think it is?” Kamiron whispers.
My heart thumps wildly and I reach for my longbow. “Something’s happening.”
The howling continues but it’s moving. Coming from both the west and east, the commotion converges north of our position.
“How could they have known we’re here? We’ve barely been walking an hour.” Kamiron adjusts his grip on the steel haft of his weapon, prepared to wield it like a club.
“They don’t. They’re just gathering,” Dace offers, peeking between the blades of grass. We follow his gaze but see nothing in the darkness but the gentle sway of grass stalks and the squat dot of tree clusters.
“How . . .?”
“There’s line of them--just there. Come on, they’re in plain sight.”
“Take off your glasses,” Zakk suggests. Quizzically, Dace complies. His pupils dilate, struggling to capture the ambient light that filters across the Wastes. “How the hell can you guys see anything?”
I recall that Divine blew across Dace’s glasses. “He must have enhanced your sight.”
Dace wipes the grime from his lenses and replaces them. He gazes across the savannah, taking in dimensions of details that we can only imagine. “It looks like--well, it’s hard to explain. When I want to see something closer, I just zoom in. Like a camera.”
The howls circle ahead. Zakk nudges Dace’s shoulder. “What do you see?”
Dace peers above the grass and at the horizon. “These . . . creatures are gathering in three groups, right in the direction we want to go. Shari’s right, they don’t look like normal werewolves. They’re standing upright, and they’re carry what looks like spears.”
Zakk nods. “They speak, they’re intelligent. Don’t think of them as animals, that’s only their appearance.”
Kamiron cocks his head to the side at another howl that shreds the air. It sounds irritated, aggressive. Anticipatory. “Something’s going down.” He shuts his eyes and a crooked line forms between his brows. “A grievance must be addressed. They’re going to fight one another, the winning pack will gain exclusive use of disputed hunting grounds.”
We stare at him, startled by his certainty but Kam doesn’t notice, too busy listening to things we cannot hear.
“We’ll have to swing wide and work our way around.” I unroll the map and trace a line heading west towards Andhakar’s citadel. “We can’t go east, it will take us back towards Unseelie territory, but the closer we are to . . .”
“Andy,” Dace supplies.
I tap The Darkness-That-Hunts’ insignia that marks the Andhakar’s home. “The more of Andy’s followers we’ll encounter.”
“We don’t have much a choice,” Dace voice is grave. “We can’t take those things. Not with sticks. They’re like nine feet.”
I’m all too familiar with the ferocity of the lobisomem and he’s right. “Right. Keep low, keep close, and Dace, keep an eye out.”
I take the lead and am sure to keep my shoulders and back hunched so that I don’t break the line of grass as we beeline west. We don’t speak and pause only to check our direction or catch our breath.
“Whoa--wait.” Dace catches my arm. He squints behind his lenses. “Something’s ahead.”
My voice catches. “What do you see?”
His hesitation doesn’t inspire confidence. “It looks like a wall.”
I straighten and gaze across the sea of grass, focusing on the bleak horizon. I can’t tell what it is, but a dark line snakes along the ground. Atop it several shapes pace back and forth.
“Other lobisomem?” Zakk whispers.
“Yeah. We can’t keep this way. It leads to some kind of village.”
My heart sinks. Oh, this is so not good. “What do we do? Turn around?”
“We can’t.” Kamiron lifts his head, his ears drinking in sounds beyond the hiss of the wind between the quivering stalks of grass. “I hear fighting. Chaos. Death.” He falls quiet for another minute and his full mouth forms a grim line. “Sounds like it’s nearing its end.”
Dace curses. “Not a lot of options.”
I chew my lower lip and my gaze wavers north. “We’ll have to avoid the village. Get as far north as we can and then head east. If Kamiron’s right and the fight is near its end, then the wolves will be heading back to their dens soon. We don’t need to be between them and their homes. Kamiron, keep listening, and Dace, let me know if you see any more villages.”
We run parallel to the village, sure to keep it on our left and the battle on our right. We make it just past the village before Kamiron stiffens and skids to a halt. Before he can speak, a series of triumphant howls travels on the breath of the wind.
“Guess it’s over,” Zakk mumbles. Sweat plasters strands of his light brown hair to his forehead.
“We’ll make it,” I try to reassure but Dace only shakes his head.
“We’ve got company.”
“But the village is miles aw--”
“An outpost from the looks of it. It’s not far from here. I don’t think they see us exactly, but they’re headed in our direction. Maybe going to meet the war party at their village?”
“Then we’re okay.”
Zakk’s eyes close for a moment. He sighs. “Not if they catch our scent, Shari.”
My heart drops and I stare at the beige grass that sways at my hips. “The wind’ll give us away.”
“How long until they’re in range?”
“Not sure, but it isn’t long.”
“We’ll have to make a stand here somewhere.”
“Exactly how do you suppose we do that, Z?” Dace holds up the leather-wrapped hilts of his weapon. “Did I mention they’re like nine feet?”
Zakk doesn’t respond. Instead he starts jogging east, his gaze scanning the grass. It finally parts before a dusty bank that clings to a narrow, dry riverbed. He motions for us to step down into the pit.
“Be still,” he orders. With precise movements, he navigates the banks of the riverbed, humming. A faint glow bleeds through his aketon, spreading around Zakk’s ribs. The butt of his polearm digs into the dry dirt, scarring some kind of wavy line into the land. The glow on his ribs starts to flicker, and Zakk moves more quickly, circling us with the strange line until he connects it to the rim of the riverbed just before the glow on his body winks out.
He looks pale when he finally joins us in the center of a broad box. He wipes the sweat from his eyes with shaky fingers. “Don’t step outside this area,” he warns.
“What did you do?”
He presses a palm against his ribs and grunts. I suddenly recall him showing us the tattoo there. What arcane embodiment did it represent?
“Heads up,” Dace alerts, his attention locked ahead. My heart screeches in my ears and I forget to breathe.
“Won’t they see us? We’re pretty exposed here.”
“They’ll hear us or smell us long before they see us,” Zakk whispers. “Get ready to fight.”
The grass undulates with the approach of the wolf party. Stalks break beneath the hulking forms of six lobisomem, jogging on all fours with weapons crafted from bone strapped to their backs. They form a tight circle on the outskirts of the bank a yard south of us. I’m stunned they don’t seem to see us, though all they have to do is look up the bank. Kam’s hand grips mine and he gives me a firm shake of his head. Does he think I’m going to wave to them and shout, “Hey, werewolves, over here!”?
The group of lobisomem straighten to their full nine-foot height. Andhakar’s brand glows red on their foreheads, contrasting with the blue-white glow of their eyes. Their dingy coats hang in disgusting ropes and thick, matted knots. Parts of the wolves’ fur have shed, revealing patches of festering black sores that dig pits into their rotted skin. The lobisomem ignore their weapons and scan the flat landscape before one that I assume is their leader motions to the others.
“Start here and move outward.”
The six blanket the area in a loose semicircle, keeping at least fifteen feet apart. The pair closest to us lifts their legs and the overwhelming tang of warm urine taints the air. Dace gags beside me and I use my sleeve to cover my mouth and nose.
Zakk’s voice is barely a whisper. “So they’re here to reinforce their border. If we’re lucky, they might move on and not smell us over their marks.”
“You think packs Bitterskull and Lurkingshade will appeal?” a wolf with a missing ear asks. His voice sounds like broken nails.
The leader crosses the riverbed and marks a spot there. Our eyes water at the stink.
“They have lost. If they have a disagreement with our rightful claim, we’ll settle it again. Pack Rottenmaw has nothing to fear from such weaklings. We now control the best hunting grounds.”
“Too bad I couldn’t taste the throat of Brokentooth. The look on his face when Lurkingshade lost claim would have been priceless.” This from the wolf closest to us. He seems the smallest of the party with a frame that is more emaciated than the usual.
A series of growls and snorts that sound suspiciously like laughter ride the wind.
“If you were a warrior, you would have been with the war party,” someone snickers, “Instead you’re stationed at the outpost with the rest of us.”
If the wolf is offended by their amusement, he is careful not to show it. Instead his mottled left ear twitches and his nose presses against the wind.
“Get ready,” Zakk cautions.
Adrenaline spikes through me and my nails dig into the unyielding wood of my longbow.
Noses thrust into the air and the wolves take deep drags. It sounds like thunder.
Tails thump in anticipation. Clawed hindlegs dig deep furrows into the earth. Excited yelps escape from between bared teeth with canines as long as my fingers. I can’t help but imagine the pain as those teeth ravage my supple flesh as easily as scissors cutting newspaper.
Dace is right. How can we possibly take on one of them, much less six?
You took down the Steel Fang and she is more powerful than these welps.
The male voice from before has returned. Or rather my smartass masculine alter ego has returned, though that sounds insane and makes even less sense. Nevertheless, I decide to ask for his (my?) opinion.
What do you suggest?
No initial response, and then: Find your belief in the connection, just like before when you reached into the flame.
Completely not helpful.
Lowering themselves to all fours, the wolves bury their noses into the cracked floor of the riverbed and start weaving back and forth, following our scent ever northward.
“I’m going to blind them with light,” Zakk alerts, “Then we attack. Try your best to maim their eyes. Force them to rely on smell and sound.”
My body trembles as Zakk starts murmuring in some language I’ve never heard. Another tattoo starts to glow beneath his clothing, this one along his calf. Sweat drips into my eyes, makes my fingers slick as I hug my longbow to my chest. Fear quakes through me, unstoppable and fierce. It tastes sour, like lemons gone bad.
Don’t let fear paralyze you, the voice warns in a calm, confident tone. A tropical breeze stirs my hair and seeps into my quaking bones. My hands stop trembling. A tingle shoots down my spine and flares across my hipbone. Slow your breathing. You will see their moves before they attack. Do not let your mind get in the way. Anticipate, react on instinct.
My eyelids drift down, almost as if I’ve entered a trance. My chest rises and falls rhythmically but then there is a flash of arcane light that sears the darkness of the Hallow Wastes. If the wolves didn’t know our exact location, they do now. I’m sure both the villagers and the war party saw Zakk’s magic flare.
All my earlier calm evaporates as the converging lobisomem yelp in startled surprise. Rising onto their hind legs, their arms flail uselessly, claws shredding through empty air. Tears drip from their closed eyes.
Kamiron is the first to attack. His steel handle makes a bone-crunching noise as it collides with the skull of the nearest wolf. The lobisomem drops and Kamiron swings again, bashing in its head. Thick black ichor dyes the parched ground of the riverbed. It sprays across Kamiron’s face, drips down his neck and soaks the head of a massive sledgehammer. Kamiron pauses, noticing the manifestation of the missing part of his weapon and then sprints off in search of another flailing werewolf. My body is refuses to move and I do nothing but stare at my friends as they fight for their lives.
Dace scuttles back from the chomping maw of a werewolf. Fear tightens the skin around his eyes but something else stirs at the edges of his mouth. The lobisomem snaps again, the blazing blue-white of its eyes black with blood. Dace lashes out with a scissor kick, his feet flying. The werewolf grunts and rolls onto its back, clawing at its snout.
Pay attention, you fool!
The hostility of the voice’s outburst startles me and I instinctively dive to my left. Instead of impaling me, a dagger crafted from bone merely grazes my side. I crash to the ground, my shoulder jarring with the impact. My longbow slides from between my numb, sweat-slick fingers and skids across the ground. My attacker leers at me for a moment and his sockets, filled with a blue-white glow, glance at my longbow and then the dagger that rests a few feet away.
He expects me to go for the dagger, I realize and can almost see the events unfold. I’d scramble towards the dagger, he’d be on me in two blinks, his teeth ripping into the back of my neck . . .
So that’s a no go. But maybe I can use his assumptions to my benefit.
I make as if to scramble for the dagger. In seconds the lobisomem is on all fours and charging. But I’m not interested in the dagger or even my longbow. The wolf is a second too slow and I’m already there. Just as he lunges, thinking to sink his maw into my flesh, I roll. My hand lashes out and sinks matted fur. It’s surprising soft though is smells of charnel. I scramble onto the werewolf’s back, my knees locking around his ribcage to keep my balance. He rears up. I don’t think, I simply react. My left hand anchors into his fur, holding on as he reaches behind himself, trying to grab me. My other hand pats him down.
I know I saw it . . . somewhere.
My palm skims over something curved and solid. My fingers lock around it. His second dagger. And then I’m stabbing and he’s whirling. Thick wet heat saturates my arm, my face. My fingers are so slick with ichor that I barely maintain hold of the hilt, but I don’t stop. The sky darkens as thick clouds coalesce. The Hallow Wastes spins, going first left then right, stopping and then whirling right to left.
I keep stabbing.
And then I’m falling.
The lobisomem and I slam to the ground, him half on top of me. The dagger breaks off in his ribs and I curse. I struggle to wiggle out from beneath his twitching body. He wheezes and a greenish purple tongue lolls out of his mouth. The smell is enough to send me heaving.
Something growls and I peer over the dying werewolf’s shoulder. Another lobisomem studies me and then his dead packmate. He doesn’t attack outright but instead calculating and cunning. Neither bodes well. The cacophony of fighting assaults my ears as I squirm. The werewolf stalks towards me. He favors his left leg and I notice smoke wafting up from a burn somewhere along his thigh. Injured, but he gives no notice to any pain.
I cast my gaze around for any weapon. My longbow is some leagues away. The broken dagger embedded in my dead attacker is useless. The other dagger is lost in the stalks of grass. The lobisomem raises a club fashioned from the skull of one of his victims, another werewolf from some opposing pack.
I kick with all my might. The dead wolf budges just an inch. It’s enough, but my attacker notices that I am seconds away from freedom and he springs.
The lobisomem’s back arches. He goes rigid for a split moment before bursting into flames. I scramble out of his way as he falls on top of his companion’s corpse. The curve of a circular weapon sticks out of his spine.
“You okay?” Dace jogs up to me. Ignoring the blaze that consumes the corpse, Dace reaches into the flames and pulls out his weapon. A wicked looking chakram, its steel edges crackle with blue flame. The fire extinguishes as soon as Dace tugs it from the corpse but the flames continue to burn along the blade, boiling away black ichor.
I stare at the roasting corpse and then at Dace’s chakram. The leather-wrapped hilts form the center of a discus, the blades curving into a perfect ring that can be separated to form two crescents. “How--?”
“Z was right. It’s our connection. We can’t question it, we simple use it. It happened for me because I had a real need to use it--saving my own ass.”
To our left, Zakk impales a lobisomem with his polearm--a naginata. The naginata’s three-foot blade rips through flesh and fur with little resistance.
Dace frowns. “Where’s your bow?”
I hurry to retrieve it. It feels warm in my hand, the yew thrumming like it’s anxious to be used. One lobisomem remains, the leader. Kamiron and Zakk join us and we each flank the werewolf, sealing of all possible avenues for escape. The leader keeps us at bay with spear and claw and watches us, not with fear but curiosity.
“Who are you?” he demands.
When we don’t answer, he only smirks. It looks like his mouth is crammed full of too many teeth. Many are crooked and yellow, jutting out of diseased gums. “You’ll talk soon enough. My pack will enjoy feasting on such strong essences.”
“Funny, but from where I stand, you’re pretty outnumbered, Lassie.” Dace shifts just a half-inch closer.
A niggling sensation tugs at the back of my thoughts. Something feels wrong.
“It will take more than you four to best me.” As if to prove that he has nothing to fear, he stabs his spear into the ground.
Why does he show no concern for his own life? I expect him not to care for his dead packmates--their weakness caused their death--but he should be more worried than he is.
Dace continues to bait him, trying to provoke him into attacking or distract him from noticing that Kamiron and Zakk are closing in.
“Dace!” My attention snaps to our surroundings. Of course I can’t see very far in the gloom, but hulking shapes seem to cut through the grass, moving like sharks in water. Silent, creeping death. “It’s a diversion!”
He curses and turns.
The split second is all the lobisomem needs. He is a blur of fur and teeth. He ignores the guys and charges at me, the weakest. The one without a useful weapon. I get my longbow between him and me just in time to keep him from severing my entire arm off but his teeth still clamp down on my forearm.
Kamiron’s maul smashes into the lobisomem leader’s hip with such force and power that I hear every bone shatter from the impact. The werewolf yelps as he is knocked away from me. He skids across the ground and then settles into a lump. I turn away as Zakk finishes him off.
Heat blazes up my forearm but I shove it away. Can’t afford to focus on the pain or it’ll overwhelm me.
“We’ve gotta go,” Dace squeaks, “There’s dozens and they’re almost here.”
“Where can we go?” I wheeze, “We can’t outrun them.”
Haunting howls rend the air like the wail of banshees. They are answered from a set of different howls. The war party.
“Can you do something, Z?”
“No, Kam, I don’t have enough strength left to perform any spell of the magnitude needed to save us.”
“Then this is it.” Dace alerts. “The first wave from the outpost is here.”
We follow his gaze and I see them clearly. At least ten, maybe more. They don’t charge us but spread so as not to make themselves easy targets. But I have a bow. Surely I can cull a few to even our odds? If I take down enough, maybe I can make an opening and we can run for the outpost. Not sure what that’ll do but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. If we get to it.
Fire flares up my arm when my fingers tighten around the longbow’s grip but I grit my teeth against it. I take aim, locking my sight on the nearest werewolf. I don’t have arrows or a bowstring, but I pretend I do. I draw a phantom arrow from a phantom quiver. Fit it against a phantom nock point. Pull back on a phantom string.
. . . Nothing. The wolves continue their steady approach. An army marching along. Somewhere behind me, I hear Kamiron murmur that he can see the war party approaching our backs. At least thirty strong. They have us boxed in.
Discouragement seizes me and I nearly drop my bow. This is useless.
I shake off the negative thoughts. Dace said need would cause my weapon to fully manifest. Zakk said I had to trust in my patron element and our connection.
Again, I reach into a phantom quiver--no, not phantom. Phantom implies it isn’t real. A thought strikes me. What if my quiver isn’t a physical sack of weatherproofed leather, but the air itself. Could I not then draw arrows from the very air I breathe?
The lobisomem are starting to pick up speed now. They spot me and suspect I have a ranged weapon. They launch into basic evasive maneuvers and weave in and out of the thick grass like garden snakes. I pull an arrow from the air. I imagine its power, the long shaft ending in the deadly tip of the arrowhead, the soft fletchings that stabilize the arrow’s flight and flank the nock at the rear of the arrow. I fit the nock against the nocking point and tug back, imaging the nothingness forming a taught string. I build the image until I can feel the bowstring’s tension near my cheek.
If you are truly connected with me, Air, help me. Manifest.
The arrow glitters like orange selenite. Sleek and vaguely transparent, it corkscrews through the air, sweeping between blades of grass and buries itself in the eye of the nearest werewolf. I’m unprepared for the impact. An amber colored shockwave bubbles out, catching two nearby werewolves, and catapults them into the sky. They land with bone breaking velocity.
Before I even realize it, I’ve nocked another arrow and am releasing it. It smashes into its target with deadly accuracy and launches another werewolf into the air. The lobisomem scatter.
“We need to get to the outpost!”
To my left, Kamiron’s muscles bunch as he lifts his weapon above his head and holds it there until a strange green-black glow envelops the sledgehammer’s twenty pound steel head. His gray eyes are like chips of granite as he stares at the oncoming enemies. He slams the weapon into the ground like he’s driving a railroad spike onto a track; the Hallow Wastes buckles under the assault. A shockwave belches soil and grass into the air and zigzags through the ground. The earth tears apart in its wake and a chasm swallows the lobisomem too slow to escape.
The last of the outpost’s reinforcements flees. I train an arrow on the lone lobisomem but Dace beats me. He throws his chakram. Twin crescents arc through the grass, whistling like falling bombs. They spin and whirl and their glow pulsates with a strange scarlet light. The first severs the lobisomem’s legs from his torso. The other decapitates him. Like boomerangs, the chakram complete their circle and whistle back. Dace catches them effortlessly.
Zakk angles east and eyes the approaching war party. They are charging full speed and I can see the dense line of their hulking bodies against the crimson sky. The ground tremors beneath their paws and their blue-white eyes blaze like candles in the Wastes’ gloom.
“We’ll never make it. We’ll have to slow them down,” Zakk warns. He leans on his naginata. The weapon is elegant and menacing even with black ichor staining its blue feathers. “I can try a last spell, turn the dry riverbed into an actual river, but I’ll be useless afterwards.”
Zakk’s statement gives me an idea.
“Kam, Z, start for the outpost.”
“I’m not leaving you,” Kamiron argues. I pull three arrows from the air. They shimmer in the darkness of Ater like shards from the sun. Unlike my arrows from before, these arrowheads are blunt.
“You’re not. I’ll be right behind you, I promise. Hurry.”
Kamiron and Zakk flee towards the outpost, skirting the miniature canyon that Kamiron’s created. I nudge Dace and motion for him to follow me. We run a few yards back from the riverbed. My arm burns madly and my body shakes with the exertion but I only squeeze my three arrows and longbow.
You can do this. Just a little longer, I coach myself. Anything to keep from fainting. A stitch in my side forces me to stop. Dace glances at my festering arm.
“That bite doesn’t look so hot.”
I wave off his concern. “When I give you the signal, make your chakram flame and then touch each arrowhead.”
He looks skeptical but nods. I face the war party. They will cross the riverbed in mere minutes. I have no idea how this will turn out--or if I can even pull it off, but I can’t afford to not try.
A zephyr shimmies across my shoulders and I relax into it. Tranquility slows my actions while transforming my senses. A hyperawareness of my surroundings settles over me. Colors once dull grow more pronounced and dispel some of Ater’s gloom. Each blade of grass sharpens into focus. I take in minute details that I had never really noticed before, the mottled grass, the huddle of trees off on the horizon, the way the sky seem so fathomless and yet boils and writhes as if tortured. All this I perceive between one breath and the next. Like with the lobisomem before, I can nearly see how my plan will unfold. It will work, and it will be a spectacular sight.
I balance the arrows between my fingers. I fit their nocks against the faint glow of string that is little more substantial than pure air. I draw back but this time I tilt the longbow towards the sky. I gauge the distance, counting for velocity and the direction of a gentle breeze that rustles the tight curls at the nape of my neck.
I ignore the trumpeting calls of the war party. The thunk of paws treading earth. The clank of armor, claws, and weapons. Like when Sandra was guzzling my soul from my very skin, I enter a state of Zen, almost like a trance. I adjust my sight on instinct.
A flash of flame so hot it burns blue and he’s touching the blunt arrowheads of each arrow. Flames engulf the round tips and turn the arrowheads into mini fireballs, but the flame doesn’t flow down the shafts.
Not that that stops the onslaught of pain that steals my breath and threatens to derail everything. I’m burning. The flesh around the hand clutching the longbow’s grip blackens and peels away, revealing boney fingertips. The stench of searing meat, smelling like pork, makes my eyes water. Don’t let go, Shari. Just ignore it. Don’t. Let. Go.
I grit my teeth and adjust my wavering aim.
“Shari--they’re almost on us. If you’re gonna do something . . .” Dace doesn’t give any indication that he sees my skin burning away. Could it be just in my head?
“Almost,” I wheeze between spasms of burning pain. Both hands feel as if they are on fire now. Flames lick my cheek where the fletchings tickle my jaw. Wind kicks up around me, whipping my hair out of its ponytail. I can see Andhakar’s brand on thirty foreheads. The werewolves are ten paces from the riverbed.
I release the arrows and the burning sensation evaporates instantaneously. My hands are sore, my breathing labored, but I find no third degree burns. My skin is unharmed. Flesh still covers my fingers. The cloying odor of roast pork remains, but the wind drags it away.
The three arrows arc across the sky like sapphire comets. Just as I had foreseen, the arrows’ trajectories divide. One drifts north, the other south, the third stays on course. They hover in the sky a moment longer and then gravity ensnares them, dragging them into the embrace of the Hallow Wastes. They slam into the dry riverbed at three separate points just as the war party attempts to cross.
Yelps and screams contaminate the Wastes as a massive blue firewall climbs the sky, spreading from the spot where each arrow has landed. The flames link each of the three arrows and form an impenetrable curtain of fire as tall as the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta. The smell of burning lobisomem cannot distract from the awe-inspiring sight.
“Holy shit!” Dace whistles, pushing up his glasses. I see a pair of miniature firewalls reflected in his dirty lenses. “Remind me not to piss you off.”
I latch onto his arm as weakness steals into my body. My head feels funny. Fuzzy. Hot.
“Dace, help me. I can’t . . .”
He wraps his arm around my waist, his chakram digging into my hip. Though I’m taller and heavier than him, he attempts to carry me towards the outpost where Kamiron and Zakk will be waiting.
But we both know I’ll never make it.