The Crillio Beast
The hunt was on. Edin scanned the forest floor, his eyes climbing the trees where the target could climb. The orange rays of the sun cast misshapen patterns on the ground. This made it difficult to see, to focus his eyes. He’d trained for this, but his head twisted at every movement in his peripheral vision. A shiver went up his spine despite the spring heat. Was he being watched?
His breath was steady, his hand brushing the hilt of his sword. Wafts of midseason blooms tickled his nose as barely formed leaves shudder around him.
He itched, trying to hold back a sneeze as not to give away his position. An abomination was in these woods, hiding and it was his duty to find the man. The hunted was a master magus. A man with powers no one should have.
Quick movement to the right drew his attention. He saw the blur of brown between the rising green fauna. Around him, birds chirped, wind blew, and animals scurried.
It was as it should be. There was no cracking of branches underfoot or shuffling of fallen leaves.
Edin had to catch the abomination and kill him. He would not fail.
He pressed down on the recently fallen tree trunk and vaulted himself over, silently landing in a clear patch of dark brown dirt.
Something around made him feel the need to draw his weapon. He held it before him, unsure of the threat.
Sword at the ready, Edin crouched, peering past the trees and bushes that were bringing life after the cold winter. Ferns were sprouting in the shade; spindly mushrooms grew from soil and on trees.
A step forward and his boot sunk deep into mud. With a firm grasp of a rough vine, he yanked upward tearing his foot out with a quiet slurping sound.
Where was his target? Two hours into the forest, and no sign of the man. The river, still freezing cold from snow melt, was a boundary he dared not cross. Edin’s heart was pumping as he slowly pushed deeper into the dark forest.
Find and slay the monster, it was the job of any mage hunter, a Por Fen as they were known. They lived quiet lives in the shadows, the sword arm of the Vestion Church. Despite that, Edin dreamed he could be the greatest of them and be rewarded with praises, riches, glory, anything he wanted would be his. The gorgeous Kesona would smile at him, beautiful brown eyes meeting his, her thin lips quivering at her desire for him.
A quick grin crossed his face. It was a dream for the future.
This day however, he was not going to earn any of those. It was a game and his target, Berka, had a two-minute head start. The time given was down significantly from the hour they’d given each other when they started.
Edin thought of it as specialized training for when they were old enough to set out on their own though they had no real tutors.
Their knowledge came from questioning locals and passing warriors at the Dancing Crane Tavern. This led to quick tips on how to fight, track, flee, build shelters, and more. They could never master any one aspect without a real teacher, but there was a wealth of knowledge that passed through the inn of Yaultan. Travelers used the high road that cut through the village curving and dipping through Bestoria like a river cutting a path through soft soil.
Edin took a couple more tentative steps, his shins slowly pushing through the damp leaves of the ferns, the small beads of water dampening his trousers. The rush of the river ahead of him was growing louder.
There were few places to hide in the ravine, behind curtains of vines, collapsed boulders, or fallen trees. Now though, the river had risen about a foot and covered most of the ravine on this side of the river. There was a slim patch of soggy dirt and smooth stone that ran the length of the water. It was treacherous and one slip could send him in.
The sound of the rapid flowing water could be used to muffle his movement. But it was a hindrance as well as a help as Berka could use it too.
Edin pressed through the underbrush, gripping tightly on the hilt of his carved wooden practice sword. He crested a short mound and glanced down the river valley.
The Crystalline River twisted from the mountains far to the north cutting through the dark forest, farm lands, and cities on its way down to the Mirasa Sea.
Edin grabbed a vine as wide as his wrist and began to steadily descend the patch of muck and stone. As a young boy stuck in school, he dreamed of rafting hundreds of leagues down river to that sea while watching farms, towns and cities float by. He imagined seeing the great castle of Aldenheim, passing through the Halecon Lake and then farther, much farther to the capital city of Calerrat.
Edin’s leather boots stuck deeper into the moist earth, he trod on smooth rocks when available and the moist ground while continuing up river. The air seemed fresh and held a mossy aroma that again nearly caused a sneeze.
A few weeks ago, Edin and Berka decided to do away with the boundaries altogether. That meant the river was in play as well as the old ruins farther west and only a hundred or so yards into the forest. Despite that, the ruins sat in a grassy hollow where nothing but the shortest of shrub grass ventured. They dared not enter.
Edin felt brave out here in the living woods, but not stupid. Somehow, Edin hadn’t found a single trace of Berka.
The far-off peals of bells from Yaultan a half a league south began sounding. It was getting late. He listened. Six, dinner time at the manor. He’d promised his mother he’d be back by then. Through small breaks in the canopy, he glanced up toward the sun’s decline.
He adjusted his belt; he had to keep going. Mother would be upset, but he couldn’t fail. He never had before, especially since Berka’s ginger hair stood out like a fire on the prairie. At this time of day, with the low angle of orange sunlight pushing through the trees, it seemed Berka had the advantage.
Edin looked across the river; it was deep and freezing. Berka was brash but not stupid; crossing that was a gamble with his life. He glanced behind him and saw his tracks in the mud and footprints on the stones. Ahead showed no signs of human presence.
Where could he be? He’d seen little signs: a half boot print, a broken twig on the ground. Edin knew men who could tell how fast a person was moving by a barely visible boot print.
Edin wasn’t that good and was certain he’d missed countless more. Berka was headed this way. There was no way the big lad could move silently through the forest.
Was he hiding, waiting for Edin to walk past and attack. For the last two hours, he’d been heading in this direction but for the last half-hour he’d seen no signs.
There had to be something.
But there wasn’t. Berka vanished. Maybe he headed west or circled back around. The river was the farthest east they’d ever gone in the forest and he usually made it a point to head that way. Far to the east, was the border with Dunbilston, lands ruled by a wicked Duke.
There were times when Edin and Berka would sneak a few ales from the cellar of Edin’s manor house and get far too drunk. Again, they’d tell stories and boast of heroics never accomplished. Berka declared the intention of one day breaking the armies of Dunbilstonian and liberating their people.
Scanning the area, he was silent. It was difficult to hear over the rapidly flowing water. Berka may even be heading to the manor by now.
Edin knew staying in the forest past dark was a bad idea. Terrible stories came out of these woods. Great monsters from deep underground, huge giants from the mountains far to the north, birds the size of cottages.
There were too many predators out here, both man and beast, his mother told him. Some were a mix of both. As a child, she warned that a bevy of crazed dematians, black-skinned creatures that walked upright and were hairless like men. Their hands were claws like a large cat and had rows upon rows of long needle like teeth some spilling out of their mouths. They could smell from a great distance and would eat man, woman or child alive without a thought. Some stories said they just drank the blood of their victims leaving corpses white and brittle like an icicle in the sun.
Edin wasn’t a young child anymore and didn’t fear the mythical dematians, he was a man. Seventeen years old and as strong as one five years his senior. At least that’s what he told himself. His shoulders were broad, well broadish and his muscles thick. Despite his mother’s insistence that he learn the scholarly endeavors from Master Horston, he wanted to be a warrior, a hero.
He’d never failed to find Berka before. Until now. Usually when the met, they fought with their wooden blades. Berka would win those bouts more often than not.
With his father the town constable, Berka had quite a bit more training than Edin.
Edin sighed and shook his head. There was no option, he had to get out of the forest before dark or his mother would severely punish him. She’d probably make him help the servants with the dishes or sweep the floor of the great room.
He swung the wooden sword in a figure eight in front of himself as he turned back down the ravine toward the manor.
Edin could imagine Berka sitting at the edge of the forest, grinning his big stupid smile with teeth almost as white as his skin. He’d dance around and taunt Edin causing the ground to quaver just a bit. Berka’s father was a burly man, the biggest in the village and Berka was only three inches shorter than his father.
Edin was a bit thinner than Berka, some called him wiry while Berka was considered stocky. He was also six inches shorter, still a respectable height of five and three-quarters feet. He hoped he would continue to grow. Though he never met his own father, Edin was told he’d been nearly six feet, maybe taller. He prayed to the gods that was the case.
Edin moved to the balls of his feet and started jabbing his fake sword into the open air. He slashed at an invisible opponent and parried their thrust. He blocked low and then high and leapt back with a wide arcing strike.
“You will never defeat me evil mage!” Edin said in a boisterous tone. He felt he was getting better with the sword. ‘Knowledge through pain.’ As Berka would say. If that were the case, he should be a master. It wasn’t, even after getting handily beaten by his friend he had very little to show for it.
His other knowledge came from watching the guardsmen, there were four though Edin wasn’t sure why they were there. They’d practice sparing with each other and one, Grent, practiced some sort of complicated sword form that looked more like a dance.
‘It’s too dangerous to be a warrior,’ mother had said. ‘And there is very little future in it.’
The suction of the mud made moving slow and would tire him quickly if he had to hike the entire river back home.
Edin scampered up the hill with the help of another vine. At the top the ground was harder and the walking easier though he had to be wary of sneaky roots, serpentine vines, and dead logs.
The sun was even lower now and the wind brushing through the trees held a cooler feel. At home, she’d yell, maybe even get the belt, though she’d only ever threatened him with it and never actually hit. There were other scarier options; instead of chores or a lashing, she may make him stay in his room to study one of Master Horston’s lessons or books. Trade, law, history, economics, diplomacy or worst of all accounting. It was never warfare or even the history of warfare. She forbade it. Edin knew his father was a warrior, a great one supposedly. Not that she ever spoke much of him.
He ran and put a foot on a large gray rock and leapt into the air twisting his body and slicing. It was a superfluous move—showy—and as he saw in the forms and the guards’ practice, a move never used.
His feet touched down and he felt something catch his right boot. He slid forward and felt a wicked wrench on his ankle.
Edin sprawled forward, grunting as his mouth filled with dirt, leaves, and mud. After a moment of catching his breath, Edin rolled to his back and sat up. He pressed on his ankle, a little dull ache. Not broken or sprained. That was good, he thought before looking at his clothes. His beige tunic now held a deep brown streak down the center that continued to his trousers. He’d certainly be doing laundry tonight.
Edin pulled a few twigs from the shirt and breeches and attempted to wipe the dirt off. He only made it worse. Edin stood and turned back toward the manor.
In front of him, a few feet away was the tall ginger boy, his own wooden sword pointed at Edin’s chest.
“Do you yield?” Berka said grinning.
Edin frowned. Where the heck had he come from? There’s no way he’d be able to sneak up on him.
“You walked right past me. I could’ve taken you out from there with just a spark if I were a mage.”
Edin found his sword and raised it, “die mage!” he shouted and lunged toward Berka. His friend parried the sword and sliced back. Edin blocked it and winced as he stepped on his sore ankle. He could fight through the pain. If he was to be a warrior, he’d have to.
The crashing of their blades caused his hand to sting. Edin twisted out of the way of Berka’s next jab and spun around sending the wooden blade toward the sky. He moved inside Berka’s guard but his friend bounded backward almost two full paces. Berka was stronger and more agile than Edin and Edin knew it.
Berka laughed, it wasn’t a taunting laugh, but one that seemed to say he was having a good time like kids playing in the mud. Edin glowered and closed the distance swiping in multiple directions. Berka blocked one then leapt out of the way of another.
Suddenly, Berka dropped and twisted below a third horizontal strike. He twisted his body without moving his feet. His legs tangled in one of the strangest moves Edin ever saw. The wooden blade stabbed into the back of Edin’s hand numbing his hand and sending the sword clattering off a tree.
Berka uncoiled and stood. Smiling he pointed the tip of the sword at Edin’s neck.
“Die mage.” Berka said.
Edin’s mouth dropped as he stared at the rounded tip. He couldn’t help it… it was brilliant. The thought brought his mind back around and he frowned. “You were the runaway mage today,” Edin said.
“A mage never wins...” Berka was still smiling and lowered his blade. “Come on, your ma will be upset.”
Edin hobbled over to grab his sword and ran his fingers down it. A few extra divots were added to the piece of oak. Battle scars from their training. They started walking back toward the village. Berka didn’t have to worry about a scolding, his father worked long hours and his mother was too busy with three younger siblings to ever worry where Berka had been.
There were points when Edin was jealous of his friend’s freedom. Edin had the manor, his own bedroom, a private tutor, and no worries about the next meal. But the lack of restrictions meant Berka could come and go as he pleased. The big boy was well liked by most—children, villagers, farmers. He would make eyes at the village women, grab an ale at the Dancing Crane, and chat with the local laborers. Somehow, he could make them all feel proud of their lives.
Edin’s mother owned much of the land surrounding Yaultan. So, the locals tended to treat him with respect not friendship. Most people seemed to be very careful around him as he was considered a noble, albeit a minor one and knew not his title if he even had one.
He looked over at Berka who still had a smug look on his face like he had the answer to some question that had been bothering Edin all day.
“So that… attack.” The move seemed as crazy as his own leaping slash through the air, but it worked.
“I call it the twisting snake.” Berka said.
When he took the slash, Edin was off balance, putting too much strength into the cut. He ran through it in his head, could he counter that? How had Berka kept his balance? The twist was so low, in a position that seemed impossible for the big man.
“That was—” Edin started.
Edin just nodded. “Where’d you learn that?”
“There was a traveler that came through town a week ago, a mage hunter. Not one of the Por Fen. He was dark skinned and from the southern islands. We chatted and he agreed to show me some moves, in preparation for my future career.”
“You’re still planning on joining then?” Edin said kicking a stick as they walked.
Berka nodded. “Three weeks till I’m eighteen, then I’m taking the first caravan to the Citadel. If they don’t accept me, it’s the army.”
Edin clenched his teeth at the thought of Berka leaving. Losing his best friend was going to be harder than losing his father. At least he never knew the old man. Berka’s dad looked after Edin sometimes and Uncle Rihkar tried when he was in town, which wasn’t often. How long had it been ten years? Fifteen? He could barely picture the man’s face.
Then there was Master Horston, Edin’s tutor. He either taught or supervised other part-time tutors to come in and teach Edin subjects he didn’t care about in order to prepare him for a university.
“Only a few months and you can join up,” Berka said. “Your ma can’t force you to… just leave. Find a caravan and disappear or take a raft like you’ve wanted to. Maybe you can swipe coin and get into the Justicar School.”
Edin smiled for a second. The stories of brave Justicars, like army officers of the Por Fen, riding into battle atop their huge warhorses running down abominations and their ilk keeping the world safe. They were always honored in life and in death.
Through the roofs of trees, he noticed the sun was almost completely gone now and a chill filled the air. Still smiling, Berka hopped on a fallen tree that straddled a small gully of decaying leaves. It creaked under his weight.
“Come on.” Berka said grinning.
Edin tested his ankle gingerly, it sent a current of pain. He gritted his teeth and pulled himself up facing Berka. Holding onto one another, they jumped. As they landed the tree burst with a loud crack tumbling them forward into the embrace of a plump fern.
He felt scratches and a point jabbing his palm. Edin laughed as he pulled himself up and glanced at Berka a few feet away. He was on his back staring up, his mouth hanging open.
Edin raised an eyebrow. “You look like a ventriloquist dummy.”
Berka blinked, his mouth moved as if to find words. None came out.
His heart began to race, was he injured? Did he land on something? “Are you okay?” Edin said. Edin pushed himself to his feet and scrambled to his friend ignoring the throbbing. “What’s wrong?”
Berka didn’t answer, instead something wet oozed into Edin’s hair. It was warm but caused Edin to shiver.
With a slow purposeful movement Berka extended his index finger, pointing at something above them.
Edin looked. As black as night, they stalk their pray. If you spot it, run, run, run, far, far away.
Large unblinking black orbs were barely visible in the darkening night. The only thing he saw in the shiny mirror like eyes was a white form. It took him a moment to realize, it was himself.
Edin swallowed. Despite the darkness, he knew that attached to the orbs was the misty black face of a crillio cat—a demon of the forest.
The breathing was silent, but he could smell it. Sweat, rotting flesh, putrid and eye-watering. His heartbeat quickened but he couldn’t move.
Slowly, the beast stood, spanning two thick tree limbs like a bridge, the front paws on one, the rear on another almost two paces behind. There were no pupils, so he wasn’t sure who the cat was looking at. Maybe both of them.
This was the first one he’d ever seen in the wild. A showman brought an emaciated beast through town with a traveling caravan years ago. It was caged and headed for Calerrat. Still, even behind the metal bars, it’s roar made his body tremble.
This crillio was bigger, as big as a horse with sleek black fur. His hands trembling, Edin couldn’t move his eyes from the animal. He felt that if he did, he’d be attacked, torn to pieces and would die in agony. It was said they like to keep their pray alive while they eat.
“We need to run,” Edin whispered barely getting his words past his own mouth. He couldn’t see Berka but hoped his friend could move.
He ran through possibilities in his mind. The river wasn’t a getaway, the animal could swim and even if it didn’t kill him, the cold water would. He estimated they were a half mile, maybe less, from the manor. Between here and there, the animal could easily eviscerate them. A shiver rolled down his spine as he realized there was no way they’d both escape.
The cat lazily eyed them, its tongue lashing out and running over the thick finger-length fangs that hung from its upper jaw.
Their eyes stayed locked as his mind raced. The route back to the manor was nearly parallel to the river over difficult terrain. Maybe if he got close enough to the manor and started screaming, the guards would come running. Could it work? If he didn’t make it, or if Berka didn’t, maybe some folks in the town would round up a hunting party and try to take revenge. The thought didn’t comfort him.
“We have to run,” Edin repeated, “you go right, I’ll go left.”
He saw Berka nod his head out of the corner of his eye. Edin took a deep breath, then another. He had to sprint.
The large beast yawned and then pushed back on its haunches purring in its stretch. It knew it didn’t need to rush. This would be a pleasant surprise for the cat, two foolish humans wandering into its maw. As far as Edin knew, no one ever caught one in its den. If someone did, they most likely didn’t live to write a summary on their findings.
For a few moments, it seemed that only his mind was working. “Run,” he said more to himself than Berka. His legs were like weights, the ground was holding him still like the base of a granite statue.
The shiver slipped down his body nearly buckling his knees. Edin clenched his jaw and forced his legs to tighten. He strained his feet and felt the left boot move a little, then a jolt ran through him and he leapt toward the river as if to free himself from the restraints of the earth. Edin landed in a bush, the branches grabbing at his clothes. He pulled himself away and ran.
The crashing of branches sounded somewhere off to his right. He hoped it was Berka cutting through the forest. His friend was faster than Edin.
A quick thought, the beast is chasing Berka, went through his head. It gave him hope for a moment before he realized what he was wishing.
His hands shook as he gripped a tree trunk and twisted past it. He jumped over dead limbs, crashed through ferns, and vaulted thorn bushes. He leapt off a rock and grabbed a tall branch using his momentum to swing himself ten feet to an open patch of dirt. He stumbled slightly, bracing his fall with an open hand and kept his feet moving. The blood pumping through his ears was so loud he couldn’t tell where anything was. Even the river was silent. He could only focus on what was ahead, what he had to do. Keep running.
The moon was beginning to appear lighting up the forest with silver shadows. He felt leaves and branches rush past his legs. Thorns grabbed him, tearing at his trousers. Edin’s chest was pounding as breath crashed in and out of his lungs. A long dead tree appeared in front of him. Edin slammed a hand on the fallen log and vaulted over it as the cracking echoed through the forest. There was no sound behind him, or if there was he couldn’t hear it over the sound of his own body’s exertion.
Another thick branch appeared at head height in front of him. He tucked his head and felt it skim across his scalp, the bark snagging loose hairs and ripping them free.
A human voice yelped from his right. Berka.
He glanced toward the sound but couldn’t see anything in the darkness. His body almost seized a second later when the gut piercing roar from the murderous cat echoed through the forest.
His legs seemed to slow on their own. Edin knew, it wasn’t after him. Instantly, he felt dread for his friend, fear for himself.
Edin still ran south with the ravine’s edge to guide him. If he reached the edge of the forest, he knew the manor was only a hundred yards south. Trees and forms began to look familiar; one he’d climbed hundreds of times as a child, another he attacked like a practice dummy with his fake sword.
Edin wasn’t far. He stopped and glanced in Berka’s direction. His mind was flashing with thoughts of flesh being ripped away by the pure white fangs of the cat. Without thinking, Edin started sprinting in that direction.
An oak sprang up in the gloom, seemingly sprouting before him. Edin slipped off to the right, his hands scraping against the rough bark.
Cracking branches and high-pitched shrieks came from somewhere ahead. Just behind it were loud thumping feet and crashing foliage as the beast tore through the brush. Edin could feel its enormous paws stomping on the ground like the beat of a war drum. Berka was headed toward the manor, right?
No, not the manor. Edin could see the break in the trees, moonlight pouring over the patchy ground.
Berka cried out, his voice held fear like a torture victim about to feel the tools of the tormenter. A moment later, it was followed by a gut-piercing roar. Edin’s eyes widened. His legs were pushing him toward the sound, his heart racing.
He leapt through a long-leafed bush into the clearing and his legs froze. The cursed ruins stood in front of him.
He’d only ever seen in through the brush. There were at least twenty crumbled stone blocks littering the clearing. To one side was a L-shaped wall nearly ten yards tall. He’d noticed carvings of men and animals on one side, but never was bold enough to actually inspect them up close.
Edin stood was on a dirt patch. Tiny sprouts of grass or ground cover peaked its way into the clearing but nothing of note grew.
Supposedly, it was dead land from the time the wicked magi ruled. Stories told of the hauntings of shimmering ghosts, wraiths as some called them. The stories stated they were ghosts of men or women who lost their lives without accomplishing a task. Their spirits remain until the task was completed.
He saw none and for some reason, everything was silent.
A roar shocked him awake. Fear flooded him, Edin turned back toward the forest when out of the corner of his eye he saw something hurtling toward him. A large deathly white body was tossed into the middle of the clearing a few feet in front of Edin. It skidded to a stop a pace before him.
Edin glanced back at where it’d come from. The forest was silent. He looked back to the body, to his friend.
Berka’s eyes were wide, there was a life to them but there was no movement except slow blinks. It was as if he were paralyzed. Blood pooled out around his right shoulder. Berka’s lips moved but no noise came out.
Edin dropped to a knee next to him and grabbed Berka’s arm. A soft groan echoed through the silent ruins. “Come on buddy, get up.” No movement. “Berka, we need to go.”
Still nothing. Edin glanced back toward the silent trees. He could feel the beast’s eyes glaring at him through the thicket.
He tugged at the arm and struggled to pull the dead weight. Not dead, he thought, he can’t be dead. They stopped in the crook of the L. It was the most protection possible. Edin looked around, it wouldn’t be enough. They were doomed. Edin knew it, the crillio knew it.
Edin’s chest pounded, as he leaned back against the cold rock. He slid down the wall, crouching on the balls of his feet. Still no sound but his own beating heart and Berka’s shallow breaths. It scared him worse than anything. No wind pushing through the trees, no insects buzzing about. He would’ve liked to hear something normal—a squirrel, a rabbit, birds chirping or owls hooting.
Edin blinked back tears, and he barely noticed the shaking of his hand.
Beyond the edge of the clearing, all was silent and still. His heart beat started slowing, maybe it was gone? Maybe it too wouldn’t enter such a place as this.
Edin swallowed and began shaking Berka. Getting no response, he slapped him. “Snap out of it buddy,” Edin said. “We can’t stay here…”
Leaves rustling somewhere to his left silenced him. Edin’s stomach dropped. He could’ve kept going, could’ve gotten away and saved himself. Somehow, it seemed that the crillio knew he’d stop for his wounded friend.
Townsfolk and travelers all said the crillio beasts were smart. A lot smarter than the average house cat whose excitement was finding scraps on the ground, chasing a dot of light from a crystal, or hunting mice through the manor.
Edin forced himself to stand..
It crept out as if from the shadows like some dark underworld monster. In the moonlight, the black cat’s fur almost glowed. The moon reflected in its eyes like giant white pupils. The effect seemed to make Edin’s limbs freeze.
Breath, he thought as he pulled out his wooden sword. The cat started toward the right then stopped and circled left. Edin stepped up between Berka and the beast.
The blunt tip began shaking slowly at first, then faster. He knew it wouldn’t do any damage, it wouldn’t stop what was coming. There was nothing he could do. Edin’s life would end in the maw of the beast.
No, he thought. He’d get out of this, he needed to concentrate. The beast was fast, but it couldn’t change directions as quick as a man. His shaking hands fought his will to keep the weapon moving in tandem with the beast. Edin slid to the side keeping himself between the two trying to stay on the balls of his feet.
He wondered what it was thinking, what was going through that massive brain. Its head was nearly twice the size of Edin’s.
The crillio padded the ground and turned back, its eyes never leaving as them. It roared, the putrid breath made Edin gag.
Why wouldn’t it attack? Blood was rushing through his head so rapidly he couldn’t think.
The cat stopped in the lee of the wall hiding in the thin shadow. It pushed back on its haunches and seemed to blend back into the shadows.
Edin took a breath, his arms shook. The crillio was readying to pounce. “Berka, run.” Edin whispered, though he could barely hear the words himself.
No answer, he wasn’t even sure if his friend somewhere behind him was alive.
Edin couldn’t take his eyes off the shadow. He could barely discern the beast in the darkness. Would it kill him instantly or keep him alive for a later snack? Or did it just want Berka and was wondering what to do with the human standing between him and his meal?
It was not a good spot for someone who hoped to preserve his own life. His legs quaked and all resolve started pouring out like a knife in a waterskin. He wasn’t a warrior, he was a young man without any skills or talents. To kill the crillio, it would take at least half dozen heavily armed soldiers or a Justicar.
Edin quivered, a few seconds of life left. He screamed. “Berka, get up you big oaf, run!” He saw the white fangs explode toward his head. Get out of the way. It was all he was thinking. He had to jump but the instant he was about to leap, he knew he was too late. A second late, a half a second. It didn’t matter. The beast was dice him up.
Then, everything seemed to slow down.
Edin nearly crumbled but somehow leapt to the side as far as he could. He had to run, had to leave.
A burning, shredding pain caught his arm. Edin screamed and dropped. It was like nothing he’d ever felt before. His entire arm seemed to go numb for a second. The crillio roared above him as air surged past him.
Edin landed on his side just before one of the cracked boulders. He wanted to curl up and hope for a quick end. The cat was probably already on its way back for the kill. Don’t die like a child.
How could he not? He was a child, barely a man.
Then he heard a slow, fearful moan. Berka.
Somehow, he looked back and saw the crillio twisting in the air still trying to swipe at Edin. Red droplets hung in the air. Edin rolled to his side and reached his knees. The thick legs of the crillio were twisted up as it hit the ground.
Then everything sped up, the beast landed, tumbled over itself grunting as it rolled onto its side for just a moment.
He had seconds to get away, run for the trees.
His eyes focused on Berka and he noticed tears running down his friend’s face. Berka was helpless, motionless between Edin and the beast. He couldn’t leave him. They both would die. At least they’d go together. Before they began to train as foes, they had fought invisible villains side-by-side saving the beautiful princess or humble farmer’s daughter while vanquishing evil. Be it a mage, a pirate, a dematian, or the Duke of Dunbilston.
It would never come to pass for either of them.
A thick merciless roar erupted from the animal. It was a cruel beast and Edin felt like he was seeing into its soul and only darkness looked back. His grip was weakening as a stream of blood flowed down his arm to the wooden sword. His strength wilted.
The beast tilted its head sideways as if to question what Edin was doing. Why this dumb human was making it easier for it?
He looked at his friend, his own voice coming back. “It’s not mages or pirates we face,” Edin said with a smile. Berka’s mouth twitched.
The beast thundered toward him, its paws like a violent storm. He held its gaze. The pain in his arm was burning him; hopefully it’d be over soon.
Then once more, the beast seemed to move in slow motion, all the muscles in the legs contracting and expanding with explosive efficiency. But he could see them individually. The jaw opened, ready to seize its next meal, the ghostly white fangs were glaring in the moonlight.
Edin closed his eyes and waited. He breathed out.
A feeling pulled at him, deep from inside his stomach. A twist that made him feel like he was going to be sick. Edin’s thought went to Kesona; would she laugh when he was found with throw up on his corpse. At least he didn’t pee himself. His fingers released the wooden sword and it dropped to the ground silently.
Then a final roar.
No pain came. Instead he heard a grunt, a hiss, and a loud roar that reverberated inside of his body like the bell atop the Vestion Church.
Edin opened his eyes and saw something he couldn’t understand. The crillio stood staring at him through a haze, as if Edin were seeing him through a piece of foggy glass. Edin blinked, then he looked around and saw a bubble surrounding him, only interrupted by the ground and ruined wall.
Everything outside seemed whiter and shimmered in the glow.
“What magic?” Edin said.
A second later, the shimmer disappeared. The cat was glaring at him again, it’s head tilting from side to side as it pawed at the air. It hissed and began circling around where the bubble was just seconds before.
Its four-inch claws raked the air as it moved closer as if expecting to feel whatever it was that stopped him. What was that? Edin quickly pondered.
The cat stepped forward and all Edin’s attention returned to the animal. His heart was in his throat. That brief reprieve felt more like torture than anything. Why didn’t it just kill him and get it over with?
Edin rose facing the animal, blood dripping from his arm, his mind feeling tired and woozy like he’d had too much stolen ale. “Come on,” Edin yelled at it, puffing out his chest.
The cat took another step forward and leaned back ready to spring at him again.
He felt another tug and twist inside him as the cat leapt at him. Edin watched it this time, trying to keep his legs from shaking and keeping hold of his bladder contents.
Edin’s bloody arm lifted like it was being pulled by a string. In front of him, a pure white light burst from the ground directly beneath the cat. A shaft pierced the animal’s chest.
A quick pained scream burst forth. Edin dropped to the ground and covered his ears.
Then, all was silent. He opened his eyes, his body shaking. In front of him, he saw the crillio slumped over its motionless paw a hand’s length from his face.
Hanging in the air from an ethereal spike was protruding from its back. Edin felt his mouth go dry. In the distance he could hear barks of dogs and shouts of men. There was no strength left to call out for help.