“Run!” shouted Jessica, pushing Cinis forward and snapping him out of his trance.
Libus’ voice shouted behind them, “Men, this is our time! Tonight we fight for freedom! They are outnumbered, this is our chance!”
Cinis mentally thanked Libus as he streaked toward the wall, following on Jessica’s heels. He could hear the fighting behind him as swords clashed against the resistance’s assorted weapons. And he heard another sound, a sound far more concerning. The rapidly approaching panting and barking of dogs.
“This way,” shouted Jessica, taking a sharp right into a maze-like row of hedges. “Follow me! There’s a stream just down here, and they won’t cross water!”
“That’s ridiculous, those dogs are huge!”
“Cinis, I saved your life, and I’m certain I’ll do it again before the night ends. Trust me, and just focus on running.”
Cinis heard bubbling up ahead and saw light through a break in the hedges, reflecting off of the sparkling water. They picked up speed, dashing down the path, coming closer and closer to the water. Then, just ten feet away, his foot caught on a stray root at the side of the gravel, and he fell, his forearms absorbing the impact of the fall as the pebbles stripped away the outer layer of skin.
“Watch out!” screamed Jessica, and he rolled over to see the first canine racing toward him. In the distance he had been unable to see the details of the animal, but at this range each of its individual features were sharpened.
Instead of fur, rows of coal lined the canine’s exterior like scales, black on the surface, but revealing a white and red glow through the cracks. Heat poured from its sleek body, heat that already made his face uncomfortably hot and threatened to ignite his eyebrows. As the beast came even closer, he saw that its eyes were burning embers, and its teeth were as white as ivory. Each breath carried a cloud of smoke through the beast’s glowing nostrils.
It leapt, soaring through the air in a burning arc toward Cinis. Instinctively, he reached for his knives, pulling them from his belt and holding them above him, pulling his knees to his chest.
Sparks shrieked as metal met fangs, and the other knife met a set of claws, illuminating the area with a light so bright it burned into Cinis’ retinas. The second paw landed on Cinis’ upper chest, and he gasped as it instantly burned through his shirt, and the sharp claws bit into his skin. As he rolled back, his feet caught the hound in the chest, and he kicked upward with all his strength. The dog’s momentum carried it over Cinis’ head as the soles of his boots smoked and melted.
There was an explosion of steam as the hound collided with the water. Hot, moist air rushed over Cinis and filled the area above his head. High-pitched yelping came from behind as the hound splashed in the stream, trying to escape the coursing water as its legs eroded away, the coals turning to ashes that dissolved and were swept downstream. Within moments the legs were completely gone, and the chest of the hound sank into the water as it thrashed, its panic only bringing it to a quicker death. Then only the neck and head were left, the mouth opening wide to loose one final scream before it, too, sank. The only evidence of the hound remaining were the two red embers from its eyes, still burning and bubbling, boiling water at the bottom of the stream.
Suddenly Jessica pulled Cinis to his feet, not giving him the time to watch in awe as the embers were extinguished by the flowing water. They leapt into the stream, the water hissing at his boots where they had pressed up against the hound. They waded through the water just as the other two hounds appeared on the bank, snarling, but not daring to come within a foot of the water, lest they suffer the same fate as their brother. They paced, barking, showing the whites of their teeth and pawing the ground.
“Which way?” asked Cinis to Jessica, referring to the fork in the hedges ahead.
“Left, I think. We’re safe now, but we have to keep moving. The dogs won’t dare cross.”
“I’ve always enjoyed hunting,” called Rorcul’s amused voice, and the outline of his dark figure strolled toward them from the hedge ahead, pausing to lean on the edge of a fountain that spilled into the stream. Cinis and Jessica froze, and he spoke again, smiling.
“It’s no fun when the prey is easy, or when they are reckless or ignorant. No, it’s much better when you stumble across a more potent foe. And though you are weak, the Vrael limits me as well.”
His left hand swept above the fountain, and a tendril of water flowed from the surface, growing into a bulb on his palm as he spoke.
“A mouse, cornered in a maze, against a declawed cat. But I assure you, my teeth are still present.”
He threw the sphere of water into the air, where it twisted to form the image of a cat and mouse racing around the fountain. The cat closed in on the mouse and began to play, swiping it from side to side with its paws as flecks of liquid sprayed from the rodent’s back. Transfixed, Cinis watched the scene as the mouse desperately squeaked in peculiar wavering notes, and the cat pounced, devouring the mouse in a single gulp.
Beside Cinis, Jessica tensed as she became aware of a strained aura surrounding Rorcul—dark, magical lines that reached out toward the animated cat, which now sat in the center of the fountain, licking clean its paws. The edges of the aura bled outward in irregular pulses, evidence of the Vrael that sapped at his power. But even in the presence of the Vrael, the attention to detail was incredible, down to the whiskers of the cat. Gripping Cinis’ forearm, she considered her options, casting about her for other signs of approaching life.
And she did feel another presence, a being creeping up behind them, silently walking across the stream while the hounds continued to bray on the other side. Beside her, the hair on the back of Cinis’ head pricked, and he cocked an ear in the night, listening to melodic notes that were now thrumming through the darkness. Notes of song. Notes from below.
He blinked as Jessica whispered in his ear, her voice just audible over the melodic singing.
“When the chance to escape comes, take it. Run, for we won’t have much time.”
Then Rorcul was speaking again, his nose high as his gaze fell across Cinis.
“Truly, I had expected a stronger opponent. It saddens me, Cinis, that your gifts are so feeble. To think that you were able to kill my servants is surprising enough to me. Beginner’s luck, I suppose, that your uncle did not seem to share. Or was he the more fortunate of the two of you? At least he died quickly.”
Cinis clenched his fists, about to reach for the throwing knives at his belt, but the singing voice eroded his anger, and Jessica’s grip tightened. Wait, the voice insisted, come to me.
Above Rorcul the water formed a large orb, then was compressed by Rorcul’s dark lines until it was the size of a marble, which fell into his outstretched palm. Behind them, Jessica sensed the presence edge forward near the bank.
“A final gift for you. Cherish it, for it’s your last.” He tossed the marble, and the singing crescendoed as the black pearl landed at Cinis’ feet, half-submerged in the mud.
Behind them the presence pounced, but Jessica was ready.
Her hand left Cinis’ arm and reached back to intercept the attacker’s wrist, stopping the point of her dagger inches from Cinis’ back.
“No you don’t!” she shouted, pulling the arm and extending her foot such that it caught Alretta in the shin. With a blur of orange hair, she flew past them, carried by the momentum of her charge. She sprawled into Rorcul, his face betraying surprise as together they fell backward into the fountain.
Then Rorcul was cursing, and Cinis was running, and the singing was drawing him forward.
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