Late evening crept over the lands as Marisa hid near the mouth of the tunnel egress, waiting and watching. She’d already glanced up the curving main trail several times, then into the eastern sky where the almost-full Roseate peeked through the leafy boughs. Soon the gates would be secured for the night, and though her insistence to be left alone to study would keep Abigale from her chamber door, Marisa knew she’d been outside the city walls far too long. Eventually, her absence would be noticed, with reprimands to follow. She drummed her fingers on the slab of rock.“Come, Tayib. Where are you?”
Early evening had brought Kahlil in secret, before the border patrol, to which Tayib had recently been assigned, set out into the forest, an urgent message on his lips: “Slip away as soon as you can and meet my brother by the tunnel egress. He has something to give to you. And don’t breathe a word of it.” But before she could question him further, he’d scurried off, wary of stirring trouble.
Slip away? she’d wondered. Was this particular something important enough for him to risk leaving patrol rounds? She’d hoped so, for his sake. Yet . . .
She slumped in umbrage. “It’s not any easier for me to sneak out,” she muttered, and gave another surreptitious glance at the Roseate, higher now. Surely the patrol had finished its work securing the border, and she felt stupid crouching in the thickets, snubbed and alone. She made to rise . . . but a sharp crack and a nearby yelp lodged her heart in her throat and forced her back into the underbrush. Breath held, she scanned the moon-dappled forest.
There, beyond the pillarstone-marked border of the Unclaimed Lands, writhed an enormous, shadowy figure. It lurched, bucked, and whipped its horned head in snarls of rage with lips taut, fangs bared, spittle flying. A thin, tufted tail lashed. Fur bristled along its back.
Marisa crushed herself against the rock slab in terror. Dear Maker! The stalking demon — caught!
Body stiff and heart ramming her ribcage, she let out a tiny, strangled whimper and willed herself to vanish within the thickets. But instead of discerning her scent and driving her from the brush, the demon let out a low groan and limped off into the moonlit depths of the woods. Marisa huddled stone-still as slowly, almost excruciatingly so, the demon’s crackling retreat softened with distance, heavy hoofbeats dragging like a wounded heart: thump-thud, thump-thud, thump-thud. . . .
In a cold rush, her body drained. Wild relief flooded in, and she made to rise again, to run back to Mynae . . . until a breeze tickled her face.
She paused. Odd. Normally, the play of a light wind was commonplace, easily ignored, but this one — she cocked her head to listen — this one hummed.
In a trice, the breeze strengthened. It breathed out from the tunnel, laced in the scent of aged elixir, and swirled through her hair like spectral fingers weaving ribbons, then it tingled up her spine to her ear, where it whispered a single, urgent word — Follow — before it dissipated with a crackling hiss.
Her brow furrowed. Follow? Follow what, the demon? She scoffed at once. Right. Utter madness, that . . . along with a speaking wind. She crawled from the underbrush.
Yet as she turned to hasten away, a curious notion began to rouse in her chest. What if she did shadow it, what would she learn? What would the creature unwittingly tell her? Secrets strong enough to help secure a better defense? Hidden weaknesses? Lore missing from the old stories? Marisa pivoted toward the Unclaimed Lands, her arousal now flame-fierce. Studying the threat, even a stolen glimpse, would gain her needed knowledge and offer powerful advantages . . . over Lamont. With fleet-footed soldier stealth, she could be out and back, quick and easy, forthcoming reprimands be cursed.
Now determined, Marisa padded down the slope to the trickling stream, where she leapt soundlessly along its exposed rocks, then picked her way through the slowly darkening forest. At the edge of the border, she paused and crouched near a white pillarstone. Crushed thickets and snapped branches beyond it indicated in which direction the demon had shambled off, and she at once scanned the nearby ground. Concealed within the forest debris lay death: snare barbs glinted in speckles of moonlight; dagger-sharp jaws gaped, hungry for the flesh of the careless or unaware. Yet . . .
Churned soil in a narrow swath beckoned her forth — a clear path.
Marisa slipped through, thwarting the lethal mechanisms to either side, and crossed over into the Unclaimed Lands.
Skirt hitched up to her knees, she followed the trampled pathway for a time. She stepped lightly in a furtive dance through the forest as she shadowed the demon, confident her footfalls meshed with the scurrying sounds of frightened woodrodents through the underbrush. Leaves rustled overhead; the breeze caressed her face full on. Good. No scent to expose her, but an odd smell had wafted her way — earthy, with a strange, underlying tang. Soon, a hulking form came into view and, stifling a gasp, Marisa darted behind a small copse nearby. She clasped a hand to her mouth.
By the Maker! The demon . . . it was unreal!
It sat — or sagged, rather — on the mossy forest floor a mere stone’s throw away, bathed in the Roseate’s soft angled light. More than thrice her stature, the creature’s muscles bulged beneath crimson skin shades richer than the purest blood, as smooth as finely polished stone and pelted in a wide strip of coarse black fur down its spine. Two heavy, sickle-shaped horns sat on either temple, points curved toward one another. Its face was long and angular, with wide nostrils and a broad forehead partially obscured by a dense tuft akin to a length of fringe.
Marisa gaped, awestruck. Straight from the stories of old this creature was, brought alive in perfect reflection. How accurate would the tales prove? At this thought, she shrank farther behind the copse, reluctant to find out.
But the demon paid her no heed. It clawed in angered frustration at its lower leg, gnawing, tearing out clumps of fur, spitting them into a heap. Each tug-and-rip tightened its face in a wince, and soon a dark sap-like substance began to ooze from raked-raw skin around something embedded. Moonlight glinted, and Marisa startled. A snare! It bit hard, drawing forth the demon’s blood.
At once, fervor swelled into pride — Father’s strategy had worked perfectly! — but it quickly ebbed as a rumble rolled in her chest. She froze. Rumble rose to growl, then a snarl, and then the demon suddenly arched back, throwing its snout skyward, clutching at its face. It drew in a deep breath, fangs bared and jaws clenched. Marisa crunched down, hands over her ears, bracing herself for a furious and terrifying roar . . .
Yet nothing came. Instead, the demon flinched, twitched its head, and squeezed its eyes closed. Then it slumped forward in a long moan to lie motionless like a massive sack of seeds. A wretched, outstretched lump. Marisa blinked, dumbfounded. Pain? Did these creatures actually feel pain? Had her mother been right?
She huddled behind the copse, torn. Self-preservation was strong. Any rational person would abandon the demon to its misery, threat that it was. But as it sprawled upon the forest floor and breathed out miserable groans and pathetic whimpers — something she hadn’t expected to hear — Marisa’s gut wrenched. The defense had proven its worth; it had protected Mynae, warned the demon of its own retaliatory bite. Already a cruel experience for something so reasonless, primitive, and ignorant. Did the creature still deserve to suffer?
She had to release that snare.
Quickly, Marisa sized up the situation. Five strides forward lay the wounded leg. Two strides back, the escape route. In between, scattered woodland debris; not much, but enough to possibly crackle her approach. Mentally, she picked a safe path, then lifted her face into the breeze. Still upwind and with the demon’s snout pointed away from her, no scent would alert it. Perfect. She could be out and back, quick and easy, and the creature would be none the wiser.
She eased silently around the trees.
At once, she shrank into shadow. Ahead, the demon lay quiet and still, breaths now calm and steady; had it not been for the bloody wound torn raw, its rest might have been mistaken for a peaceful slumber. But Marisa suspected it couldn’t have been very comfortable. Not with the snare’s unforgiving hold. She edged forward.
Inch by inch, she crept toward the creature in a semi-crouch, one hand clutching the bundle of tightly gathered skirt to her hip, the other stretched downward for balance. She curled around thickets, stepped along a cushion of mossy ground. Time and again she stopped, breath held to listen and observe, to see if the demon sensed her approach. But it remained motionless, and Marisa skulked ever closer. Four strides . . . three . . . two . . .
A stride and a half away, mud-encrusted cloven hooves came into view. Carefully, she lowered herself to her hands and knees, then stretched forward as far as she could to examine. There, in the pale moonlight, glinted the snare . . . and the release latch. Her fingers twitched. Could she do it? Did she dare? One tiny twist. That’s all it would take. . . .
Another groan rumbled and rose to a whine. Heart in her throat, Marisa lifted her gaze to the demon’s face scrunched tight as the breeze sighed swells of encouragement at her ear. Now. She had to do it now, before she lost her courage. And then she had to run. She reached out a slow, trembling hand . . .
The snare pinged off into the woods, and the demon roared, writhing upward — a furious behemoth armed with frothing fangs and dagger-sharp claws. Marisa shrieked, reeled backward, and crashed to the ground.
In a trice, tapered horns hemmed her in. Nostrils flared, searing breath blew as emerald eyes glowered hostile, still. Thick hands flexed and clenched, poised to crush her in their grasp. Marisa’s heart seized. She closed her eyes. Dear Maker! Stupid! Stupid and vulnerable! What madness drove her, filled her with pity — stupid, stupid, stupid! Lamont wasn’t worth this, and neither was the demon. And now she was as good as dead. She whimpered with hot tears. Oh Father, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. . . . She cringed, flattened, braced herself.
But no attack came.
For a long, tense moment, Marisa lay in a queer silence, puzzled, before she eased her eyes open to the massive creature looming above. Slowly, it lowered its snout, snuffing at her throat, chest, face, and hair. Then it rumbled, soft and light, and lowered its clawed hands, drew back and trained its slit-pupil eyes to her.
“I know your scent,” it said in a voice clear and resonant. “I have been searching for you. At last we meet.”