To say that I was afraid would be an understatement.
The wolves that hunted Eastwood were few and far between, as they were in danger of the creatures as well, but those that died here almost always turned into ghosts and joined their own pack, seemingly intelligent even in ghost form but always, always hungry.
Every species or creature or hypothetical situation I tossed out, Jovian had told me a way to kill it, a way to outsmart it, a way to escape it. He had told me all he could and if he didn’t know, he would find a way and learn himself, then teach it to me. My life had been a series of learning, each training lesson a lesson on how to kill or how to protect myself, each bedtime story as a little girl was filled with strategy or avoidance techniques, and as I grew older, how to best kill.
But when I had asked what to do if a ghost wolf caught my sound, all he had told me was simply: “Run.”
Oh, their energy could be weakened just as any ghost, and they were bound to the ground like any other ghost that had died on land, but inside Nahdiera, ghosts were only found in Eastwood where the trees were dangerous – not to mention nearly unclimbable – and there was not just one wolf, but always, always several of them. Each with teeth just as deadly as any other, except one strike would not kill them, only several dozen strikes and by then, you were already dead.
Even the Ruberous Faun would not save me from their attack if they caught up to me.
Unlike the living wolves, their ghosts could smell nothing and so they hunted by sound. If you made a loud noise in their forest, chances are, they heard you. My only hope was to run far, far away from where I had been and then stop and stand in complete silence until they passed.
The problem with that, however, was the fact that every few steps, a root would come up and trip me, or a branch would scrape down and slap my face. A grumplin, somehow having escaped the Black Mountains, attacked me when I ran over it unknowingly, slicing open my legs, arm, and ripping open my neck before I managed to grab hold of it and kill it with a twist of its spine. By the time the Ruberous had healed me enough to start running again, I could hear that the wolves were even closer, quickly coming toward me, and I had to cut away many roots around my legs in order to get up and keep running.
My heart was pounding in my chest and I was simply terrified. They were too close, and I still had a long way to go before I reached the mountain. Not days away no, but still far too long to run. If my calculations were correct, it was another eight hours of running to reach it, and though I was in good shape, racing the wolves that long would simply not happen.
Still, I ran as fast as I could. My mind going over possibilities and options as I ducked, leaped and otherwise attempted to dodge out of the way of the branches. A chuckera – a bird normally harmless, simply annoying with their crackling squawks – swooped down to scratch at me as I ran past, and the wolves screamed their howls oh so close. A ghost, a man with a regular form, ran after me with his mouth open in silent horror. I cut it down several times as it neared without it bringing me any harm but was distracted enough by it that a root tripped me. I cut it away and was on my feet in seconds but by then...
A ghost wolf snarled at me, running a few feet to my left, body of bones and ghostly wisps that trailed behind it like a second tail as it neared. Behind me, I could hear another, and to my right, another approached, leaping and nipping at my ankles but missing by a hairs’ breath.
I had no choice but to risk the trees.
Shoving the light-crystal into my mouth so I wouldn’t lose it, I jumped for a branch, but it moved out of my way. I almost stumbled on my landing but kept running, my sword going away to reach for my arrows. I had only six; it would have to do.
All the trees in Eastwood were the same. Oh, they looked different, yes, some of elm, some of pine, some impossibly defied the weather and were palm trees high and rough and branchless... but they were still the same, for they were like ghosts themselves and had a mind of their own. They also, very much, did not like being climbed and those branches never strayed near for easy grabbing unless reaching or you, and then they would leap out of the way.
But they could not move completely. The trunks were rooted in place and there they would stay, other than swaying and shaking, they could not remove someone from them forcibly, and as I’d learned earlier during the fight with the fiends, they hated being stabbed.
So, taking a lesson from my lost knife, and also getting the idea from climbing the werm hole in the Black Mountain, I leaped again, both hands with an arrow fisted in each, directly at a tree trunk.
They went in, stabbing into the bark of the leafless oak tree and the tree groaned in its anger, gripping onto the arrows and not allowing me to have them back, just as I had hoped.
I let go with one hand to grab another and hauled myself up with one arm and stabbed it in a bit higher, then I pulled—
I shouted in surprise and pain around the crystal as something grabbed my ankle – teeth.
It dug into my ankle with ferocious strength, yanking me down. I held onto the arrows as tightly as I could and tried to pull my leg up. But a ghosts’ strength was not as a living and I was yanked further, my fingers slipping.
I shouted in anger now – still gritting my teeth on the crystal, filing them – and kicked with my other foot, blindly trying to get it off. Finally, I remembered that it was a ghost and let go with one hand to quickly grab a knife from my other boot and threw it down. In the brief moment it took for the beast to waver under the blade, it was forced to let go of my leg and I pulled up again, lifting my feet as much as I could, my arms shaking.
But one of them leaped again, grabbing my cloak. It did not pull me down but instead ripped the fabric. However, though I’d come to no harm with that one, it reminded me that I was far from out of danger.
Holding on to the highest arrow, I reached behind me and grabbed another arrow then forced my body to yank even higher and stab the tip in. I was so weak by his point that it barely pierced the bark, but the tree was angry enough to grip it still and so it would do. I hauled myself up, out of the wolves’ reach.
Two more arrows left.
I was able to get my feet on the lowest two now, and I stood on them warily with the hopes that the thin wood would not break under my weight if I stayed close enough to the trunk, lifting my arm with the arrow to stab higher into the tree.
Then the tree started shaking.
I let out a squeal as I slipped off the arrows and fell, but my hand grasped another arrow in time. I only hoped the wood would continue to hold as the tree flung me around, shaking violently. I only had one more knife left, but with it, I stabbed it into the tree and was thankful when the tree groaned and stilled a moment so that I could move up quickly and step on that instead, stabbing my last arrow into the wood, leaving me weaponless except my sword.
When the tree shook again, I truly was ready this time, keeping my weight on my knife and my balance on the arrow above. It seemed to shake forever, but I was able to stay in the tree while the wolves leaped and snarled for me from below.
I took the light-crystal out of my aching mouth and put it in my pocket, hiding its light as I waited on the angry tree. When the tree finally stopped shuddering and started swaying, branches reached down and tried to pluck me off, but with the help of touching the Ruberous Faun to give me strength and energy, I was able to crouch and use my sword to cut the branches, while also having a few moments to reach down and swipe at a leaping wolf, using up their energy more so than they were doing themselves.
It was good that I did, because by the time the tree managed to knock me off the knife that I balanced on with a hard smack to the back of my head, I had wasted the energy of all but two of the wolves.
I fell forward, right atop (through) one of the wolves. I landed hard, but I didn’t hesitate in rolling and lifting my arm to protect my neck. When the skeletal wolf clamped down on my arm and shook, my other stabbed out at that wolf as well as its’ pack-mate who had leaped at that time. Making them fade further.
They came at me again, but with one more swipe of my blade, one was gone completely, leaving only its angry howls behind. The remaining one took two more, but then faded as well and I was alone.
But there was no time to relax. The sounds had brought more creatures, and they came after me from the shadows.
I grabbed my light-crystal and ran, my other hand digging into my pocket for the gem to heal the multiple bite wounds. The Ruberous took longer now to heal and I understood that I was running out of its energy. It needed time to rest and regain the energy it had lost. Soon it would not work.
For protection, I was down to only my sword and an empty bow to beat them with.
Perhaps it was luck – or perhaps I had simply had so much bad luck that it seemed like good luck to me – but from the shadows came the shape of a rock. A boulder. Boulders were not alive in the Eastwood. It was something of a safe spot. With the creatures at my heals, I ran to it and jumped, my fingers only barely touching the top of the lip.
I pulled my exhausted body up, then yelped in surprise when I saw the two skeletons there, lying flat on the bellies side-by-side as if they had died lying next to each other. A ghost ran through me terribly and I knew at least one of those ghosts were keeping me company on the rock. I didn’t dare touch their bones in case it made them angrier and activated the spell, but seeing their bones perfectly laid out was an odd comfort as it told me that no creatures could reach this place to defile even a helpless corpse.
I sat by their feet of bones, hiding the light and breathing hard in the darkness as the sounds of snarling reached me. The sounds, but not the creatures, I confirmed before laying back on the rock and letting out a long, exhausted breath.
Then, having not slept in two days and lulled by the feeling of relative safety, I found myself falling into an exhausted sleep.
“Chin up, Mir.”
“It is up.”
I lifted my chin high.
Jovian chuckled. “Not like that. Your chin needs to be level with the ground. Like this.” He stood and lifted his chin properly, his eyes flashing approval when I mimicked him. “Good. Now, hand on the shoulder, that’s right, and other to the skirts.”
“I’m not wearing a dress.”
He gave me a look, an eyebrow raising with both humor and threat. “Would you like to be?”
I shook my head quickly.
His eyes flashed in amusement. “Exactly. Now hands on your skirt. Good, now let me guide you.”
He moved me across the filthy floors of the inn we were staying at. I grimaced. “I feel silly.”
Jovian’s chuckle was warm. “Well, you may feel silly, but you look beautiful, silly or not.”
I rolled my eyes as dramatically as I could to be sure he saw. “Compliments aren’t going to make me enjoy this, Jovi.”
He laughed outright then. “Now you sound like your father when he needed to lead a hunt.”
“He didn’t like to hunt?”
He shook his head and turned me expertly. “He liked to dance and woe your mother. Hunting was boring to him.”
“Boring?” My nose scrunched up. “Clearly he never hunted with you.”
Another laugh. “I suppose not.” He agreed. “Now twirl.”
I rolled my eyes again but did so, only to find my foot being kicked out from under me mid-twirl. I landed hard on my rear and glared up at him accusingly. “Jovi!”
His smile was sad now, but firm. “An attack could come when you least expect it.”
“But I’m safe here with you.”
He lifted me to my feet but shook his head. “It’s when you are safe that you are in the most danger. Now wake up, Meira.”
“What?” This was different. Something wasn’t right.
“Wake up.” His hand gripped my wrist tightly and I tried to tug it away.
“Jovi, you’re hurting me.”
“I said, wake up, Mir.” He told me, gripping me tighter.
This was wrong, Jovi never hurt me, nor handled me roughly. What was wrong? I looked at him to ask, only to see his face was no longer Jovian’s, but Arion’s.
Arion looked down at me with frustration. “You stupid girl, do I have to save you every time? Wake. Up!”
I gasped awake, blinking in the darkness, but the pain in my wrist was still there. In my other, too. I struggled to sit and pull away, but I couldn’t, whatever gripped me was hard and rough on my skin.
Branches. Roots. They were pinning me down, forcing me to lay flat on the rock.
I had forgotten about such things. The skeletons should have been a warning. No doubt they had died pinned down and struggling, but it had been impossible to tell between pain and peace by the way they rested.
It was light now, or at least as light as it ever was in Eastwood. Light enough that I could see the branches, coiling down from around and creeping up over the rock like snakes. One was coming near my face and I knew it was going to go around my throat. I yanked hard on the roots around my wrists, but it did nothing, they only tightened their grip.
This, I knew how to escape from. Jovian had told me long ago about several different plants, insects, and animals that used the same technique, so I was very aware of how to escape from the tight grip that had me seemingly helpless; it just went against every piece of my instincts to do so.
I forced myself to completely relax every muscle in my body, slow my heart, calm my breathing, and just allow it to pull me.
Encouraged by my resilience, it loosened slightly, even as it sped up.
Wait, I needed to wait.
When the root touched my neck, I remained still, breathing slowly in and out, but just when it began to tighten, I yanked my one arm free with all my strength and speed, suddenly and unexpectedly. Once my one arm was loose, it was all I needed to grab my sword and cut myself free. The roots and branches recoiled in pain and went away, hiding in the trees or beneath the soil once again.
I let out a slow breath and rubbed my sore wrists, sitting up.
The boulder was surrounded by creatures; fiends waited, chittering angerly; a mousepad glared from where it tried - and failed - to climb. Several grumplins waited in their rubble camouflage and a few other creatures I had no immediate name for waited just in or out of sight.
I sighed, glad, at least, that I’d had a good night sleep, no matter the awakening.
I stood and cracked my neck, stretching the sleep from my arms and legs as I gripped my sword firmly before pulling it from its sheath.
I had work to do.