Mid-morning, Madraday the 10th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
Somewhere east of Sandown
As Kiba looked up nervously from his upside-down position, the wolf cub padded forward and stopped growling. The cub cocked its head and sniffed at Kiba. Apparently liking what it smelled, it yipped happily and began to lick Kiba’s face. “Eww cut it out!” Kiba said chuckling as the tongue tickled his face.
“Patsu!” The girl cried in exasperation. “You’re supposed to be an attack dog, not a lick ’em in the face dog!” Sighing, she relaxed her grip on the spear and held out a hand to Kiba. “Come on,” she said as she helped him up, “nobody as clumsy as you could possibly be dangerous.”
“Thanks … I think.” He grunted as we wiped the wolf drool off his face.
“Don’t think,” the girl said fixing Kiba with a disapproving glare, “that this means that I’ve forgiven you for spying on me … pervert.” She accentuated her point by shoving Kiba softly in the chest. As she did so, Kiba hissed in pain and stepped back clutching his chest. Wincing, Kiba reached under his shirt and felt the reopened cuts across his abdomen. When he pulled his hand back out, its palm was covered in blood. The girl stared at the blood smeared on his palm. “Where’d all that blood come from?”
“It’s er, nothing,” Kiba said as he unsuccessfully attempted to wipe off the blood using the bottom of his shirt, “I just got … attacked by … um … an animal last night is all.”
“Don’t be stupid, you’re bleeding!” The girl exclaimed pulling Kiba by an arm towards the boulder she had been lounging on earlier and sitting him down. “Take off your shirt and let me have a look.”
“What? No!” He yelled standing up. With surprising force, she grabbed his shoulder and pushed him back down onto the boulder.
“Stop fussing,” the girl said as she tried to take Kiba’s shirt off, “it’s not as if I’m trying to get you naked.” Kiba turned scarlet and spluttered a protest but words failed him and all that come out was a string of gibberish. As he clamped down on the shirt, the girl sighed and decided to try a different tactic. “Let’s try this again, my name’s Lylah and I know a little about healing,” she explained, “if you don’t get that wound seen to properly it’ll probably get infected.”
Reluctantly Kiba slowly pulled the shirt off over his head to reveal the four cuts, blood now seeping through the cloth strips. Lylah quickly appraised the wound as she picked up a small leather pouch that had been hidden behind the boulder. “That looks deep; you say an animal did it?” Lylah asked as she moistened a flannel cloth that she pulled from the pouch in the pool around the base of the boulder.
Lylah removed the cloth strips from the wound and gently wiped the cuts with the damp cloth, cleaning out the dirt and remains of the yellow ointment that Kiba had applied earlier. Kiba resisted the urge to breathe in sharply as the cool water stung inside the cuts and he stiffened against the pain. When Lylah noticed Kiba’s obvious discomfort, she suppressed a smirk at his attempts to hide it. “Those cloth strips were next to useless,” Lylah commented as she placed her hand less than an inch away from his skin just above the cuts, “this should close those cuts quickly.” Closing her eyes in concentration, Lylah’s hand began to glow emanating a soft white light. Particles of light danced around her hand and streamed into the wound causing the skin of Kiba’s chest to also glow. Within seconds, the light particles had almost been completely absorbed into his skin and the cuts already looked shallower. Looking at the wound thoughtfully, the cuts already beginning to rapidly heal, she looked up at Kiba. “I might need some petra flower extract to treat any infection that might have already set in. I think there’s a patch growing just at the top of the cliff.” Kiba was barely listening, still looking at the now healed wound with an impressed expression. She turned towards the narrow path behind Kiba that lead up and out of the sinkhole. As she started to leave, Patsu jumped into Kiba’s lap and yapped in Lylah’s direction. Turning back, she scratched Patsu behind one ear and the small wolf cub made quiet contented noises. “Hey Kiba, could you watch Patsu for me? He hates being left alone, even for a moment.”
“Yeah sure,” Kiba said as he picked up Patsu and scratched him under the chin while Lylah picked up her spear and headed towards the path. Suddenly, Kiba turned to face Lylah’s back with a confused expression on his face. “Hang on, how do you know my name? I never told you it!”
“Oops.” Lylah stopped, her back and posture betraying no emotion except perhaps for the tensing of her shoulders. For a few long seconds neither of them moved or said anything, the silence only broken by the sound of water and wind. Kiba was the first to make a move, dropping Patsu and reaching to draw his short sword. When his hand grasped at thin air, he looked around cursing and spotted the sword lying at the base of the gravel slope on the far side of the sinkhole where he had fallen earlier. In desperation, he grabbed for the hunting knife still strapped to his thigh. Even though he knew that wielding a weapon with such a short reach against someone armed with a spear would put him at a serious disadvantage, it was his only defence. Before he had a chance to draw it and defend himself Lylah span around, picked up a small rock, and smashed it on the side of his head. Sent reeling by the blow, Kiba stumbled backwards over the boulder and fell sprawling on to the ground, white sparks dancing across his vision. He struggled to pick himself up and failed, a black fog closed in as he felt himself loosing consciousness. Collapsing back to the ground, the last thing he saw before falling into unconsciousness was Lylah standing next to him, spear in hand.
With the blunt end of the spear’s shaft, Lylah prodded Kiba’s unconscious form that was laying face down, his lower half submerged in the cold water. “Cute, but so naive.” Lylah said with a cruel smile as her skin began to change texture. Her soft flesh began to toughen and take on a distinct yellowish hue while her hair became dirty and ragged, matted with grime. Her skin, now the texture of tough leather, split and formed scales covering her entire body except for her face that remained clear. Finally, the pupils of her eyes changed from an oval shape to a crossed slit.
Patsu jumped down from boulder and landed next to Kiba. Whining softly, Patsu started nudging the side of Kiba’s face with his nose in a futile attempt to wake him. As Lylah reached down, the wolf club turned to her and assumed a crouched posture, his teeth bared in a snarling growl. Patsu lunged forward at Lylah’s hand threateningly as she tried to grab Kiba by the hair. Pulling her hand back quickly enough to avoid Patsu’s snapping jaws, Lylah swiped at the cub and struck it hard with the shaft of the spear. Patsu was sent tumbling nearly a dozen yards across the sinkhole’s rocky floor before coming to a stop. Whimpering in pain, he cowered as Lylah turned towards him with her spear raised. “Stupid mutt,” Lylah snapped angrily, “what’s gotten into you? Do you want to end up on some hunter’s wall?” Lylah turned back to Kiba, continuing to address Patsu over her shoulder. “If you every try that again, I’ll skin you myself.” Reaching down, she grabbed Kiba by his hair and began to drag him toward a cave entrance that had been hidden behind a dense group of bushes. A few minutes after she had disappeared into the darkness with her catch, Patsu began sniffing at Kiba’s discarded shirt.
Several miles away Jiro bent down to examine a scrap of torn fabric snagged on a branch next to a riverbank. On its own, the black piece of cloth would mean little, but along with the faint but distinctive boot print in the soil beside the bush, it told him that Kiba had passed through here. It was lucky that Jiro had found the scrap at all. Kiba’s trail had met the river a short distance upstream and when it hadn’t continued on the opposite bank, Jiro had concluded that Kiba must have waded along the shallow river in an attempt to mask his trail. Luckily, Jiro had decided to head downstream to try to pick up the trail again and out of the corner of his eye, he had spotted the scrap of fabric.
Jiro estimated that he was still a good few hours behind the boy. Despite the relatively simple trick with the river, Kiba seemed more intent on putting as much distance behind him than on covering his tracks. Thankfully, this meant that it was easy to track him. Why Kiba was doing this was a question that Jiro was still unable to answer and the more he thought about, the more worried he became. At first, he thought the Kiba had foolishly gone after the soldiers that were tracking the survivors of Sandown. That would be a futile quest for revenge at best and didn’t explain why Kiba had felt it necessary to knock him out. As Jiro had tracked him it became clear that, whatever his reasons, Kiba was heading south and not following the survivors north.
He was about to follow the dirt path that Kiba had taken when he heard voices from upstream carried in on the wind. The voices had distinct Eldalan accents and from the brief snippets of conversation he was able to discern, they appeared to be trackers of some sort. Jiro reasoned that if someone were following them, any scrap of information that they had would be vital. Carefully, and silently, he waded back across the river and crept towards the source of the voices.
Soti sat down heavily on a fallen log, his muscles aching from the overnight travel while one of his soldiers filled his canteen from the river. Above them, a trio of sparrows sang at the gathering clouds. At Lars’s insistence, they had continued tracking their quarry through the night and even though it had been a dark night, somehow the Ranger had been able to follow the tracks in the darkness. After reaching the river the trail had gone cold and they had faced a choice whether to go upstream or down in order to pick it up again. Soti had decided to defer making that decision until after the men had rested. Travelling through the night had taken a lot out of them, especially after yesterday’s exertions and although he hid it well, privately Soti knew he needed to rest himself. Only Lars seemed immune from exhaustion.
“What’s eating you?” Lars asked as he leaned against a tree next to Soti. “You’ve been more pensive than a priest since that mage left.”
Chewing on a hardtack biscuit, Soti waited until his men were out of earshot before answering quietly. “This isn’t why I joined the army. What kind of war are we fighting? You’d never describe Arcadia and Eldala as allies or even friends but relations were always cordial. Suddenly, a people we wouldn’t have thought twice about trading with before are a deadly threat to the Empire. Where did that come from? I just don’t get why we’re even here.”
Lars sat down next to Soti, politely refusing a bite of the dry biscuit. “The Emperor said to attack, so we attack. It’s not our place to question orders that may be based on information we don’t have.”
“How can a people barely able to fight back be a threat us? With these new portal stones, we were able to overwhelm their defences in a single day but where is the honour in the indiscriminate massacre of every man, woman and child?”
Lars turned to Soti, a strange expression on his face. “The mistake you’ve made is to keep thinking of this as just a war.” For a moment, neither man spoke; both were lost in their own thoughts.
“Lars, what exactly is going on? Why are we even out here looking for this kid?” Soti asked.
“What makes you think I know more than you?” Lars answered evasively.
“For one thing,” Soti began, “the Rangers always know more about what’s going on with the Empire than anyone else.”
Lars looked surreptitiously at the three soldiers resting by the riverbank. None of them showed any signs of being aware of their superior’s conversation. Satisfied, he turned back to Soti and began speaking in a low whisper. “Arcadia, Galtea, the Broken Kingdoms; this whole region used to be part of an ancient empire known as the Geldren Domain. It was massive, one of the most powerful nations before the Godswar. Even Eldala began life as a colonial province of it. Not much of it remains today except a few ruins and the common language that we all share. Before the Godswar, the Domain was dedicated to the worship of the Titans who, before the Usurper Gods started the Godswar, were the highest divine authority in existence. Ultimately, the Titans were defeated and were cast out of the heavens and their mortal supporters punished. The Gods devastated the Domain in retribution, almost wiping out this entire continent. Eldala was spared only because we had rebelled against the Domain and sided with the Gods, but even then we lost much.”
Frustrated, Soti interrupted the Ranger. “I went to school just like you Lars, what’s this got to do with what’s happening now?”
“Everything. Do you know what a titan spawn is?”
“It’s the half-demon offspring of a Titan and a human isn’t it? But they’ve not been seen in generations.”
“Not exactly. While they haven’t been seen in Eldala for some time, over here they are much more common.” Lars held up a hand to forestall Soti’s question. “Remember, that the home provinces of the Geldren Domain never abandoned the Titan’s. Even after the God’s victory, conversion was a slow process. Many continued to worship the Titan’s in secret, which led to the formation of the Titan Cults that plague the region to this day. Not long after, the Titan’s, who never completely abandoned the mortal world, rewarded the cults for their loyalty. They gave them a ritual that allowed them to tap into a fraction of the power of Titan and use it to impregnate a human woman. A few weeks later she would give birth to a child that would outwardly appear to be human but it’s soul would be that of a Titan. This child would grow up to be a powerful member of the cult, more often than not assuming its leadership.”
“So, you’re saying that this kid was, is, one of these titan spawns?” Soti asked. Lars however was not listening.
“Damn it, it all makes sense now! THAT’S why we attacked here in the first place. The invasion, the rumours, even that kid. It all fits, Gods how could we have missed this!”
Soti was confused; his friend seemed to be jumping from subject to subject. “Lars you’re not making much sense.” Lars grabbed Soti’s shoulders, the light of epiphany burning behind his eyes.
“Ask yourself this, why did we commit resources to taking out such a small village? It’s isolated, has no resources worth speaking of and has no strategic potential whatsoever. Even the Arcadians didn’t see the need to garrison it. What tactical advantage could we possible gain by committing troops here that could’ve been used to strengthen the attack on a larger target elsewhere? None, that’s what, and what made this village different from a hundred others just like it that are supposed to be dealt with by the second wave? Only one thing. The Toshiko kid, that’s what. The entire reason why we attacked that village is him!”
“No, listen. Before the Rangers were sent to infiltrate Arcadia, we started hearing rumours, both from some of the officers in charge of the invasion and from within the Imperial Court itself. Allegedly, the Emperor had been consulting priests and diviners for months prior to signing the order to launch the invasion. As cliché as it may sound, somehow His Highness had got his hands on some prophecy that spurred him into action. From the few fragments we are able to acquire, it claimed that a titan spawn born fifteen years ago here in Arcadia would be a future threat to the Empire.”
Soti’s eyebrow raised in scepticism as he responded. “Uh huh, a prophecy foretelling of some future threat. You’re right, that does sound cliché.”
“And it’s complete bullshit. In over 800 years of recorded history, there hasn’t been a single instance of a prophecy coming true. The myth of the prophecy handed down by the Gods is just that, a myth. That doesn’t stop some taking advantage of people’s gullibility however. Ever heard of the Order of Taran Kur?” Soti shook his head. “I’m not surprised, the Rangers have been investigating them for several years and we’ve got little more than a name and a list of some the individuals involved. Mostly high-ranking mages. We believe that they’ve been manipulating the Imperial Court for sometime and may be behind the fabrication of the prophecy. All in an attempt to get their hands on…”
“…the titan spawn.” Soti said, interrupting Lars and finishing his sentence. “But to start a war over it, that just seems insane. Whatever the reason is, I think it’s important if that’s the case, that we need to prevent this titan spawn from falling into their hands. Especially considering that bitch of a mage lied in an attempt to throw us of his scent. With green hair and orange eyes, it shouldn’t be too hard to find this kid.”
“Aye,” Lars agreed, “but first we should let the men rest. We’ll stop here for an hour and then head upstream.”
Opening his eyes, Jiro broke the mental link with the sparrow above the Eldalan men. As he slowly crawled away from the group, he inwardly cursed. The conversation he had eavesdropped upon confirmed what Jiro had learned from the solider that he had interrogated the day before. Jiro had hoped that the soldier’s testimony, which had been based on rumour, would prove to be false despite the use of the Confessor’s Chain. However, given what he had just heard, he now had to admit the truth, if only to himself. The Eldalans, believing a prophecy, were here to eliminate a threat but since they had not known the exact identity of the threat, they had taken the coldly logical decision to ensure its destruction by wiping out every last Arcadian. “If I had just done my duty fifteen years ago like I was supposed to,” he started to think to himself before he clamped down on the thought. Whatever the present situation, he had made the right decision all those years ago. At least that’s what he hoped.
A few minutes later, he was back at the site where he had discovered part of Kiba’s shirt. With a group of Eldalan soldiers’ right behind him, he had to move fast and find Kiba. With his concern growing by the minute, he set off down the trail in pursuit of the boy.
Kiba came to slowly groaning; cracking open one eye at a time, his head pounded and there was a ringing in his ears. Blood covered the side of his face where Lylah had struck him and the hair near the wound was matted with it. It was dark and he was still groggy from the blow so it took him a moment to realise the full nature of his predicament. Chained to the wall by wrist manacles above and behind his head, Kiba was in a sitting position with his ankles shackled and bolted to the floor. Locked around his neck was an iron collar fastened to the wall by a short length of chain, further restricting his range of movement. The chains chinked loudly against the stone as Kiba tugged at them but it was no use, they seemed fixed fast to the stone and no amount effort would dislodge them. Not that Kiba had any strength in him, since waking up he had felt weak and slightly nauseous. As his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he began to make out the stone walls of a cave. He appeared to be in a small chamber at the end of tunnel, a grate made of crudely constructed metal bars blocking the exit. What little illumination there was came from a dimly flickering torch, its light reflecting from around the corner on the damp cave walls. In the darkness at the back of the chamber, Kiba could now see the rough outline of a figure slumped against the far wall, partially hidden behind a natural column. “Hey mister, where…” he called out, but as he did so, something about the way the figure was sitting caused him to stop. Straining against the chains and the neck collar, Kiba shuffled sideways in an attempt to get a better view of the figure. When Kiba saw the bloated and decayed flesh of the corpse, he jumped back uttering a cry of shock. Although seeing a dead body similarly chained up was chilling enough, the expression on its face was force. Fixed on to its face was a terrifying visage, either a frozen expression of fear and pain or the result of decomposition on the muscles of the face. Considering his present situation, Kiba would put money on it being the former.
The sound of the metal grate being raised and slammed back down pulled Kiba’s attention away from the decayed corpse and back to the entrance of the chamber. Standing just inside the bars and leaning casually against the wall was Lylah. She smiled as Kiba glared at her, not the friendly smile she had shown earlier by the pool, an arrogant smug smile with a faint hint of hunger. “Well, look who’s finally awake.”
“What the fuck is going on?” Kiba yelled at her angrily as he tugged at the chains yet again. Lylah chuckled as she walked slowly across the chamber towards him, amused it seemed at his futile anger. As she did so, a burnt out torch fixed to the column in the centre of the chamber suddenly reignited.
Kneeling down next to Kiba, Lylah traced a finger through the blood on his face, causing him to suppress a wince as the finger crossed the still oozing wound. “Chained to a wall, no hope of escape or rescue and yet you’re still defiant. But then you’ve always been rather strong willed haven’t you?”
“Unchain me you crazy bitch and I’ll show you just how ‘defiant’ I can be.”
“Actually,” Lylah said as she straddled his legs, “I like you just where you are.” Placing her finger in her mouth, she licked off Kiba’s blood. As she did so, a shiver ran down her spine and every nerve ending tingled. For a brief moment as she savoured the taste, the colour of her eyes changed from blue to yellow and the pupils quickly changed from circular to cross-shaped. A ripple of scales flashed across her body as she swallowed the blood.
Kiba gulped nervously as he saw the momentary change in Lylah, the first pangs of fear beginning to gnaw at his thoughts. “What the hell are you?”
“I could ask you the same question,” she said lightly brushing his hair with her hand, “there’s three voices inside your head where there should only be one. One of those voices is so full of anger and malice that I can almost taste its rage. It’s practically screaming.” Lylah was now leaning quite close and Kiba was beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable at the close proximity. “Then there’s your’s, so confused and alone. In the last few days you’ve seen your entire world thrown upside down and you’re still trying to make sense of it all.”
“Wait,” Kiba said interrupted, “how do you know all this?” Then the answer suddenly hit him. “That’s how you knew my name without being told isn’t it? You’re reading my mind!”
Lylah smiled as she leaned even close, whispering into his ear. “It’s just a little trick, not even that hard really. I use it to peek inside a person’s head and see what their weakness is, what’s most likely to draw them in and make it easy to catch them off guard. Adolescent males are the easiest, show ’em a pretty girl and they’ll all but bare their throats.”
Gritting his teeth and cursing his own stupidity, Kiba realised how easily he had let his guard down been sucked into Lylah’s deception. He recoiled, as much as he could, as Lylah abruptly licked at the blood oozing from his head wound. “What the hell are you doing!?” As her hand drifted down across his naked torso to his waist where it slipped into his pants, Kiba started to panic. “Hey wait,” he cried out as Lylah’s hand began to work its way down to his groin, “stop!”
Lylah ignored his struggles and continued regardless of his protests. “Gods, your spirit’s aura is so strong,” she said as she began to caress a suddenly very uncomfortable Kiba. “The old guy barely saw the week out, I bet you’d last for months.” Her free hand hovered just an inch above his chest and Kiba could something from deep within being sucked out of him and into the hand. Along with Lylah’s activities inside his pants, the sensation was not entirely unpleasant. However, this made him struggle and protest even more, unwilling to submit to it. “Stop struggling, this was the first thing you thought of when you laid eyes on me.”
“I SAID STOP!” Kiba yelled as he twisted violently, throwing Lylah off him. As she landed roughly, she reverted to her scaled form and slapped hard him across the face, her claws leaving three furrows across his check. Snarling in anger, she planted one hand on his chest, pinning him firmly to the floor while the other grabbed his hair and painfully pulled his head back.
“I don’t think you get it,” she said quietly, “either way, you’re dying down here. The only choice you get is whether you go screaming in pain or groaning in pleasure.” In answer, Kiba spat in her face. “Pain it is then.”
The claws on the hand pinning him to the floor began to grow, gaining an extra three inches. The tips of each claw pierced the skin as it grew, drawing blood. Kiba gasped at the sudden sharp pain as the claws embedded themselves in his flesh. Lylah’s smile however told him that much worse was to come. Seconds after the claws ceased growing, Kiba again felt the same sensation of something being sucked out of him. This time however, it was not a pleasant feeling as the pain grew by magnitudes. Despite himself, Kiba screamed as the white-hot pain flooded his body. As he writhed in agony, Lylah laughed softly as his spirit flowed out of his body and into hers. “Had enough yet?”
Kiba did not hear her however; all thoughts other than the pain had been overwhelmed. The pain was the worse than he had ever felt, worse even than when the Eldalan soldiers had stabbed him the day before. Yet in the midst of this, at the back of his mind, a voice cut through the pain. “Let me out you idiot before she kills both of us!” Kiba immediately recognised Dace’s harsh tone. A pressure, the feeling of him trying to break through, accompanied his voice. Kiba would rather die then let Dace loose on the world. Between the pain inflicted by Lylah, the draining of his spirit, and Dace railing at him to give in, Kiba could feel himself slipping away bit by bit and Dace getting ever nearer to freedom. Just as he reached the point where he could not struggle any longer, a new voice cut was heard in his mind.
“Don’t give in to him Kiba, you’re stronger than he is and he knows it!”
Dace seemed to yell back at the newcomer, but the damage had already been done. The newcomer’s voice had bolstered Kiba’s resolve, and despite the pain, chuckled to himself. Focusing on the flickering torch behind Lylah, Kiba forced a smile. “You gonna have to try harder than that,” he said to Dace.
“Brave, but stupid.” Lylah, of course, could not hear the voice in Kiba’s head as she fed on his spirit so she assumed that he had been speaking to her. “If that’s how you want it.” Kiba screamed as she increased the rate at which she fed multiplying the amount of pain she inflicted. This time, the boy was unable to take it and mercifully passed into unconsciousness.
Lylah withdrew her claws and looked down at Kiba as she stood up. His skin was pale, covered in sweat and the claw marks on his chest had become small tears, the flesh ripped as he had struggled with the pain. She had taken more than she had intended, loosing her herself in anger when he had resisted. Still, she thought to herself, Kiba had more than enough spirit to give.
Suddenly curious, she left the chamber and made her way through the poorly lit tunnels to another chamber some distance away. In one corner, there was a small bed buried beneath a pile of blankets and rags and against another wall was a table. On this table was the pack that had been ripped from Kiba’s back when he had fallen into the sinkhole. Lylah had retrieved it after she locked him up in her “pantry”; she used the belongings and valuables of her victims for barter and trade. Emptying the contents of the pack onto the table, she discarded the clothes and other supplies and picked out a small leather pouch. Carefully opening it, she took out the small pile of coins and an envelope. There must be at least 60 or 70 coins in the pile, quite a haul for a boy to be carrying around. Even though the coins would prove to be useful, her attention was fixed on the envelope.
The paper was old and yellowed; the back was sealed with a drop of wax indicating that it had probably never been opened. When she had been inside his mind earlier, she had seen an image of this envelope and received the strong impression that somehow it was important. Carefully she broke the seal, took out the letter within and started reading.
Ten minutes later, Lylah found herself standing over the still unconscious Kiba. “So that’s what you are,” she said to herself quietly as she watched his shallow breathing. “The letter explained a lot, too bad you’ll never get to read it.”
The first few drops of rain were starting to fall when Jiro slid to a stop. Ahead of him on the dirt path sat a small grey wolf cub. On the ground in front of Patsu’s paws lay Kiba’s bloodstained shirt. Jiro’s heart skipped a beat when he saw it, even from where he was standing; Jiro could see that some of the blood was still wet. Taking a step forward, he bent down to pick it up but before he could do so, Patsu snatched it up and jumped back out of his reach. Perplexed, Jiro took another step forward and attempted to retrieve the shirt but again, Patsu jumped out of his reach. After a third try, the cub ran a dozen feet down the path and turned, as if waiting for Jiro.
Jiro stood back and sighed, you did not need to be a Royal Guard to understand what was going on. “Ok, I get the message. You want me to follow you is that it?” In response, Patsu yapped and hopped back a couple of steps. “All right then, lead the way.” The cub turned and ran down the path, Jiro chasing close behind. After a few hundred yards, Patsu darted off the path and into the trees. For a brief moment, Jiro wondered whether he was doing the right thing, leaving behind the trail he had been tracking and following the cub. However, he reminded himself that there was only one way the cub could have got hold of the shirt, Kiba must be in serious trouble.
The cub eventually stopped on top of a small hillock, treeless and with limestone rocks protruding from its grassy surface. As Jiro reached the top, he was able to see down the far side and see that it was broken up by boulders and crevasses. Probably the result of countless centuries of erosion and subsidence. Nestled in the shadows at the base of one of the deeper crevasses was the small mouth of a cave. It was to this opening that the cub bounded to and waited patiently for Jiro to catch up. Jiro clambered down into the crevasse and stood before the cave entrance. Rivulets of rainwater dribbled down the rough walls and into the cave, disappearing into the dank darkness. With one his short swords in hand, he pulled a large crystal the size of a chicken egg from a waistcoat pocket. The crystal was a sunstone, a type of crystal known for its ability to soak up light and then release it when the sunstone was in darkness and squeezed. Gently holding the sunstone, the quartz-like crystal emitted a soft white light that illuminated the descending passage. Not knowing precisely what he would find, Jiro carefully entered the cave and made his way down the slippery slope.
Twisting back itself a number of times as it descended, after several hundred yards the tunnel opened up on to a large cavern. Easily large enough to fire an arrow across without striking the far wall, the cavern’s floor was smooth rock whose shape reminded Jiro of gently undulating sand dunes. The effect was only pierced by stalagmites, stalactites, columns and a large pit in the far corner. One-half of the cavern’s floor was occupied by a small lake fed a cascade of clear water flowing out shaft on the cavern’s roof. In the light provided by the sunstone, Jiro could discern a series of worn markings in the cavern floor, the sign of a frequently trodden path. Following the path, Jiro could see that it ran from the lake to a series of hewn stairs near the pit. Moving towards the stairs, as he passed the pit the faint smell of decay assaulted Jiro’s senses. Apprehensively, he crept up the edge of the pit and peered down. Its base was hidden in darkness, beyond the sunstone’s light but the walls of the pit were riddled with ledges. The ledges were covered with bones and, in some cases, partially decomposed body parts. Jiro was no stranger to scenes of carnage, he had seen friends and comrades killed in battle before, but there was something about the charnel pit that bothered even him.
Patsu dropped the shirt and bit at the cuff of Jiro’s pants, tugging him towards the stairs. Leaving the pit behind, Jiro followed the cub up the slippery stairs and into a tunnel that sloped upwards. After five minutes of negotiating a maze-like warren of tunnels and chambers, the pup stopped and dropped into a defensive posture, growling lightly. Up ahead, the flicking glow from a torch could be seen approaching from around the bend. Quickly scooping up the wolf club, Jiro ducked into a side passage and crouched behind a stalagmite. Placing the sunstone on the floor, it ceased emitting its light and the passage was engulfed by darkness again. Jiro did not have to wait long as a yellow scaled, female humanoid, walked past heading in the direction of the cavern. One hand she carried a torch and the other was dragging a body. To Jiro’s immense relief, the body was that of an adult in an early state of decomposition. As soon as she had passed around another corner and the flickering torchlight could no longer be seen, Jiro picked up the sunstone and continued down the corridor, Patsu trailing just behind.
When Jiro came to a fork in the tunnel, he bent down and examined the floor. There was blood on the floor, from the angle and direction of the smears Jiro could tell that someone had been dragged down the right tunnel. Patsu ran down the tunnel and through the barred grate at the end into the chamber beyond. The chamber was lit by a single torch and, by its light, Jiro could see Kiba slumped against and chained to the wall.
He quickly broke the lock securing the grate and rushed over to the boy. Kiba was unconscious but thankfully still alive. Using a dagger, Jiro snapped several rusted links freeing Kiba from the wall and floor before gently laying him down. For the time being he could do nothing about the neck collar or the shackles around Kiba’s wrists and ankles, they would have to wait until later. Jiro took a canteen of water and poured some of its contents onto Kiba’s face. Spluttering, the boy regained consciousness but it took several moments for his eyes to focus. “Are you okay to walk? We need to get out of here as soon as possible.” Jiro asked quickly, concerned that the creature could return at any time.
Kiba, for his part, seemed to have trouble concentrating and for a brief second seemed unable to recognise Jiro. Weakly, he tried to push Jiro away before responding, his speech slurred. “Piss off; I’m not falling for it again.”
Jiro grabbed the boy’s chin and forced him to look the older man in the eye. “Kiba, I need you to focus.” It was no use; Kiba did not seem to hear him.
“You’re in my mind again, showing me what I want to see.” As he spoke, his eyes began to flutter as he started to loose consciousness again. In response, Jiro reached into another pocket and pulled out a small vial of clear liquid. Popping the waxed cork stopper with his thumb, he forcibly opened Kiba’s mouth, poured the liquid into the boy’s mouth, and then held the mouth closed. He had to act quickly, the moment the liquid was exposed to the air and came into contact with the heat of the body; it evaporated becoming an odourless, invisible gas that acted as a powerful stimulant. It took effect as soon as Kiba breathed it in, increasing his heart rate, breathing and the flow of blood to his brain. Almost instantly, his eyes snapped open showing much more alertness than before. “Jiro? What the hell are you doing here?”
“You with me?” Jiro asked as he helped Kiba up. The boy nodded, still unsteady on his feet and needing Jiro’s help to stand. “Good, because we need to get out of here fast. Afterwards, you can fill me in on what you’re doing down here and then you can explain why you thought it necessary to bean me on the back of the head.”
Kiba smiled weakly at Jiro’s attempt at humour. “Oh … that.”
“Yes ‘That.’” Jiro said as he lifted up the grate and helped Kiba underneath it.
“How did you find me?”
“He showed me,” nodding towards Patsu who followed the pair close behind.
“So the little fella has a name them, looks like you made a friend.”
As Jiro helped Kiba down the tunnel, he knew that if they did not move faster they would be caught. But as he looked over at the boy’s pained and slightly woozy expression, he realised that it was probably a miracle that he was on his feet at all.
Suddenly Kiba stopped, his hand flying to his neck as if searching for something. “Shit,” Kiba cried, “where is it?” Kiba had just realised that his pendant was missing. Panicking, he frantically tried to go back to the chamber to search for it but was stopped when Jiro grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back.
“Where’s what?” Jiro asked confused.
Kiba opened his mouth as if to say something but instead looked down at his feet. “Nothing,” he mumbled.
Lylah dumped the body of the hunter over the side of the pit and watched as it tumbled into the darkness and vanished. She was about to turn and head back to the stairs when she noticed something lying on the floor on the far side of the pit. Picking it up, Lylah quickly realised that it was the shirt belonging to Kiba that he had taken off while in the sinkhole earlier. There was no reason why it should be down here. Inspecting the shirt, she noticed a damp patch surrounding a cluster of small holes. They were bite marks and the dampness had been caused by saliva. “Patsu,” she cursed as she saw a series of boot and paw prints heading towards the stairs.
Leaning on Jiro for support, Kiba followed Patsu as he lead them up the left hand fork to what he hoped was the surface. They passed a number of side tunnels and chambers, one of which was lit by torches. As they hurried past it, Kiba stole a glance inside. He saw the contents of his pack emptied on the table inside along with his other equipment. Pulling away from Jiro, he stumbled inside and began to frantically search through the pile.
Jiro followed him into the chamber and tried to pull him away from the table. “We haven’t got time for this!”
“I’m not leaving without it!” Kiba snapped back, a determined look on his face.
“Without what?” Jiro asked exasperatedly.
“My pendant!” Jiro immediately knew what Kiba was talking about; after all, he had been the one that gave Ren the pendant to give to the boy. He could understand how much that pendant might mean to him, as it was the only link between him and his mother. “Found it,” a relieved Kiba said as he plucked the steel chain from the pile of clothes. Putting it on, he held the crystal as he closed his eyes as if in silent prayer.
Sweeping the rest of the items into the pack since they might as well take everything with them, Jiro noticed the silver disk hanging on the chain next to the pendant. “Where did you get that?” He asked pointing at the disk.
“This?” Kiba said quietly holding the disk, “I found it in a box under dad’s bed. I … think it belonged to him.” Kiba swayed as he said this, almost falling to the floor. The stimulant was starting to wear off.
Picking up the pack and Kiba’s weapons, he put an arm around the boy and guided him out of the chamber. “Time to go.”
Following Patsu, they soon felt fresh air on their faces and could see sunlight filtering into the cave from an opening ahead.
Lylah slammed the bars of the grate in anger, screaming a curse. Somehow, the boy had got loose, probably with help. Running down the passageway, she slid into her sleeping chamber. As she expected, the boy’s things were gone from the table. Picking up a crossbow from a wall rack, she checked the tension of the bowstring before picking up a quiver containing a number of bolts. Each of the bolts had a leather cap covering the head of the bolt. When Lylah locked the bowstring in place and loaded one of the bolts, she removed its leather cap. When she did so, the metal of the head glistened as it was covered by a sticky substance.
Careful to prick herself with the bolt head, she set off down the passageway towards the sinkhole entrance.
As Jiro and Kiba left the cave, the rain had now become heavy, falling from the oppressively low grey clouds and striking the ground in great moving sheets. “Good,” Jiro said as they stepped into the torrential downpour, “the rain should mask our trail somewhat, making it harder for those following us to track us.”
“Silver lining huh?” Kiba asked weakly.
“You got it kiddo, come on, stay with me.”
Kiba managed a laugh, “I thought I told you I’m not a kid any more.”
Jiro cried out in pain, stiffened and fell forward taking Kiba with him. Looking over at Jiro, Kiba saw a crossbow bolt sticking out of his back. For a brief, panicky second, Kiba feared the worst but he saw the Jiro was still breathing and his eyes were open. Meanwhile Patsu had turned to face the cave and was growling, aggressively. Kiba turned and looked in the direction that Patsu was growling.
Lylah stood there calmly loading another bolt. “Interesting thing about petra flowers, crushing the stamens produces a powerful paralysing toxin.” Kiba drew one of Jiro’s short swords and attempted to get to his feet, falling back down. “The toxin is short lived but extremely fast acting. It starts breaking down in the blood almost immediately and within a few minutes, it has almost completely dissipated. What was on the bolt is just enough to cause instantaneous and near total paralysis of the voluntary muscles.” Lylah began to walk slowly forward, aiming the crossbow at Jiro. “A second bolt will unfortunately cause paralysis in the autonomic muscles such as the heart and lungs. Death follows within minutes and I’ve been told it’s quite painful.” Taking aim, she pulled the trigger and fired the bolt at Jiro’s prone back. Kiba lunged forward, interposing himself between the bolt and Jiro. Raising the short sword, Kiba just managed to bring it up in time, sending the bolt ricocheting harmlessly to the sinkhole’s wall. The sword was knocked out of his hand by the force of the impact. “Impressive, but that won’t stop be from killing that man and dragging you back to you cell.
Pulling out her third and final bolt, she locked the bowstring and loaded the bolt. Lylah decided to shoot Kiba, slit Jiro’s throat and drag the paralysed boy back to the cell. When she lifted the crossbow and aimed at Kiba, she was surprised to see that he had managed to get to his feet. He still looked unsteady, and his head was down looking at the floor, his hair hiding his face. Regardless, she fired the bolt.
In a display of blurred movement, Kiba’s hand whipped up and grabbed the bolt out of the air. In an effortless display of strength, he snapped the bolt snapped in his hand, dropping the two broken halves to the ground.
“How the…” Lylah whispered.
“In the last 24 hours,” Kiba began without looking up, “I’ve been shot at, stabbed, chased, beaten and nearly raped by some shape changing freak.” Kiba looked up at her, brushing his hair out of his face. “I’m through playing the victim.”
A few hours before dawn, Madraday the 10th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
Several miles east of Sandown
Kiba scrambled to his feet and began to back away from Dace. “What’s going on? What the fuck are you?” He asked in a shaky voice as Dace got up and faced him. The small boy began to grow in size as he fixed a disturbing grin upon his face. His hair grew longer and wilder, like Kiba’s and he slowly filled out the shirt that Kiba had given him until he resembled Kiba in both size and appearance. For all purposes, he was a mirror image of Kiba, albeit with the additional monstrous features of fangs, claws, pointed ears and a row of spikes down his spine.
“Fifteen years,” Dace said quietly, menacingly, “for fifteen damned years I’ve been stuck here, watching you play happy families with that old man.”
“Just stay back, whatever you are,” cried Kiba was he picked up a branch and tried to ward off the thing in front of him. Dace swiped at the branch with an open claw, splintering the wood into fragments. Kiba stumbled back from the splintering branch and backed into the trunk of a large tree. As he tried to dodge around the tree, Dace darted forward and slashed at Kiba’s bare chest with his other claw, slicing the flesh. Before Kiba had a chance to respond, Dace gave a him a powerful two-handed shove that sent him to the floor.
“Shut it,” Dace spat as he picked Kiba up by the neck, holding him against tree, “if it wasn’t for me, we’d be dead right now. You’re just a pathetic weakling and without me, those soldiers would have butchered you like a farm animal.”
“What are you talking about?” Kiba croaked as he struggled for breath. Dace was gently squeezing his throat in a calculated show of strength and dominance, restricting the flow of air into his lungs but not cutting it off entirely as Kiba beat ineffectually at his arms. Dace leaned forward until their faces were just a few inches apart.
“Let me refresh that memory of yours blackout boy. Remember back at the farm when you tried to take on those soldiers by yourself? Remember how they kicked your arse and how one of them sliced open your gut while the other stabbed you in the back?”
Kiba did remember, he remembered passing out from the wounds only to wake up to find them miraculously healed and the three surviving soldiers dead. Although he had been more concerned about his father at the time, afterwards the incident had bothered him more than he had cared to admit. None of it made any sense and by rights, it should have been him who was dead, not the soldiers. However, as Dace spoke, he started to recall things that he hadn’t remembered before. The look of sheer terror on the soldiers faces, their screams as they were torn apart and the nauseating taste of their blood. “It was you,” Kiba whispered, “you killed them. The soldiers, somehow you tore them apart like some sort of animal.”
Dace laughed sharply grinning a fanged smile. “You really have no idea what you are, do you?” He lifted Kiba off the floor with both hands and began to strangle the boy. “Not that it matters anyway, you’ll be dead in a couple of minutes and then I’ll be free. I guess the first thing I’ll do is do some finger painting with Jiro’s intestines. Of course,” Dace giggled, “removing them is liable to be a little painful. For him at least.” As Dace gloated, Kiba’s vision began to fade but as Dace made his threat towards Jiro Kiba’s eyes snapped back into sharp focus. Red mist began to creep into the edges of his vision and his stare at Dace was so intense that Dace’s speech faltered.
“You. Stay. Away. From. Him.” Kiba growled and the pupils in his eyes starting to glow. He grabbed Dace’s arms with a pair of clawed hands and slowly pushed them apart, forcing Dace to release his grip on Kiba’s neck. Dace’s smug, confident demeanour began to crack in the face of Kiba’s unexpected resistance. He strained against Kiba’s grip but the boy’s hands were locked tight and Dace could not move his arms even an inch from where Kiba wanted them. Suddenly Kiba’s head lunged forward, his forehead smashing into Dace’s nose. With a crunch, the nose broke spraying blood everywhere. Dace staggered backwards clutching his nose and tripped over a tree root landing unceremoniously on his arse.
“Bastard,” he cursed, “you broke my fucking nose!”
“I don’t care what the fuck you are any more,” Kiba yelled as the kicked Dace in the head knocking him onto his side where Kiba continued to repeatedly kick his side, “I’m gonna kill you!” As Dace lay on the floor Kiba picked up a rock and prepared to bring it smashing down on to Dace’s head.
Dace laughed painfully, coughing up blood. “You can’t kill me, not here anyway. When you were nine and you fought back against that bully despite the fact that he was twice your age and nearly twice your size, I’m the part of you that broke both his arms and continued to beat on him even after he begged for mercy. That little runt that followed you around the village all the time? Busa or something? I’m the part that would have readily wrung his scrawny neck to make him stop bugging you. When those soldiers caught up with him, I would have happily sat there and listened to his screams. Every dark impulse, every violent thought, that’s me. I’m the part of you that you inherited from your true father, not that weak human whore of a mother. I’m part of you and I always will be.” As Dace spoke, Kiba’s resolve wavered, he started to lower the rock, his claws retracted, and his eyes stopped glowing. “The funny thing is, if it wasn’t for the farm, we’d never have met. In that moment when you were dying, all your hate and anger, all that frustration at being unable to save Ren, it opened a doorway. And for a short while, I was free in the waking world. But the thing about that doorway is, once opened, it’s impossible to close all the way again. Eventually, you’ll let your guard down, you’ll slip up. When that happens, next time I’ll make sure my stay is permanent. I’ll even let you watch from in here as I destroy everything you hold dear starting with that bastard Jiro.”
“You may be right,” Kiba said quietly, “I might not be able to kill. But that won’t stop me from doing this.” He raised the rock above him and smashed it down onto Dace’s head. It took three strikes for Dace to stop twitching. When he was done, he dropped the rock and looked at Dace’s body for a few seconds without emotion before turning and walking off towards the trees.
Dace cracked upon an eye and coughed up a glob of blood. “You think this changes anything spawn breath?” Kiba paused without turning as Dace spoke.
“What did you call me?” Kiba asked, speaking barely above a whisper.
“You heard me. You’re a daemon, an abomination, a creature of pure evil, a plague on mankind, a Titan Spawn. Half human, half titan, on your father’s side. You’re blood father that is.” Dace laughed coughing up a bit more blood as Kiba clenched his fists and hunched his shoulders. “Oops, I guess it looks like Daddy never told you who your parents were did he … no wait, that’s not it is it? Ren didn’t just not tell you, he lied to you didn’t he?” Unable and unwilling to hear any more, Kiba ran off into the trees, Dace’s pained laughter ringing in his ears.
As soon as Kiba was out of sight, a figure stepped out from the opposite direction. He was the same age as Kiba and like Dace, resembled him physically except unlike Dace he appeared completely human and had short black hair and piercing blue eyes. Around his neck hung a small blue crystal on a steel chain, identical to Kiba’s.
“Dace,” the newcomer admonished, “you are such a jerk sometimes.”
“Yeah,” Dace retorted as he slowly picked himself up off the floor, “what you gonna do about it normal boy.” The newcomer backed away as Dace approached. “Yeah, thought so. Now piss off before I drop kick you to the face again.”
Jiro looked over at Kiba’s sleeping form, the boy had tossed and turned throughout the night. Occasionally mumbling or groaning in his sleep. Bad dreams, Jiro mused, but who could blame him. The day had been rough for everyone but thankfully, the night had been quiet.
As the first vestiges of light began to show on the eastern horizon, it Kiba’s turn to be on watch. Jiro got up, walked around the smouldering remains of the campfire, knelt over the boy, and began to gently shake him awake. Kiba’s eyes snapped open and as quick as a blur, he reached under his pack that he was using as a pillow and grasped the handle of the hunting knife. Faster than he Jiro’s eyes could follow, Kiba brought the knife slashing upward, stopping just less than an inch from Jiro’s throat.
“Whoa, easy! It’s just me,” said Jiro as he gently moved the knife away.
With a sheepish grin, and now fully awake, Kiba sheathed the knife. “Sorry, bad dream.”
“Ah-huh,” nodded Jiro, “remind me never to wake you in the morning without putting armour on first. Anyway, time to get up squirt it’s your turn on watch.” Jiro was weary from exhaustion and as he picked up a blanket and turned to make part of the ground comfortable to sleep on, he didn’t notice that Kiba watched him closely, intently. With his back turned he didn’t see the boy silently pick up a heavy and unburned piece of firewood. Stealthily, Kiba crept up behind Jiro and brought the makeshift club smashing down hard onto the back of Jiro’s head. The man’s eyes rolled upwards and he crumpled to the floor unconscious. Kiba stood over the defenceless form for several seconds holding his breath before dropping the makeshift club and kneeling down next to Jiro. He gingerly felt for a pulse and having found one, released a relieved gasp of breath. Kiba silently thanked the gods that the blow had only stunned him as he had intended as he quickly attempted to make Jiro comfortable.
“Sorry,” he said quietly as he picked up his pack, a few supplies and his weapons, “I wish there was another way, but I hope you take the hint. Where I’m going, you can’t follow.” He checked Jiro one last time, tenderly placing both blankets over him. “Goodbye, uncle.” Kiba avoided looking back as he left, running through the woods in the early dawn light holding back tears. If he had, he might have had second thoughts about what he was doing but for Jiro’s sake, he needed to put as much distance between the two of them. He had no destination in mind; Kiba hadn’t thought that far ahead, he just knew that he had to get away.
When Jiro regained consciousness some time later, he groaned and clutched the back of his head, cursing in several colourful languages. It took him a few minutes to realise what had happened and when he looked around and saw that Kiba was gone, his cursing reached new levels of vulgarity. The sun had just begun to climb into the sky, Jiro saw as he quickly packed up his gear, he couldn’t be more than an hour or two behind the boy, whatever that idiot was thinking. Whatever Kiba’s reason for attacking him, Jiro thought as he set off in pursuit, it had better be good.
Kiba had been running through the woods for a couple of hours when he finally had to rest. He stopped at the bottom of a wooded scar-like ravine. A brook cascaded over the steep sides forming a waterfall that plunged into a pool of crystalline waters before continuing down the ravine. Shrugging off his pack, Kiba cupped his hands in the water, splashing some of it onto his face before refilling his canteen and taking a long drink of the cold water. When he stretched out over the water again to refill the canteen a second time, he winced in pain, his hand moving to his chest. Kiba put the canteen down gently on the grass and proceeded to take his shirt off. When he did so, he could clearly see four ragged and red tears across the skin of his abdomen. A wound identical to one that Dace had inflicted on him last night. Although that had only been a dream, Kiba was sure that somehow, it wasn’t just an identical wound, it was the exact same wound.
Whatever its origin it was starting to sting like sin and the skin around the cuts was beginning to turn an angry shade of red. He reached behind him for his pack pulled out a small vial and a bundle of cloth strips. Kiba held his breath as he applied the yellow ointment to the cuts, he didn’t know exactly what it was made of but it smelt of cow urine and he suspected that that might be its chief ingredient. Gently he placed cloth strips along the length of the cuts and the ointments adhesive properties held them firm against the skin.
When he placed the vial back into his pack, his hand brushed against a small leather pouch. Hesitating slightly, he pulled it out, opened it and looked at the contents. It contained the gold coins and the envelope that he had retrieved from the box under Ren’s bed. Also inside was the small silver disc with Ren’s name inscribed upon it. As he held the disc in his hand, it was warm to the touch and the metal felt slick and wet even though it was dry. Kiba held the disc up to the morning sun, letting the soft light play across the gold etched symbol on one side. He had seen that symbol before, he would swear to it but for the life of him, he could not remember where. It was the only thing that he had left that belonged to his father, Ren and as the wind gently rustled the leaves on the trees around him; Kiba undid the chain he wore around his neck. He threaded the steel chain through the eye and let the disk slide down the chain and chink gently against the blue crystal.
Apart from the gold coins, the only thing left in the pouch now was the letter. Since leaving the farm yesterday, Kiba had not had a chance to open and read it. Since he needed to rest for a few minutes to catch his breath, he decided that now was a good time. However, he was hesitant to open it. Regardless of what Dace had said, Ren was the only father he had ever known even if he wasn’t his blood father. All the same, Ren had literally used the last moments of his life trying to tell Kiba the truth about them. With that in mind, Kiba broke the seal and opened the envelope. He was about to take out the letter, when he heard the sound of singing drifting in on the wind.
Quickly he stuffed the envelope back into the pouch, picked up his pack, donned his shirt and slung his quiver and scabbard. Scrambling up the steep side of the ravine, he stopped and turned towards the source of the singing. The voice was gentle and soft, most likely that of a woman. Although Kiba couldn’t understand the words, the singing itself was beautiful and extremely soothing. Against his better judgement, Kiba climbed back down the slope and began to creep downstream towards the voice. The brook followed the course of the ravine, bending around a blind corner before tumbling down into a small sinkhole before descending further into the depths. Almost as if he was stalking some game animal, Kiba slowly crawled on his belly towards the edge of the 30ft drop into the sinkhole. Hiding behind and amongst a group of bushes, he peeked over the edge.
Below him, by a pool that covered half of the base of the sinkhole, was a girl that was roughly Kiba’s age, perhaps a little older. She was lying back on a rock that jutted out into the pool letting her feet dangle lazily into the cool, clear waters. Her voice resonated perfectly with the natural acoustics of the sinkhole creating an almost ethereal quality to the song she was singing. The girls long brown hair was splayed out haphazardly on the surface of the rock. Shimmering in the sunlight, it created a halo-like effect around her head that framed her face. Her clothing, a pair of rough cloth pants and matching shirt was wet and next to her was a collection of small fishes drying on the rock. A small grey wolf cub lounged on her chest, baring its fangs in a lazy yawn as she stroked its back, singing to it.
Kiba lay on his front as he watched the girl below, barely daring to breath. There had been a few girls his age in Benbridge but none of them had been as beautiful as her. The way the sunlight highlighted her hair, her heavenly voice, the way the cub nestled snugly between her … Kiba sighed, as if a girl like her would ever give him the time of day. He lingered for a few moments watching her before realising that he should probably go. Shifting his weight, he began to shuffle back while crouching on all fours. As he did so, the ground beneath him gave way pitching him over the edge into the sinkhole. For a few seconds, he fell through the air his arms flailing as he cried out. Halfway down the cliff was a nest of branches and as he fell through them, one of the thicker branches hooked itself onto the straps of his pack. Kiba’s fall was momentarily arrested but the sudden tug by the branch turned him upside down and tore the pack and quiver from his back. His fall resumed and he struck a slope at the base of the cliff, sliding down the steep gravel slope head first for the final few feet before coming to an unceremonious stop sitting on his head, his shirt flopping down to cover his face.
As the dust settled, Kiba heard a low growl and slowly lifted up the flap of his shirt. From his upside down perspective, he saw the small wolf club crouched and growling in front of him, its fangs bared. It would’ve been cute if it wasn’t standing at the feet of the girl who was now scowling and brandishing a spear whose point was only inches from his neck.
Kiba grinned nervously, his cheeks burning. “Er … Hi?”
Late Afternoon, Corday the 9th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
The Toshiko Farm on the outskirts of Benbridge
Her travelling robes splattered with mud from the walk through the village, Imperial Legate Yrsa Baugsdottir held a cloth to her nose and mouth as she surveyed the carnage. Next to her, Strike Captain Soti Serksson appraised his companion. With her braided blond hair, flawless fair skin and deep blue eyes, she appeared to be in her mid to late twenties. However, Soti mused, her status as a mage could put her real age anywhere between 20 and 120. Some said that the High Archon himself was over 200 years old. “What in the name of the gods happened here captain?” Yrsa asked Soti, breaking the hushed silence in the field.
“I was hoping you would tell me,” Soti responded sighing in exasperation, “that is after all why I summoned a diviner.”
“Oh, yes, sorry.” Yrsa blushed as she stammered her reply. “Forgive me; this is my first time on the battlefield.” Soti grunted as Yrsa got to work marking the divination circle on the ground near the dismembered bodies of the Eldalan soldiers. Bloody mages, he though to himself, ready to make all the decisions but lacking the stomach to see the effects for themselves.
One of the soldiers in the farmyard down the dirt track called out to Soti. “Captain Serksson, we’ve found something you should see.” Leaving Yrsa under the watchful eye of two of his subordinates, Soti began to jog back down the track towards the farmyard. Two soldiers were busy digging up a shallow grave that had been located next to an apple tree in the centre of the yard. The soldier that had called out to him was standing in front of the farmhouse and was part of a group that had been ordered to search the house. Four soldiers sent to get rid of the inhabitants of this farm had turned up dead, three of them torn limb from limb. This was a great cause of concern since little resistance from this village had been expected. Next to him, sitting on a small wooden bench and drinking from a waterskin, was a man dressed in the clothes of an Eldalan Ranger. Soti saw that the soldier was holding something five feet long and wrapped in cloth.
“What’ve you found soldier.” Barked Soti as he approached the young soldier who was barely out of his teens.
“It’s just like what Master Asbosson said,” the soldier began, “looks like just two people lived here. A farmer and his son. Didn’t find anything out of the ordinary until we checked the loft then we found this.” The soldier removed the cloth wrappings to reveal a gleaming sword and he handed it to his captain. Soti held the sword and began to examine it closely. Its silver blade had an iridescent finish with a faint yellow sheen wherever the blade caught the sunlight. The blade itself seemed to have whorl-like markings ingrained into the metal. Unusually, the sword did not have a hilt guard where the blade joined the hilt. Instead, it had a large circular inset made of something that looked like red obsidian only it seemed much tougher. Etched in yellow into the inset was the crest of the Kingdom of Arcadia. When Soti saw the inset his eyes widened in a mixture of awe and respect.
Speaking in a hushed voice, he turned to the soldier. “This sword, the blade is made of Sun Steel. A metal forged from a type of iron ore found only in the Desert of Geb and this inset is made from Blood Stone. Incredibly rare, it’s said to be made from the crystallised blood of the last dragon to fly above the forests of Northern Arcadia who died over a century ago.”
“So, it’s worth a lot then?” The soldier asked ignorantly prompting a laugh from Master Ranger Lars Asbosson who got up and joined Soti and the soldier.
“Is it worth a lot? This sword is crafted by master artisans,” explained Lars, “by special request of the King of Arcadia himself. It is only given to those people who have served with distinction with the Royal Guards. It’s a crime for anyone other than them or their descendants to possess such a sword.” The three men looked at the sword, a newfound respect on their faces.
“What’s it doing here then?” The young soldier asked to no one in particular.
“That’s a very good question,” Said Soti, “Lars; your orders were to investigate anything unusual in the target area prior to the attack. I think you will agree that this definitely qualifies as unusual.”
Lars passed the waterskin to Soti as he pulled out a small notebook from an inside pocket. “Let’s see,” he began as he flipped through the pages before finding the right one, “the Toshiko farm. According to my information an old farmer named Ren and his teenage son were the only inhabitants.” Lars pointed over to the apple tree. “I’d venture that the initials T and R on that tree are a makeshift grave marker for the father.”
Soti took a swig from the waterskin, quenching his dry throat before responding. “Anything odd about either of them?”
“No, not really,” Lars replied after thinking about it for a few seconds.
“That wasn’t exactly a resounding no.”
“Well, the kid and the father weren’t related by blood. According to the village gossip, the old man adopted him about 15 years ago as an infant. I saw the kid once walking through the village. He didn’t look like a local either with that green hair of his.
“Green?” Soti asked with a raised eyebrow. Lars’s response was pre-empted by a cough from behind them. The three men had failed to notice her as she approached and quietly eavesdropped on their conversation. Soti was about to ask her how long she had been standing there when Yrsa spoke first.
“Strike Captain Serksson, Master Ranger Asbosson,” she began accompanied by a respectful slight bow, “I have completed my divinations and am ready to make my report.”
“Well?” Soti asked impatiently.
“Oh, well, it appears your men arrived at the farmhouse as planned. They found one person, a late middle-aged man, in the kitchen. They searched the house for any other occupants and finding none took him outside and despatched him. At this point a boy, probably no more than 14 or 15 ran down from the tree line waving a sword about. I get the impression that the man might have been his father. His anger might have given him courage but it sadly did not impart any skill with a blade and he was outmatched and quickly over powered. Unfortunately for your men before they would deal a killing blow, a mounted huntsman arrived shooting the squad leader in the neck with his bow before …” at this point Yrsa went pale and her handkerchief again went to her mouth as she seemed to experience the divination a second time “… setting his hunting hounds on your men, tearing them apart. Afterwards they buried the body of the farmer and escaped on horseback heading north together.” Yrsa pointed in the direction in which the unsaddled horses had charged off in her vision, conveniently leaving a set of tracks to follow.
“Is that all?” asked Soti to which Yrsa simply nodded. “Very well then, thank you for your assistance, the soldier here will escort you back to the village to see that you get to the portal safely.”
“Pleasure to be of service Captain Serksson, your quarry should only be a half-days ride away at most. Good luck.” And with that, the young soldier saluted and followed Yrsa back towards the village. After she had entered the trees and was out of sight and earshot, Lars motioned to Soti to follow him and the two men walked far enough away from the farmyard to ensure that they were not overheard but their men.
“She’s lying.” Lars stated without ceremony.
“I’m not a Ranger like you Lars, but even I can tell that there were no animal tracks around the bodies.” Soti agreed. “She’s too smart to get it wrong so the question is why did she lie?”
“I don’t know, but I do know that those horse tracks she told us to follow were made by riderless horses. I did find two sets of fresh footprints heading away from the farm to the east. I suggest that we send the bulk of the men to follow the phantom horse tracks while you, me and three of your best men follow the real tracks to the east.”
Soti thought about the plan before responding. “Sounds good, meet back here in one hour. I’m beginning to suspect that there is more to this Toshiko kid than Yrsa was letting on.”
Yrsa knocked smartly on the door to the chambers belonging to the head of her order, The Circle of Tarun Kar, and waited until permission was given to enter. The chamber was silent save for the crackling fire in the fireplace and the scratching of quill on parchment. The master, a middle-aged 6-foot tall man with blond hair and blue eyes, the archetypal Eldalan, sat behind the desk in his voluminous studying a series of ledgers. The man was Baug Jokulsson and he was Yrsa’s father.
“I swear Yrsa, how is that the most secret society in all of the Empire produces more paperwork than the entire Imperial Bureaucracy?” He asked no one in particular as he sighed and pushed his chair back from the desk. Baug walked around the desk and stood in front of Yrsa. She looked up into her father’s face and smiled.
“It’s good to see you too father,” she said as father and daughter embraced warmly, “although I’d take an Arcadian spring over one of ours any day. It’s freezing in here.” Her father laughed and waved a hand towards the crackling fire in the hearth. As his fingers traced a series of motions in the air, the flames erupted upwards, roaring with a heat that filled the room.
“Sorry, sometimes it’s easy to forget how cold it can get without these damnable robes of office,” he apologised, “speaking of Arcadia, how was your mission?”
Yrsa walked over to the desk and picked up a juicy looking apple from a bowl. Biting into it, she savoured every crunch as she spoke. “It is just as we thought; the presence we detected in Benbridge was that of the titan spawn. It seems the reason why we were unable to determine its exact identity and location was that it is an immature specimen barely aware of its true potential.”
Baug opened a locked desk drawer and withdrew a scroll case. Within which was a detailed map of Arcadia will all its towns, villages and border settlements marked on it. A small number of these, less than half a dozen, had been highlighted. One of these highlighted locations was Benbridge and that village was the only highlighted location that hadn’t been recently crossed out. “Considering you are referring to it in the present tense, I can assume that it is still alive then.” Yrsa nodded her confirmation. “Good, if we’re lucky we might be able to find it before it gets itself killed.”
“There’s more, it seems that the immature spawn was under the care of a former member of Arcadia’s Royal Guards and is now under the protection of another of their number.” Yrsa commented as she finished her apple.
Baug’s head snapped up, mild surprise evident in his eyes. “Are you sure? The Arcadians had a kill on sight policy towards titan spawn last time I checked.”
“Although I’m not sure if the spawn is aware of his true nature yet, I got the distinct impression that both the guardian that was killed by the troops and the protector that left with the spawn both were aware.”
As Yrsa described the full flow of events that she had seen in her vision, Baug sat down at the desk absorbing all she said. “Interesting, an immature spawn completely unaware of his nature and raised as a normal human. Very interesting indeed. If his sire truly is Hrinruuk, as his mark suggests, then we may have finally found the key that we have been searching for. To think, the culmination of centuries of planning depends on a mere child. It is imperative that we locate him before the Emperor’s Finest catch him.” He got up and walked over to the fire where Yrsa joined him as he looked into the flames. “Does this Serksson suspect anything?”
“No father,” she replied, “I spun him some line about hunting dogs and sent them north instead of east. It’ll take that man weeks to figure out he’s going in the wrong direction.”
Baug looked at his daughter reproachfully as he summoned a servant from the corridor outside, “Yrsa dear, I’ve told you before about assuming stupidity amongst those not gifted with magic.” In response, Yrsa merely rolled her eyes.
The servant entered unobtrusively as she was trained to do, moving with agility and purpose despite the sightless white orbs where her eyes should be. She knelt in one knee, awaiting a command from her master.
“Assemble the Talon’s,” Baug instructed the servant without acknowledging her presence, “it seems they have a hunt on their hands.”
After the servant had left the room, Yrsa turned to her father. “Father, given what our soldiers have done to his home, the spawn’s cooperation will be hard to secure and it is unlikely it will come quietly.”
“We do not need his consent, just his blood.”
Just Past Noon, Corday the 9th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
The Toshiko Farm on the outskirts of Benbridge
As Jiro paid his respects at Ren’s makeshift grave, led a trio of horses out into the yard. Jiro watched with some confusion as Kiba gently stroked the sides of the unsaddled horses heads, whispering quietly. The three horses took off, charging in a circle around the yard before galloping off into the woods. After Kiba had picked up his pack and joined Jiro, he turned to the boy. “What was all that about?”
“Nothing,” he responded as he adjusted the straps on his pack, “I just told them to run as fast as they could and not come back because it wasn’t safe here any more.”
Jiro raised an eyebrow quizzically, “And they understood that?”
“Of course, horses aren’t stupid, they’re very intelligent animals,” Kiba answered with an indignant expression on his face.
“Have you got everything you need?” asked Jiro. Kiba nodded reluctantly. “Then we better get going.” Jiro turned towards the dirt track out of the yard and began to walk towards the gate. He stopped as he realised that Kiba was not following him. The boy was looking back towards the house, a nervous and apprehensive expression on face.
“I’ve lived in this house all my life,” Kiba began, “Gods, I’ve never been further out of the village than Sandown.” Jiro walked over to him, stopping alongside. He put a hand on Kiba’s shoulder and turned him so that the two were facing each other. Looking down at Kiba, and seeing the fear and worry in the boy’s eye’s, he was suddenly reminded that, whatever the manner of his birth Kiba was still half-human. That human side could feel fear just as much as any full-blooded human. However, right now there was precious little time to reassure the boy. Any minute now, Eldalan troops could arrive looking for their missing patrol.
“Kiba, we have to go. It’s just not safe to stay here for much longer,” The boy nodded his understanding, his eyes lingering on the mound of disturbed earth by the apple tree for second before he turned his back on his home and followed Jiro down the dirt track.
They walked in silence through the woods as they left Benbridge behind. Only the occasional word passed between the two as they skirted around the main road out of the village and kept to the little used dirt tracks and paths. Although they could have travelled faster on horseback, it’s easier to follow horse tracks than footprints and they would have had to keep to the better maintained roads. This way, they could sneak past any patrols without being spotted or heard. Jiro had not been happy about parting with his horse, they had been together for many years but every mote of his training told them they would have a better chance on foot. Kiba had grown up in these woods hunting with by himself and with his father and he knew every track and every path through these woods. Armed with that knowledge they managed to evade the patrols and leave Benbridge far behind.
When the sun began to dip below the horizon later that evening, Jiro decided to call a halt and hunker down for the night. They made camp in a small hollow surrounded on all sides by dense woodland and nestled between several small hills far from the nearest track or road. While Jiro crawled through the undergrowth around the clearing laying down trip lines, Kiba set to work gathering firewood as the temperature started to drop. Jiro returned to the clearing to find the boy sitting next to a crackling fire, wrapped in a blanket and staring into the flames.
Kiba had been quiet since they had passed Sandown earlier that afternoon. The town seemed to have faced a similar fate as Benbridge, several buildings were burning and a number of fires had coalesced into a conflagration that threatened to raze the town to the ground. No movement could be seen and no attempt appeared to have been made to put out the fires. From their vantage point in the hills above town they had a seen a number of bodies lying in the streets and as they had circled around the town they had crossed the boot tracks of heavily armed soldiers. Jiro had surmised that they were probably left by Eldalan troops chasing after survivors that had escaped the massacre at Sandown. Kiba had wanted to go after them but Jiro had stopped him, arguing that it would be suicide to charge after them. Heated words had been exchanged between the two but Kiba had reluctantly agreed in the end. Since that incident, Kiba had hardly spoken a word to Jiro and as they sat around the fire sharing a pack of trail rations, the silence was uncomfortable but it was Kiba that broke it first.
“Where are we going?” Kiba suddenly asked.
Jiro looked up before answering. “I’ve got some friends in Galtea, if Eldala is on the warpath it should be safe there.”
Kiba’s brow furrowed in confusion and he looked up from the fire. “Galtea? But we’re heading east, Galtea is to the south.”
“That’s true,” Jiro said as he put his plate down, “but Eldala has the largest navy in existence. While we remain in northern Arcadia, their airships have a hard time spotting us under the trees. But if we follow the roads through the plains of southern Arcadia we’ll be sitting ducks. Even if we get across the plains, between Arcadia and Galtea lies the Desert of Geb and I’m not going to chance crossing it with … well it’s probably impassable this time of year anyway.”
“That doesn’t exactly answer my question uncle.” Kiba answered giving Jiro the look that all children give to adults when they know they are trying to avoid giving a straight answer.
“Heh, uncle, you haven’t called me that…” Jiro began before Kiba interrupted him.
“Don’t change the subject. And don’t treat me like a kid; we’re not heading towards Galtea, so where are we going?”
Jiro paused for a second before answering. “We’re heading to Freeport, it’s a coastal city state in the Sundered Kingdoms on the eastern side of the Hornspires. I’m hoping we can book passage to Galtea on a boat or airship from there.” Kiba thought about this for a moment before speaking again.
“But the only way across the mountains is the Daikenee Pass in the northern tip. Anyone planning to cross the Hornspires into the Sundered Kingdoms would have to go through there. The Eldalans would know this and would be watching it.”
Jiro nodded, slightly impressed at the boy’s surprisingly sound analysis. “True, true, but Freeport is directly due east of Benbridge. If we keep heading east, we’ll eventually get there.” As soon as Jiro had finished, Kiba jumped up in a shock.
“Whoa, hold on there. Ignoring for a second that the only way across the Hornspires is the Daikenee Pass in the north or through the desert in the south, between Arcadia and the Hornspires is the Deep Wood. If crossing over the top of the Hornspires is impossible, then crossing the Deep Wood is suicide. People say that elves live in the heart of the forest and kill anyone who intrudes. No one who enters the Deep Wood has ever returned.”
Jiro simply smiled. “Ok, there’s two things wrong with that statement. First, elves are just a story told to scare little boys into being good and as you said earlier, you’re not a kid any more. Secondly, if no one has ever returned then where do all the stories come from?” Slightly embarrassed now at his outburst, Kiba sat back down. “Look, do you trust me?” Kiba nodded, “then trust me when I say that I know what I’m doing. Anyway, we’ve got a long journey ahead of us. Get some shut eye, I’ll take first watch.” He passed Kiba a couple of blankets and, using his pack as a pillow, the boy lay down and tried to get to sleep. A few minutes later, he rolled over, looked at Jiro, and asked the one question that had been foremost in his mind since this morning.
“Why are the Eldalans attacking? Why are they doing this?”
Jiro found that he couldn’t look him in the eye as he lied and said he had no idea. Kiba rolled back over and was soon fast asleep.
There was a light mist hanging low to the ground, rolling in great sheets along the forest floor. Above the treetops, the stars of the moonless night where hidden behind by the unbroken clouds, casting the woods below in near total darkness. When he had woken, Jiro was nowhere to be seen and the campfire was nothing more than glowing embers. Along with Jiro, their packs and weapons had also vanished as well as the supplies they had gathered. There had been little time to worry about this as somewhere in the forest, Kiba could hear the sound of a child whimpering along with something else, something animal.
Although he was armed only with a stout branch, he forged ahead regardless until be broke through the trees into clearing inside which was scene from a nightmare. In the centre of the clearing, bound tightly to an old and gnarled oak, was a small boy. No more than seven or eight, he resembled a younger version of Kiba with a splash of unruly green hair and brilliant orange eyes. Naked from the waist up, there were angry red welts under the ropes binding his arms behind the tree and across his chest where he had struggled in vain to free himself and his eyes were wide in terror. Circling around the tree was a pack of three animals composed entirely of shadows. Their form resembled that of giant wolves but no features, save eyes that glowed a hellish red, could be discerned. A row of horns or spikes ran down the length of their spines and every foul breath condensed into vapour, seeming to replenish the mist around them. When the boy noticed Kiba’s arrival, from behind a cloth gag he screamed a wordless cry for help.
Spurred into action, Kiba charged into the clearing swinging the branch like a club. Snarling, the wolf things leapt at him, fangs bared and claws primed to strike. Kiba’s branch connected with the head of one of the wolf things with a sickening crunch despite the wolf thing’s incorporeal nature. Its head dissolved into a cloud of fine black dust, its body soon following. Another wolf thing leapt onto him, its weight driving him to the ground and causing him to drop the branch. Kiba tried to throw it off but found himself trapped beneath it as he tried to hold its jaws away from his face while straining to reach the branch with his free hand. A second wolf thing came into view as Kiba struggled with the one on his chest and Kiba was certain that it was smiling as it approached. Its foul breath smelt sulphurous and in a sharp motion, its jaw darted forward and bit at Kiba’s arm. The shock of the bite caused Kiba to lose his grip on the other wolf thing’s head and it lunged forward, clamping its jaws around his unprotected neck. As it jerked its head side to side, Kiba was surprised that instead of the sharp pain and the tearing of flesh you would expect to receive when your throat is being torn out be a monstrous wolf, he instead felt a curious draining sensation. A deep coldness spread throughout his body as the other wolf thing started chewing on his arm and soon a heavy tiredness began to envelop him. His struggles seemed useless, soon there was no strength left in his body, and he just lay there, unable to move as the creatures sucked the life out of him. Eventually his eyes fluttered closed as his body began to surrender to the blackness.
A scream from the child bound to the tree brought him back to his senses and his eyes snapped open. The wolf thing on his arm released it hold and lifted its head to howl at the child. In that instant, with renewed strength Kiba whipped his arms up, grasped the head of wolf thing that was gnawing on his neck and plunged his thumbs deep into its eyes. The wolf thing howled in pain and tore free. It staggered for a few steps before collapsing to the floor, writhing and convulsing like a fish with its head cut off, whimpering in agony before dissolving. The remaining wolf thing span ran to face Kiba who had rolled over into a crouch and was reaching for the branch. Kiba managed to grab the branch just in time as it leapt at him through the air and he brought it up to impale the wolf thing on it like a spear, using its own momentum to carry its body over his head as he rolled on to his back.
As the last wolf thing dissolved, Kiba lay for several seconds on his back panting heavily before remembering why had charged in to the clearing in the first place. Despite the savagery of the battle, Kiba had no physical injuries, something he was very thankful for. He crouched in front of the boy and carefully removed the gag. Speaking quietly, he tried to reassure the boy as he attempted to untie the ropes.
“It’s going to be Ok, what’s your name?”
“D-Dace,” the boy stammered between ragged breaths, “hurry, they’ll come back. They always come back.”
As if on cue, in the darkness something howled, the same unearthly howl that the wolf things had issued only louder and deeper. Dace began to panic as the sounds of something crashing through the trees got louder and closer. He was pleading with Kiba who was cursing the fact that he had no knife and that the knots securing the ropes across Dace’s chest were tied too tightly to be undone. In desperation, he braced himself with his left foot against the trunk of the tree and pulled at the ropes across Dace’s chest with all his strength.
“Come on,” he pleaded through gritted teeth, “please gods, give me a break.” With a great heave, the ropes snapped and Dace fell forward into Kiba’s arms. He was shivering from the cold night air so Kiba took his shirt off and put in on Dace. It wasn’t much but hopefully it would keep the edge off the cold. He was about to ask Dace if he could walk but from the other side of the clearing, the sound of splintering wood heralded the arrival of the thing crashing through the woods. Picking up the branch, Kiba told Dace to stay behind him and turned to face the sound. A pair of trees crashed aside as a two headed, 20ft tall version of the wolf things from earlier forced its way into the clearing. Its howl painfully loud and echoing in the otherwise still night. Kiba took one look at the monster and dropped the branch. “Oh screw that!” he muttered as he lifted Dace onto his back and started running. With a howl, the monster gave chase, ploughing through the trees behind the two boys.
With the low-lying mist and the darkness, it was a miracle that Kiba didn’t trip on some hidden piece of undergrowth as they made their headlong flight through the night. Even so, Kiba’s skin soon became cut in numerous places as he forced their way through the woods, branches and bushes scratching him in the process. However, the constant sound of the thing chasing them drove any thought of pain or discomfort from his mind. After several minutes of blind flight through the woods, nature threw a barrier into their path. A wide, slow flowing river stood in their way and they had no choice but to cross it, the wolf thing was only seconds behind them. Making sure that he had a good grip on Dace on his back, he jumped into the water. The water was ice cold and it caused Kiba to breath in sharply as he began to wade across but thankfully it only came up to his waist at its deepest point. It was slow going and took nearly a minute to wade across it and when they finally made to the opposite shore, Kiba nearly collapsed on to the grassy bank. Shivering violently from the cold, he turned and looked back towards the other side where the wolf thing was pacing back and forth along the opposite bank, unwilling to enter the water.
Taking advantage of the lucky break, Dace helped Kiba to his feet and they half ran, half stumbled down a dirt track away from the river through farmland. Eventually, they had to stop as Dace could run no further and Kiba was too tired to carry him. As they rested against a tree, sitting close to share body heat, Kiba looked down at Kiba. “Who tied you to that tree?”
Dace turned and looked up at Kiba, a feral gleam in his eyes. As he smiled, Kiba saw fangs where none had been before. “You did,” Dace answered as he poked Kiba in the chest with a clawed finger.