"You've lost them."
"I have not."
"You've definitely lost them."
"We are not lost!"
"That's not what I said..."
"We're on a Path! We can't lose them!"
The motorcycle droned through the Wood Between in a bored hum as its riders argued. Nothing new or odd here. The front wheel hit a root and swerved. The driver growled a little to himself before shouting at his passenger "Sam! Lume above! Will you sit down all ready?!"
The girl behind him perched primly on the seat in a standing position while using her companion's back to balance herself by planting her hands on his shoulders. She released one shoulder to shield her eyes and peer ahead from her vantage point. The shift in weight threw her partner off and the vehicle swerved again.
"Are you even listening to me? Hey Sam, I'm talking to you! Sam!"
"Hm? What? Did you say something?" Sam inquired, pulling her wandering mind back to the present.
"Sit down!" The driver shouted.
"I can't see anything then." She protested.
"That's my job!"
"You can't track and drive!"
"How else can I drive?"
"You're supposed to watch where you're going and you can't focus on that and the prey...which we've lost by the way."
"We have not! And when have I ever gotten us in trouble while tracking and driving?"
"Do you want an answer to that? Do you really want an answer to that Evan?" Sam asked as she leaned down so as to give him a meaningful stare he could almost see out of the corner of his eye.
"Do you have your notebook on you?" Evan asked nervously.
Sam nodded slowly for emphasis. "Always."
"Then never mind. I'll just focus on driving."
Reaching back he grabbed her ankle and skillfully pulled her down into the seat "But to do that I need you to sit." He pretended not to notice the fact that she proceeded to glare holes in the back of his head for lack of a comeback.
They puttered on in silence for a while after that and Sam was determinedly fighting off a dozing fit when she noticed their pace slowing. She sat up straighter and peered about them but was unable to get a good look at what lay directly ahead of them so she waited until they had rolled to a stop. Quiet filled the tense air as she waited. After a pause she crossed her arms and scowled. "Did we run out of gas again?"
"This is it. They went through this portal." Evan turned to grin at her with a familiar look of triumph and embarrassment. "And we're out of gas!"
Sam sighed wearily as she clambered off the back seat and examined the portal.
"Any idea where it leads?" Evan asked as he put down the kickstand and came to join her.
Shaking her head Sam leaned forward and smiled a little "no, but it's not a Fairie demesne, I can feel the mortality coming from it. It'll be nice to be back in a human world!"
"And to not have to deal with those annoying Fairies" Evan said, releasing a relieved sigh.
"Right. After last time..." Sam agreed and they both winced at the memory. A sudden thought crossed her mind and she straightened. "This is bad. Those two could make a real mess in a mortal world."
"No kidding" Evan said, his frown mirroring her own.
They stared at the Portal a moment before turning back to their vehicle.
"So" Evan asked, voicing their thoughts "what do we do with the bike?"
"Hide it" Sam decided quickly "we don't know what time period we're going into and we don't want to draw attention by being terribly old fashioned."
"Or new. This could be the past." Evan pointed out. He groaned a little "seriously though, it's easier when we actually get to use it!"
"You could have used it on the way back if you had remembered to bring extra gas! Stop pouting. Where should we hide it?" Sam cast about for a suitable spot.
"Inside the Portal obviously. We'll lose it out here with all the shifting and mischief." Evan glared at the surrounding Wood.
"Yeah but...we don't know where we'll walk out into. What if people see us?" Sam hesitated.
"The Wood never opens up in a village, odds are low anyone will see us aside from some daring kids but I doubt anyone would listen to them."
"Alright then. Ready?"
Evan put up the kickstand, grabbed the handles and nodded.
Sam took a deep breath and stepped in with her partner close behind.
Eanrin twitched his nose and preened himself, the air of the mortal world already making him feel dirty. He let out a weary sigh and checked the small scroll that hung around his neck once more. This ought to be a fairly short trip; just deliver the scroll to the present King and Queen and then he could leave. That was all, short and sweet, though he didn't much like the idea that Imraldera was unashamedly using him as an errand boy. He determined to have a talk with her about it as soon as he had returned. But for now...he sniffed the air to determine the proper direction and wrinkled his nose again before stepping out. Ah well, he resigned himself, it was probably about time he checked in on this King Shadowhand at any rate. So thinking he padded lightly down the mountainside and straight into a cloud of Midnight. Every hair on his back jumped up on end and a strangled hiss escaped his throat as he recognized the dreaded aura. But the Beasts that owned it paid him no attention. In less than a second they had left the golden cat behind and carried on in a reckless dash. Eanrin was left to shake and try to settle himself after such a sudden meeting with his old foes. Sucking in several deep breaths he sat back down to preen himself and wonder what poor soul the creatures were hunting now and vaguely ponder if he should do something about it. But no, he was on a mission and a sudden feeling of urgency filled him. He took a step and then heard the sweet trill of a Thrush behind him, hastening him on his way. That was all he needed to hear to send him dashing headlong for the castle with surprising agility for a blind cat. But there was more his Master needed from him and though he knew he would do whatever was required, after just recently finishing up his last job, he felt a groan rise up inwardly.
"You've got our gear?"
"Including money, bedrolls, time period clothes changes and our weapons?"
"That pretty much sums up the gear." Evan snorted.
"I'm just making sure. We've already forgotten gas and I doubt we'll be able to secure the right kind, if any at all, here. I'd hate to forget something else important." Sam said as, despite already going over her check list, she went rummaging through the pack Evan was carrying. “Food, water…”
"You know, if we don't hurry we really will lose them!" Her partner huffed as he nearly lost his balance due to her energetic search.
"We've already practically lost them! The search can wait another few minutes so we don't get stuck in a dangerous position. Remember Ragniprava? That would never have happened if we had just remembered the rope!"
Evan shuddered at the memory. "That was tough; we nearly lost that Prince back there!"
"We did for a bit and had to call for back up" Sam paused to huff a little over the recollection of their stinging defeat. "This is our third big job I don't want to botch this one like the last two. Being allowed to work in the mortal world is an honor since it takes more finesse than with those horrid Fairies. I'm glad the Prince gave us this job...because I'm sure He knew we would end up here." Emerging from the pack she grinned and gave him a thumbs up "this time, we won't need to call for help!"
Returning her grin Evan jerked his thumb at the gorge wall behind him. "Sounds good, ready to start climbing?"
Sam nodded, tightened the straps on her own bag and followed him to the faint inkling of a path that rose jaggedly up the wall to the table land above.
Twirling his hand gun expertly, Alexander glanced behind him at his sniffling twin and frowned. “Kat, are you okay?”
The smaller girl sneezed and offered him a weak smile “Just fine!” she held up her gun and nodded to the writhing mass of dragon before them. While they couldn’t kill it, they were capable of holding it off until the nearby town inhabitants had evacuated.
Turning his attention back to the creature he sighed. “We had better finish this quickly at any rate. I’m going to give us a bit of ground, cover me.”
Kathrine nodded as she immediately began a barrage of bullets that kept the flaming beast busy as her brother moved to the side; their perfected teamwork allowing him to know where she was shooting and avoid the missiles as he closed the distance with his target. Once he gauged himself close enough, he let out a heavy stream of lead that pushed his foe backwards, inch by inch, slowly gaining ground.
“Alex!” Kat’s frantic shout drew his attention to his surroundings and he leapt backwards, narrowly avoiding a dangerously spiked tail that slammed into the dirt where he had just been.
He raised his gun again but found the cartridge empty. “Dragon’s teeth!” he swore as the tail slammed into his stomach and sent him flying.
“Alex! Alex are you alright?!” Kathrine screamed as she frantically scrambled after him.
Spitting dirt from his mouth, Alexander sucked in a deep breath and stood. “I’m fine” his irritated tone indicated otherwise and Kat frowned worriedly but a violent cough shook her small frame and distracted her attention.
“Looks like neither of us are in top condition.” Alex stated ruefully as he helped steady her while keeping his gaze fixed on the enemy. “This is probably our sloppiest performance yet. Do you think they’re almost done down there?”
“The last boat hasn’t quite sailed yet. They need more time.” Kat panted, her eyes trailing down the hill to the coast where a single pair of white sails still hung by the docks.
“Alright, we’ll give them a good thirty minutes. Ready to move in together?”
She nodded and they stood back to back, breathing deeply and sending many heartfelt prayers for strength. A Thrush sang somewhere in the distance and a smile tugged at both their lips. “I think that was the signal.” She murmured.
“Follow close after me” he said as he went for another headlong charge, this time without his sister’s shield of bullets. “Focus on destroying the wings, it won’t be able to follow for at least a week then” he ordered.
And then they attacked in a fury of shots and lead and fire. The dragon screamed and thrashed at them but years of perfecting their teamwork paid off as they slid around opposite sides, refusing to create an easy target or opening. In less than ten minutes they leapt clear and met each other at their starting point.
“Where are they Kat?” Alex asked without taking his eyes from the beast.
“Out of sight! The town is cleared! Mission complete!” she replied breathlessly and finished with another sneeze.
“Good.” Quickly sliding his weapon back into its holster he turned and scooped her up before beating a hasty retreat into the forest.
“I…I…can w…w…” Kathrine’s words were lost in another violent sneeze followed by a cough.
“First thing we’re doing when we get back is take you to a doctor.” Alex stated firmly.
“It’s…” sniffle “it’s just a cold!” She protested.
“Even so I’ll be asking for some time off until you’re better.”
She took one look at his face and resigned any argument, knowing full well he would undoubtedly have his way. Not that she really minded the thought of being pampered a bit!
Icarus slung his bag carelessly onto his shoulder and grinned at the blackened and charred remains of what had once been a peaceful glade, at the center of which writhed a barely breathing dragon. It was about as dead as he could get it and looked as though it wouldn’t be chasing after the ships anytime soon. Movement to his left caught his eye and he watched Alex and Kat race by. Alex looked like he was carrying his sister…again. “What a softie” Icarus sighed as he checked his bag of explosives one last time, then patted it happily and deemed it all a job well done before starting after him. He met up with them halfway back to the Path and met Alex’s look of disapproval unashamedly.
“You incinerated half of the country side…again” Alex stated the obvious.
“Yeah, but my dragon isn’t moving now!” Icarus said happily.
Kat sneezed and earned a glance from the explosive’s master. “You feeling okay?” he queried.
“Yes, it’s just a cold” she answered, wishing she could have remained invisible throughout the confrontation.
“Focus, Icarus, as your superior it’s my duty to report this you know!” Alex said as he crossed his arms and waited for the rebuttal.
“Senior? You’re only one year older than me! You’re just glad that there’s someone younger than you to bully around!” Icarus protested.
“That is not how Knights of the Farthest Shore act and certainly not my intentions. As for other behavioral conduct…” he glanced at the distant rising smoke and returned his scowl to the boy before him “you’ve broken nearly all of the rules.”
“One day I’ll be the one making the rules! Just you watch and see!”
“Are you saying you’ll be the Prince of Farthest?” Alex asked in mock curiosity as he raised a querying eyebrow.
“You know what I mean! One day I’ll be on top and then you can’t give me orders!”
“People only get ‘on top’ as you put it, by following the rules. Honestly! This is why you can’t keep a partner!”
“Hmph! I don’t need anyone who doesn’t know a thing about fire and powder to be hanging around me!”
“You’re hopeless! I don’t even know how to report this!” Alex sighed as he dropped his face into his hands.
A harsh cough from Kat drew them both back to the present.
“Let’s just get back to the Safe House. We can talk about this later!” Icarus grumbled as he started ahead of them.
Alex nodded and helped Kat to her feet before moving after him at a slower pace.
Sam and Evan stared at the bleak looking town below them and Sam let out a groan.
“Know where we are yet?” Evan asked.
“Looks like a recovering Southlands after the Dragon’s invasion! Could this get any worse?” Sam moaned.
“Well at least we have an idea of the time. I think we’ve got some clothes from the period…but I don’t know about Southlander style.”
“We’ll make do, I mean, we hardly look Southlander material at any rate. We’ll just say we’re travelers. It’s true enough.”
“Cause I’m sure a Dragon blistered land gets so many travelers!” Evan snorted.
“We’ll say we’re here to help, also true.”
“And they’ll just believe that coming from a couple of kids?”
“Maybe, I think sixteen was practically an adult around this time…I think, so we should be considered at least capable young people!” she finished optimistically.
“I hope you’re right” he sighed as he went digging through the bags to produce the proper time period clothes.
Sam stared at them a moment before asking “Where are the shoes?”
“Yes, Evan, shoes.”
“Oh, looks like we forgot those.”
Sam suppressed a scream, failed and yelled her frustration to the clear blue sky.
“You’ve got shoes on Sam, and if we hurry we shouldn’t be here long enough for anyone to notice.” Evan sighed wearily. “Now it looks like there’s some crumbling village down there, I don’t see anyone around so we can change there. After that we need to find the Dogs.”
Sam’s scream trailed off and she nodded bleakly. “You’re right, sorry.”
He shrugged and set off for the village with the girl in tow.
After successfully delivering Imraldera’s message, Eanrin was padding carefully back towards the Wood, alert and on the lookout for giant black Dogs and, unfortunately, any hint that his next mission had arrived. Instead he met a strange scent that caused him to turn into what smelled like an abandoned old village. Foul Dragon fumes still clung to dark corners and lurked in holes in the dilapidated village, but there was a strange new smell of young mortality, fresh and untrodden like the people native to the land. Curiosity and a reluctant acceptance got the better of him and the cat found himself slipping stealthily through the alley ways to one particular building that was more whole than the rest. Rather loud voices drifted through the old walls and Eanrin’s ears twitched as he listened closely.
“Are you ready yet?”
“I’m ready all right! I do worry about the shoes though.”
“No one is going to notice your shoes Sam!”
“Right. Did you see anything of the Dogs?”
“No, but odds are they passed through this way, the Path is leading through here.”
“I guess so…how exactly do we have a Path following them?”
“More like they’re following one of our Paths, lucky for us.”
“Why haven’t they left it? They can find other Paths; they’re fey creatures after all.”
“How should I know?”
“It might be a trap, they’re clever beasts.”
“We’ll just have to be cautious then.”
“I’m trying to jot this down for our report and you’re not helping.”
“Are you ready yet?”
“I’m ready alright! Let’s go!”
The door swung open and one small person stomped out followed by another person with a lazier step. Both pairs of feet paused when Eanrin coyly meowed and turned to look at him.
“It’s a cat” the girl’s voice stated blandly.
“It’s a Fairie is what it is” the boy announced irately. “We don’t have time for this.”
And they would have moved on if he hadn’t changed form just then and caught them by the back of their clothes. “Hold hard there you two, I’ve got a few questions” he told them which did nothing to stop the barrage of protests that rained down from the pair.
“Listen mister, I dunno what you think you’re doing but we’re in a hurry!” The boy stated firmly as he struggled to escape.
“Put me down! What is wrong with you? Let go!” the girl shrieked as she moved and twisted in ways he didn’t know humans could move.
“Who are you two? You don’t smell like you’re from around here and you haven’t even attempted the language.” Eanrin demanded without letting go.
“We’re…Knights of Farthest Shore and you’re going to be in serious trouble if you don’t let us go!” the girl panted as she finally ceased her struggles.
“I highly doubt that. But at any rate, I suppose that makes me your senior in the field. What are you two doing here?” Eanrin pressed. Too late did he notice the tense feel of the youngsters in his grip. With practiced precision the girl lashed out at him at the same time as the boy and they pushed off of him, using their force and momentum to tumble out of his hands. He jumped backwards, narrowly avoiding a swipe as they attacked to gain ground. Cursing his lazy senses he halted a few feet from them to recover himself before offering a rueful smile. “That was nicely done. That being said, please refrain from further attacks or else I shall have to pin you both down. Now if you would just…” With a weary sigh he caught the ankle of the girl as she swung a kick at him and proceeded to hold her upside-down by it. Next he grabbed the boy’s fist mid-swing and held him tight in a headlock. He waited until they had exhausted themselves struggling, before proceeding. “Now, if you are quite done I’ll have you answer my questions. What are you doing out here?”
“We’re hunting the Black Dogs!” the girl moaned as she swung from his grip. “The blood is rushing to my head! Please put me down!”
“Put her down you dragon eaten hairball!” the boy shouted, swiping at Eanrin’s feet with his leg.
“Well, since she asked nicely” he released the girl who crumpled to the ground, clutching her head and groaning.
“You didn’t have to drop her!” the boy huffed.
“Quite the gallant aren’t you?” Eanrin asked with a small smile “What are your names?”
“We don’t have to tell you, you overgrown rodent!” the boy snapped
“I’m Samantha Rodgers and he’s Evan Tales. Please don’t hurt him” Sam groaned.
“Only because you said please” Eanrin grumbled. “Aren’t you two a little young to be out here on your own? And traveling through the Wood at that? How many human’s years are you off by?” He chuckled at their surprise “Oh please, neither of you smell like you could possibly be from this century. You’re fabrics and skins and are all wrong and what are you wearing on your feet?”
Sam shot Evan a glare who in turn glared at their captor.
“Well the Lumil Eliasul thought we were just fine for the job” Evan stated with a growl.
“Can’t argue with that one then. So, do you have any idea where you’re prey has wandered off to?”
“We don’t need any help!” Sam said firmly.
“Well that’s tough. You’re both liars and I’ve been ordered to help you.” Eanrin sighed wearily “Though trust me, I rather wish I were safe away in a distant haven! Dogs have never been my favorite part of this job!”
“And who are you exactly?” Even demanded.
“Oh gracious! I can’t believe I forgot to introduce myself! Allow me to amend that! I am the famed and illustrious, glorious poet of Rudiobus, Sir Eanrin. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”
“Oh no!” Evan sagged wearily against Eanrin’s hold.
“Eanrin? As in the Sir Eanrin of Rudiobus?” Sam asked as her tone rose in excitement. “I love your poems! I’ve memorized whole volumes of them!”
“And she’ll quote whole volumes if you don’t stop her” Evan’s voice held a note of pleading that fell on deaf ears.
“Well I’m glad see that art is still appreciated no matter how the times change. Just how far into the future are you two?” Eanrin asked feeling his spirits lift a little.
“I don’t know the exact difference in years but it’s pretty big” Sam said thoughtfully.
Eanrin sniffed approvingly ‘Glad to hear it, and I haven’t bumped into you yet?”
“No” she said sorrowfully “I haven’t had the chance to meet you since…”
“No, don’t tell me” Eanrin stopped her with an upraised hand “it’s bad luck to know your future and that’s a proven fact I might add.”
“Right. But have you written a poem entitled Gleamdren Fair yet? It’s my absolute favorite!” She asked excitedly.
“Why dearest that one’s already a classic! O Gleamdren fair, I love thee true.”
“Be the moon waxed full or new” Sam chorused with him
“In all my world-enscoping view,
There shineth none so bright as you.”
“Alright, alright! Don’t we have some dogs to chase or something?!” Evan frantically pulled them back to the present in the desperate hope that they would desist.
“Not much of a poetry lover are you?” Eanrin asked ruefully as he released the boy.
“Not at all, you’re stuff is so old and lame!” Evan huffed as he rubbed his neck.
“I know a certain prince you would get along with…I can’t stand him much either” Eanrin commented.
Evan didn’t respond as he pulled Sam to her feet and retrieved their packs. “Let’s just go, don’t slow us down Patches!” he growled at the Poet.
“Excuse me! I have a rather prestigious name and would have you use i…”
“Yeah, yeah, keep up Patches!” Evan ignored him as he struck off down the Path.
“Sorry, that’s just something he does. Evan doesn’t use names until he has some sort of respect for you. You have no idea how long it took before he finally started calling me Sam!” she sighed at the thought.
“What were you before that?” Eanrin inquired.
She winced “Don’t ask.”
A ways down a certain Path, hidden in the crumbled ruins of what was once a lord’s manor; black Midnight swirled in disarray as its owners watched the place where the Path entered. Their heavy breathing resonated against the walls and their red eyes stared forward unblinkingly. They were waiting.
It was nearly evening before Evan finally looked back at Sam and slowed his pace a little. “What’s wrong?” he demanded in annoyance.
She shrugged and sent a quick glance at the Poet who had taken the lead hours ago and held it despite Evan’s attempts at outpacing him. “I was just thinking that the Prince wasn’t really giving us this job ourselves. He still sent someone after us and one of our seniors at that.”
Evan followed her gaze and then shrugged “Honestly I’m kind of relieved. With some experienced help, we might actually be able to get the job done without any major problems for once.”
“I guess you have a point. I should be more focused on getting the job done right than getting the credit. Do you really think he’ll be much help though?”
Evan tugged one of her ponytails lightly “Aren’t you the history buff? This is the same cat that’s faced dragons time and again! Not to mention evil goblins! And he took care of Una for a while!”
Sam smiled slightly and Evan was happy to see the spring return to her step “You’re right, I had forgotten. I guess he is a pretty good companion to have on our side. After all, he’s seen the Dogs true forms before. Do you really think he’s that neat?”
“Sorta” Evan grinned “But don’t tell him I said that!”
She laughed and nodded.
Eanrin pretended he hadn’t heard them as he hid a smile and paused, pointing to a manor on a hill nearby “I’m pretty sure I can smell them coming from over there. I’m not sure if they’re resting, waiting or both but it’s best to be on your guard. Do you have weapons?”
“Yes” they both said with a nod.
“Good, then we shall proceed but with caution. Stay close and don’t wander off.”
“Right, got it, let’s go already!” Evan sighed.
Sam shoved him and hurried after Eanrin with her companion close behind.
The small group crept across what had once been a courtyard and tiptoed with utmost care into the ruins of the manor where the midnight awaited them. It took only a few steps from the door to be engulfed in blackness and Sam felt a chill crawl up her spine. In three weeks, this made twice in her life, she had stood in this same darkness and the terror of it was still somewhat fresh. She stood closer to Evan who drew his sword with one hand and reached for her with the other.
“Stay close” he whispered
“You too” she murmured back, trying to keep her voice from shaking as she silently slid her own sword from its sheath and took his hand.
While the apparent object of their mission was to hunt down the Black Dogs, the trio found themselves at a bit of a loss as to what they were supposed to do with them. Were they supposed to catch them? If so, where would they take them? If not, were they supposed to kill them? Could they kill them?
Eanrin hoped his hair didn’t look like it felt because it felt like it was standing straight up and he knew that all he wanted was to get as far from this dragon eaten place as he could. But unfortunately he had a job to do and, loathsome though it was, he continued to press forward, slowly cautiously, until he felt them move. “Get back!”
Sam and Evan jumped and looked to their senior only to see two pairs of glowing red eyes rushing down on them in a roiling mass of fury. A scream tore at Sam’s throat as Evan released her hand to better wield his weapon, but she swallowed it down and took a defensive stance. The Beasts were upon them and she swung her sword, feeling it slice through the darkness. A miss. Her hands trembled as she returned to her stance and sought out the pair of eyes that had vanished. And then, like the sun cutting though the rain, a bird swooped by. She caught only a glimpse of it as it passed but she heard its song, strong and sweet, resounding in her soul. A smile tugged at her lips and she stood a little straighter. How had she forgotten? Of course He was still there. Her hands stopped shaking.
Evan sucked in a deep breath as he skidded back two more steps and slashed at his opponent. It was dark in here, too dark. He didn’t so much mind the lack of light but not being able to see the walls, to know where he was stepping, how much room he had left, was unnerving. He fought back thoughts of a shrinking room and sliding walls, forcing himself to recall the large exterior of the manor. Even so, breathing became difficult and one resounding thought began to fill his mind. ‘I have to get out. I have to get out.’ What was that rumbling? In his mind’s eye he saw the walls slowing moving in, the space narrowing, the air was being sucked from his lungs…the Black Dog charged him, teeth bared and flashing white in the Midnight. Evan stumbled back again and dodged. Then he drew a deep breath. Air flowed in and out of his lungs. The sweet trill of a Thrush wound its way through the darkness and Evan suddenly remembered his teacher’s advice from one of his first panic attacks. He stretched out both hands, sword and all, and slowly moved back one step and then forward two. Nothing, nothing touched him. He was in a large space with plenty of room and the walls were the least of his problems. The Dog came again and this time he side stepped and brought his blade down, feeling his sword pierce flesh. The Dog howled and turned on him but he felt awake now and moved with precision and skill as he stayed out of reach of the jaw that had mauled kings and torn apart fairies. With a sudden growl and whimper the Dog forgot him and whirled around as a new opponent struck from behind.
“Can hardly smell anything in this dragon eaten atmosphere! You there, Evan, where’s Sam?” Eanrin demanded as he danced nimbly around the Dog, inflicting painful looking wounds on the creature as he went.
Evan, impressed by the blind poet’s skill, took a moment to comprehend the question. As realization sank in he felt as though the walls had suddenly leapt in on him again as he stumbled forward and shouted into the thick midnight “Sam! Sam where are you?”
For several heart stopping moments nothing happened, and then Sam’s disgruntled voice “I’m here and busy…what is it?”
Relieved he carefully made his way toward the sound, paused and glanced back at the fight behind him, but all he could see was more swirling darkness so he pressed forward once more. “Are you alright?” he called.
“Yes for now but…I can’t find the Dog! I know it’s just waiting to spring out from some…” He didn’t hear the rest.
With a snarl a pair of red eyes flashed towards Evan. Prepared for such an attack, he dodged, swung hard at the passing shadow…and missed. The Dog came at him again, releasing a strange baying howl as it did so.
“Evan!” Sam’s voice came from somewhere close by and he felt her press her back against his “Are you alright” she panted.
“Fine, how are you holding up?”
“It’s irritating not being able to see what I’m doing!”
“How do you think Eanrin feels?”
“I can’t even imagine…though his nose works better than mine!”
Evan chuckled a little and felt the tension ease out of Sam’s body.
“I can’t believe we let ourselves get separated, it really threw me off back there” she murmured.
“Me too. Sorry about that” he replied.
“Did you see the Thrush?”
He grinned “No, but I might have heard Him. Are you ready to press in?”
“Ready when you are, partner!”
The poet’s shout drew them up short just as two pairs of red eyes charged them. Chaos ensued. Eanrin tried to call to them as their world became fraught with flashing teeth, flaming eyes, and rumbling thunderous growls. Lunging forward at what smelled like mass, Eanrin’s blade dug deep into the hide of one of the Dogs, creating an opening Evan took, his blade finding a hold in the beat’s chest. The creature’s howl filled the room but did nothing to diminish the sound of a sickening crack followed closely by Sam’s scream. And then the Dogs fled and the midnight vanished, leaving them crumpled and confused, blinking in the evening light that poured into the ceiling-less manor.
Dropping to his knees beside the girl Evan began bombarding her with questions but Eanrin quickly pushed him aside. “Where does it hurt?” he asked.
“My…leg” Sam panted.
He heard her grit her teeth as he lightly ran his finger down the offending limb and winced when he found the problem. “I’m afraid you’re ankle’s broken my dear.” He told her gently.
“Can’t be” she protested weakly “I’m fine, just twisted it is all. I can still walk. We need to hurry and…” she trailed off into a moan as Eanrin prodded the break.
“Quite broken, you’re definitely not standing on it.” He announced, leaving no room for argument.
“Then I guess there’s only one thing to do” Evan said as he stood.
Sam groaned. “And here I thought we’d finally manage ourselves!”
“I’ll make the call” he sighed. “You take care of her Patches!”
Eanrin snorted but did not dignify him with a reply.
Alex found Icarus lounging around the kitchen of the Safe House, where he usually found him. The younger boy looked up from a cake he was demolishing and asked around a mouthful of frosting “How’s Kat?”
“Lady Imraldera says it’s just a cold and she should be fine after some rest” Alex sighed as he slid into a chair next to the boy. “She also says that the prince would like to have a word with you later.”
Icarus groaned “Why is it always me? Nobody else seems to get in trouble!”
“Nobody else sees fit to destroy entire landscapes…and don’t blame the dragon.”
“Even Sam and Evan don’t get in this much trouble and they’re not allowed on jobs on their own! Speaking of which, I didn’t see them out on the field. Any idea where they are? I wanted to show Evan my newest powder mix!”
Alex frowned “No, they’re out. Lumil Eliasul’s orders; they’re hunting down the Black Dogs.”
Icarus almost choked “What? Isn’t that a bit much for them?”
“That’s what I thought but…the Prince specifically choose them.”
They both mulled over this a moment before Alex sighed “We’ll probably be called in to help sooner or later, but I hate to think of the state they’re likely to be in by then.”
“Hopefully it’ll be later; I’ve still got this cake to finish!” Icarus added as he dug in more fervently.
A quick ringing in the background made them both freeze. They heard someone answer and exchanged glances. A few minutes later a woman appeared in the doorway.
“Ah, I thought I would find you two here. Can you head out? Sam and Evan need back up.” She said cheerily.
Alex nodded and stood. Icarus sighed and would have commenced whining had it been anyone else, but it was hard to whine when Una was expecting something from you.
The Prince’s bride beamed at them and tousled Icarus’s hair, coaxing a smile from him despite his sulking. “It sounds like Sam’s been hurt; I’m counting on you both to take care of them alright? Alex, will you be alright without Kat? I heard she was sick.”
“It’s just a cold, she would be very glad if you would visit her though. I should be fine working in a team. May I ask as to what is the nature of this mission? And, if it’s not too rude, why Sam and Evan were sent out alone?” Alex queried.
Una frowned slightly “The mission…is a very delicate one. We’re hoping for retrieval if possible.”
Both boys looked at her seriously.
“Sam and Evan are going to play a major role in this and much will hinge on their decisions. You two will be there to provide support and back up but, no matter what happens, when the moment comes, don’t interfere.” Una warned.
“How’ll we know which moment?” Icarus asked with a frown.
“You’ll know.” She assured him. Then she smiled again and hugged them both “I’m counting on you two.”
“Leave it to us, Una! We’ll make you proud!” Icarus replied with a grin and a hasty salute.
“We won’t let you down” Alex agreed.
Una nodded “I know!”
“There, that should hold it in place for now” Evan said with another proud glance over the bandage he had wrapped around Sam’s ankle.
She winced a little as he pulled it tight but offered a smile of thanks nonetheless.
“I’m sure your mother will be worried sick when she sees that.” Eanrin commented and was quick to note a shift in the atmosphere. He frowned “She does know you’re out here doesn’t she?”
“Well…not exactly…” Sam laughed a little.
Eanrin’s frown deepened “Please tell me you aren’t sneaking around her back! What about your father, does he know?”
Silence so pure you could almost hear the planet turning followed that statement.
At last Eanrin cleared his throat “I apologize. That was terribly rude of me…”
“No, you didn’t know.” Sam waved off his apology “Truth is I never really knew them. I think they’re dead but…I sorta just grew up on the streets for the first couple years of my life. There wasn’t really anyone around that I could call family. But Lumil Eliasul found me when I was seven. He took me in ‘a father to the fatherless’ as they say. He gave me a home and raised me along with his wife Una. I became a knight because I wanted to thank them.” She sighed and her head drooped “But I let them down again. I have as yet to complete any of my missions without help. I…hate letting them down...they’re always so kind about it too.”
“It’s not your fault, they know that” Evan sighed as he tugged one of her ponytails lightly.
“What about you, do you have any parents or guardians?” Eanrin asked though he doubted the answer would be yes.
“Mind your own busy Patches!” the boy snapped as he bristled.
“Evan’s like me.” Sam said as she placed a reassuring hand on her companion’s arm. “In fact, there are a lot of orphans at the Safe House that Una runs. She takes care of us there along with the other knights. It’s all one big family.”
“Speaking of which, I think your back up’s here” Eanrin said as he became aware of two new scents.
“That was fast!” Evan exclaimed as he glanced down back the way they had come.
“Looks like they’ve still got a bit of a walk before they get here.” Sam sighed.
“Plenty of time for you to get some rest.” Eanrin replied.
“I agree, Sam. We’re going to have to find some way of moving you soon and you’ll probably need all your strength then” Evan said, crossing his arms in finalization.
Sam glanced at the darkening sky and sighed wearily “Oh alright.” She laid back and closed her eyes, listening as Eanrin and Evan quietly moved around her, arguing over something as they made a fire and started cooking some of their supplies. She swallowed the bitter taste in her mouth and wondered if she was hungry or tired. She wasn’t. Defeat didn’t hurt any less the third time round apparently. She wondered what Alexander would say when he saw the mess they had made. After all, ravaging, angry, and hurt fairie beasts were now roaming a mortal world unchecked. She sighed a little and tried to get comfortable. Letting her thoughts drift it wasn’t long before she was sound asleep, despite how she felt, it had been a long day.
The first handful of stars had been cast into the darkening sky when two figures climbed up the hill to the manor and entered the flickering ring of firelight.
“Welcome one and all, have a seat will you?” Eanrin cheerily welcomed the boys. “I must say, you studied your time lines a little better than these two.”
“We weren’t told ahead of time where we were going!” Evan huffed before turning to the newcomers “Thanks for coming… Oi, where’s Kat?”
“She’s got a cold and is staying home this time. We’d better wrap this up soon so I can get back to her” Alex replied.
“It’s kinda weird seeing you without her, like you’re missing your shadow!”
“That’s what I thought! And I had to walk the whole way here with him!” Icarus exclaimed.
“Only since the gorge, we rode the first part of the way” Alex corrected. He turned back to Evan “So, what’s the situation. Where’s Sam? And who’s this?” he gestured to Eanrin.
“This is Eanrin, you know, that Eanrin. Sam’s over there, sleeping” he pointed to the small form bundled in blankets, at the edge of the fire’s glow. “We had the Dogs in here but…things took a turn for the worse. We managed to injure one of them but then they broke Sam’s ankle before they took off so we can’t pursue.”
“Her ankle is broken? How did that happen?” Alex demanded in alarm.
Evan shrugged a little “I don’t know. Luckily it wasn’t a bite so it looks like it ought to heal up ok.”
“Is it in a splint?”
“I bandaged it up as best I could.”
“Man, this is rough!” Icarus sighed “How are we going to move with her like that?”
Alex frowned “I’m not sure but…we’ll have to proceed and bring her with us. Catching the Dogs before they hurt another human takes priority…but we should try to consider Sam’s safety and comfort as well. In the meantime…” he turned to Eanrin with a smile “I can honestly say I’m glad to meet you again though this is the first time for you. You were extremely helpful with my studies of the art of verse!”
“Oh, is that so?” Eanrin asked interestedly.
“Oh no, please stop. I already suffered through this with Sam!” Evan groaned.
“Lume above! Don’t start on all that Alex!” Icarus growled as he took a seat by Evan and started sifting through the leftover dinner rations.
Eanrin wrinkled his nose at the younger boy. He smelled much like Evan and had an annoying air about him, not to mention a vile stench that reminded him of dragon smoke without the poison if that were even possible.
“When do you want to move out?” Evan asked Alex.
“I think we should leave that to our senior, since I get the feeling you’re not here by coincidence” Alex said with a glance at Eanrin.
“I’m beginning to doubt the existence of coincidence” Eanrin sighed before waving a hand airily “even so I don’t have much preference since I’m mostly back up as well. As soon as possible I suppose.”
Alex nodded “Alright. We should really figure out how we plan on moving Sam first…”
“We sleep now and then get up bright and early to talk about it!” Icarus announced as he collapsed on his back with a yawn. “I’m exhausted and it’s too dark to make anything. We’ll figure it out tomorrow.” He ended this with a snore.
Evan poked him and then shrugged at Alex’s questioning gaze “He’s out.”
“I hate it when he does that” Alex huffed. “Well, what do you two say?”
“I, for one, am all for sleep!” Eanrin said as he transformed and stretched his fluffy body with a yawn before padding off to curl up next to Sam.
“Sound’s good to me too. It’s been a busy day.” Evan answered with a tired grin.
Alex sighed again but nodded in agreement. “All right, we’ll discuss this tomorrow. But it will be early. We shouldn’t waste time.”
Evan nodded as he fetched a few extra blankets from their supplies and wrapped himself up. The last he saw was Sam’s sleeping form curled around a golden ball of fluff, and then he was asleep.
We lost, was the first coherent thought that occurred to Samantha as consciousness returned to her. And it’s all my fault. If I had been more careful I wouldn’t have tripped and the Dog wouldn’t have crushed my ankle and then… She felt like sulking so she decided to go back to sleep for a bit. Her mind drifted and then wandered back to the last time she had caught herself sulking, nearly a year ago.
She had hidden herself away in her favorite place, the library, and was poring over a book of poetry when Imraldera found her.
“I thought you might be here” the Keeper had said with a small smile as she peered around the stacks of books Sam had used to barricade herself in. “Una said you and Evan got in another fight?”
“I don’t see why I have to work with that dragon-eaten idiot!” Samantha grumbled back “Why does Icarus get to work alone? He’s younger than me!”
“Yes but the Prince thought you two would be a good match. What’s gotten you so worked up this time?”
“Take a wild guess.”
“Was it the name calling again?”
“A mouse! He called me a mouse!” Samantha spluttered. “I hate mice!”
“Did he actually call you a mouse or…”
“No! He decided that was my name until he says otherwise! I know it’s wrong but there are times when I just want to hit him in the face!” She avoided looking at her teacher’s face and dissolved into an inarticulate growl as she self –consciously fingered the offending locks whose color had earned her the nickname.
“Well, you know things aren’t always what they seem.” Imraldera mused as she searched for the proper way to address with this “I understand how you feel though…” her thoughts wandered to a certain cat-man and her words weren’t exactly intended for Samantha.
“You do?” the girl asked hopefully.
Imraldera smiled “Yes, but that still doesn’t make it right. Not that Evan’s in the right either but…I think he’s waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
“Like you Samantha, Evan doesn’t really know how to…interact well with people. But instead of hoping for the best he expects the worst. I suppose it’s sort of a test. He wants to see if you can put up with his worst before he shows you his best. It’s not a really good way of making friends but I think he’s gotten so used to people leaving him he’s stopped expecting anything else. We need to change that.”
Sam stared long and hard at the Keeper’s face and then looked back down at the book in her hands. “So…he’s afraid?”
Swallowing hard, Imraldera tried to explain before she got the boy into trouble. “Well…not exactly…I mean…”
Standing Samantha brushed off her skirts and nodded to her Teacher before heading for the door with a purposeful stride.
“Wait! Where are you going?” Imraldera called in a panic, hoping she hadn’t just given the girl ammunition against her partner.
“I’m going to set things straight.” Samantha said without turning around. “I’m going to let him know that I’m not going anywhere whether he likes it or not but he’s going to have to put some effort in too. I won’t do all the work!” She paused in the doorway and looked back. “I’m going to make him say my name!” And then she was gone.
Marching down the hall she strode through the crowded dining hall to the end where Evan sat alone in the windowsill. He saw her coming and grinned “Did you find your tongue Mouse? Where was it? Wait; let me guess, in a book?” His laughter was cut short as she shoved a fist into his face, a hairsbreadth from his nose.
“Listen Evan, you may be the most annoying person I’ve ever met or ever will meet, but Lume help me, I’m not going to leave!” she announced “I’m not going to run away just because you’re scared and don’t know how to talk to people. That’s okay, I’ll help you. I can’t fight dragons myself and neither can you, the Lumil Eliasul says we can work together so it must be so! But I’m not going to do everything; for this to work you need to say my name, Samantha!” She turned her fist around and opened her hand, palm up, her scowl dissolving into an inviting smile. “Okay?”
“You do realize everyone’s staring at you!” Evan growled uncomfortably.
“I don’t care. All I care about is your answer. Do you think we can make this partnership work?”
He stared at her a moment and then that irritating, condescending grin returned “Sure thing…Sam.”
She frowned “What’s so wrong with my name?”
“It’s too long.” He slid off the windowsill, took her outstretched hand, and shook it mockingly “I look forward to working with you, Sam. For however long you can last.”
“I’m not leaving” she told him decidedly as she returned his firm grip.
Vaguely she wondered if Evan still thought she was going to leave at some point. It hadn’t ever really come up after that day. Voices drifted in on her consciousness, a loudly whispered argument was taking place somewhere over her head.
“Yes we should wake her up! We need to get going!” Icarus’s voice snapped with no attempt at quietness.
“I know but…she really ought to rest that leg and it’s going to get really tough for her once she does wake” Alex protested in a soft tone.
“Well we do need to get going soon but…” Evan’s voice trailed off leaving a plain note of reluctance in its wake.
Softly, a pair of paws rested on her arm and kneaded their claws through her sleeve. Sam opened her eyes and looked at Eanrin who, with a cattish grin, announced loudly “Oh my, are you awake?”
The arguing ceased and Sam chuckled a little to herself as she sat up and pet the cat. “Yes, I’m up” she said, more for the other’s sake than Eanrin’s.
If he had had eyes, the cat might have winked at her.
“About time you were up!” Icarus announced loudly.
“Good morning, how do you feel Sam?” Alex asked as he kneeled next to her.
“Alright, it hurts a bit but…I should be fine. I’m sorry for calling you both out here just because we…” She was silenced when Alex placed a gentle hand on her head.
“It’s alright so long as you’re okay.” He told her with a reassuring smile.
Sam let out a deep breath and smiled back.
“Hey, hey, alright now, we need to get going!” Icarus called as he hoisted a bag onto his shoulder.
“Sam hasn’t eaten yet, will you slow down!” Evan snapped as he brought the girl her food. The details of the night were discussed and the previous day’s happenings told anew so that everyone present knew everything they needed to know by the time Sam was finished. When they were ready to go, the three boys produced a pair of sturdy crutches they had worked on that morning. Sam tried to feel relieved that no one would be carrying her, but she couldn’t help but notice how she slowed them down when they started moving. She was grateful for their hard work and understanding, even Icarus didn’t complain about the pace, and eventually found herself feeling a little relieved there were more of them. With Alex and Icarus present, it wasn’t possible for the Dogs to escape them again. By evening, the Path had managed to lead them to the edge of another gorge and there, at the bottom, just outside the Wood, they found the Dogs.
“We have to stop them before they go in!” Icarus shouted as he started sliding down the slim path on the wall.
“Hold on!” Alex pulled him back and waited a minute before pointing “They’re not moving.”
“One of them was quite wounded” Eanrin commented.
“Maybe it’s collapsed” Evan offered.
“This could be our chance!” Icarus shouted, struggling to race down again.
Alex glanced at Sam out of the corner of his eye. The girl was staring down at the gorge, struggling to hide the fact that she was panting, though her lack of comments made him think she was fairly out of breath. He cleared his throat decidedly “So long as they’re not moving we should take the chance to rest here and engage them later.”
“But they’ll be resting too!” Icarus protested.
“They won’t recover from injuries like that with a few hours rest!” Evan announced as he moved back to help Sam ease into a sitting position.
“Not to mention its best for us to be in top condition when we face them. The Beasts are far more dangerous than when I faced them long ago in Etalpalli” Eanrin mused as he turned back to sit with the others.
Icarus ‘humphed’ crossed his arms, and sat down on the edge of the gorge, watching the Dogs for any sign of movement.
The hours ticked by slowly.
Sam bit her lip. She knew it was her fault. No one else was this tired. No, they had stopped for her and now they were trying to figure out how on earth they were going to bring her down there, if they even should. With a weary sigh she leaned backwards against Evan who she knew was sitting behind her.
“You ok?” he asked, casting a glance over his shoulder at her.
“I’m fine. Evan, really, but I’m totally useless. You should just leave me up here and go get the Dogs. It’s impossible for me to get down there and I wouldn’t be anything more than deadweight anyways. I know this was supposed to be our mission but I’m sure the Lumil Eliasul will understand so long as the job gets done.”
Evan was silent for a long moment before asking quietly “Are you sure?”
Sam nodded firmly “Yes, I am.”
He sighed and then nodded “Alright. Did you hear that Alex?”
“Hear what?” Alex asked as he paused in a heated argument with Icarus.
“Sam wants us to go on ahead and take care of the Dogs while she waits up here.”
Alex frowned “I don’t like the idea of leaving you up here alone. What if something were to happen?”
“It can’t be more dangerous than going down there injured!” Sam said with a wry smile.
“Accept it Alex. It’s better this way. Sam can’t do anything and she’d just get hurt more.” Icarus stated.
“Bringing her into a fight like this would be less than wise” Eanrin added. While he felt that the decision ought to be theirs since it was their mission, he felt that he might as well help avoid potentially detrimental situations.
Alex hesitated a moment and then nodded. “Alright then. Let’s go.”
The group stood and headed for the ravine. Evan paused at the top, watched everyone else move down, and then glanced back. “You sure you’ll be okay by yourself?” he asked Sam.
She smiled encouragingly “Yep, just make sure you don’t leave me alone for too long!”
He nodded “I’ll be back soon.” And then he descended after the others.
Halfway down the group entered the Midnight that surrounded the Dogs. Clinging to the wall they slowed their pace to a crawl, testing each foothold ahead as the narrow trail was no longer visible. By Alex’s reckoning, they were only a few feet from the ground when something moved. The ground trembled and a vicious howl split the air as both beasts leapt to their feet.
“Icarus! Guard the entrance to the Wood, don’t let them escape!” Alex shouted as he pulled two pistols out of his belt and opened fire at the flaming pair of red eyes that was charging them.
“Got it!” Icarus answered, leaping from the path to stumble forward and find the line that separated the mortal realm from the Between.
Eanrin drew his sword and neatly clipped the oncoming Dog as they abandoned the trail and sought the more sturdy footing of the gorge floor.
“Why is there only one, where’s the other one?” Alex demanded as he dodged to the side and shot at the flaming red eyes that flew past him.
As if in answer, Evan’s panicked shout of “Alex!” drew his attention back to the gorge wall where a second pair of red eyes was scrambling over the edge. Alex felt a cold weight drop in his stomach. From somewhere to his left he heard Icarus’s shout of “Sam!”
Sam listened to the sounds of shouts, shots and howls, ringing in the darkness below. She shuddered and whispered prayer after prayer for her companion’s safety. Somewhere behind her she heard the distant song of a Thrush. Turning quickly she caught a glimpse of the bird as it fluttered off to a different tree. She smiled, knowing that He was here gave her the assurance she needed. She turned back to the gorge and for a moment she stopped breathing. There, crawling out of the gorge like a dragon from the Far World, was one of the Dogs. Her heart skipped a beat and a scream stuck in her dry throat.
The beast reached the top of the plain and stood there panting as it inspected its surroundings. When its red eyes alighted on her a low rumble sounded in its chest and grew to a thunderous bellow. Midnight surrounded her and the scream escaped her throat.
Alex and Eanrin were hard put holding, Evan and Icarus back as they tried to charge the Dog that stood on the trail, blocking their escape.
The creature growled, snarled, and lunged at them without leaving its position, making no move to attack.
“What is it doing?” Alex asked the Poet.
Eanrin shook his head “I’m not sure but…it looks rather like their after…”
“Sam!” Evan nearly broke free of Eanrin’s hold.
“Why, Lume love us, would they want Sam?” Alex demanded.
“You tell me!” Eanrin snapped.
“You don’t think…it was an escape, do you?” Icarus asked quietly.
“What?” Alex asked
“The other one was the really hurt looking one. Do you think this one’s trying to let it escape?” Icarus explained.
The group exchanged glances.
“They…wouldn’t. They’re neither intelligent nor kind enough to…” Alex started but stopped uncertainly.
“Aren’t they?” Evan asked.
It stood there and growled and roared and barked…and shook. Sam slowly became aware that the Dog, rather than attacking her, seemed to be casting about for a way around her. Its eyes darted to the sides even as its shaking, bleeding body slid wearily to the ground. Its growl turned into a rumble and then a sharp whimper. Sam shuddered a moment. She knew that sound, that pain filled whimper. She had cried much the same way during the nights she had spent alone on the streets, unwanted, abandoned, alone, afraid. Despite the animal tones in this cry, she still knew it well and she also knew what she was supposed to do. Picking up her crutches, she struggled to her feet and then moved closer to the Beast. The growl returned but she paid it no heed. Shuffling forward, she got as close as she dared before dropping the crutches. The growl faltered in confusion. Samantha sucked in a deep breath and then hopped forward a few more steps on her good leg. She had been an expert at one leg hopping once in the games they played at the Safe House, but she hadn’t had painful consequences to touching her foot down then. She only made it forward a few more inches before she sank to the ground. She looked into the glowing red eyes in front of her and saw a frightened child. She nodded and reached out to that child. “I know you’re there. You’ve been loved once and you miss it because you’re alone now. I know. It hurts doesn’t it? But it doesn’t have to. There is Someone here who wants nothing more than to love you. Will you listen?” Closing her eyes she sought out the song she knew resided in her heart, in every breeze and breath of life, in every drop of water and budding flower, glistening star and moving beast.
“Beyond the final water falling
The Songs of Spheres recalling,
Oh child lost in darkness,
Won’t you return to me?”
As the last word fell softly from her lips and the last notes of the Thrush died away, the darkness faded and before her lay, not a beast, but a child, a thin, dirty, sobbing child. Releasing a sigh, Sam leaned forward and pulled the small body onto her lap and hugged it tightly to her.
The gentle tune drifted down from the top of the gorge and slowly the group retreated from the Dog.
“I’m almost out of bullets” Alex panted.
“I’m almost out of powder!” Icarus huffed.
Evan swung his sword thoughtfully as Sam’s voice died away. The others probably couldn’t see it, but to him there was an obvious change in the Dog’s behavior. While moments ago it had roared and charged at them with blustering bravado, it now stood still, breathing heavily, and watching them with a guarded look that masked something greater. Evan had worn many masks in his life and he knew for a fact that this creature was struggling to mask its fear, and now that mask was slipping. A thought occurred to him and he sheathed his sword.
“Evan, what are you doing?” Alex asked.
“Wait here a moment” Evan murmured. Striding forward he headed for the Dog.
Alex made to stop him but Eanrin placed a restraining hand on his shoulder. “Let’s see what he plans to do first” the Poet advised.
Una’s words occurred to him then and with a nod he stood still.
As Evan approached, the Dog, instead of lunging at him, backed up two steps. The boy smiled and paused at what he assumed was the start of the trail.
The Dog growled menacingly and crouched as though in preparation to leap.
“You’re a pretty mean guy aren’t you?” Evan asked the creature “But you still helped your sibling. You’re not as evil as everyone wants you to be. And I bet you’re not as strong as you want to be.” He took another step towards the Dog, listening as its growl vibrated through the air dangerously. “Looks to me like you’ve never been pet or praised either…you’d probably take someone’s hand off if they tried now, even though you want it.” He smiled a little more when he remembered Sam’s proposition of friendship, she had nearly punched him to get his attention, but she had gotten her way in the end. “Sometimes creatures like us…”
The Dog let out a roar and leapt.
Everything seemed to slide by in slow motion. The streaking red eyes, thunderous bellow, flashing white teeth, all streaming past him. Evan felt himself move, step by step, out of the way and then reach out. His hands found the creature’s scruff and he threw all his weight into it. Time snapped back into motion and both boy and Dog went down. Evan found himself on top and put everything he had into keeping the beast down. It was a Fairie creature and one of darkness at that, yet a strange strength flowed through his limbs and Evan found himself just barely able to outmatch the beast. The creature roared, whined, snapped snarled and struggled, terror motivating it to desperately seek escape. But at last its strength faded away and it lay still beneath his hands. He held it there for several moments before releasing it.
The Dog looked at him, whining, pleading for mercy.
With a weary sigh, Evan dropped to the ground beside it and reached back to scratch its ears.
At first the Beast stiffened and then slowly relaxed. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth and its tail beat the floor awkwardly as it had never had a reason to wag before. The Midnight vanished.
Glancing over his shoulder, Evan grinned at his group. “You guys ready to go?”
“What’d you even call us out for?” Icarus demanded.
At the top of the gorge they met Sam cuddling a child and playing hand games. On spotting them she waved and the child immediately became the other Dog who bounded joyfully around its sibling.
“I’m glad you guys are all ok” Sam said after seeking everyone out and assuring herself they had all walked themselves back.
“I told you I’d be back” Evan said, tugging her hair.
“Took you long enough!” she retorted.
“Hey Sam, you ok?” Icarus asked.
She smiled “Yup, just fine!”
“Thank goodness!” Alex sighed with relief.
They all stopped and fell silent when a new figure appeared, loping towards them from the direction of the tree where the Thrush had sat.
“Lumil Eliasul” Eanrin murmured, recognizing the smells and aura of his Master.
The Black Dogs cowered before the approaching creature but when he bowed his head and looked at them, they crawled to him joyously and he bent to press a kiss to each of their faces. Then he turned and smiled at the watching group.
It wasn’t until he had padded silently away, taking the Dogs with him. That Sam realized she was grinning back. That look, that smile, had filled her with a warmth that threatened to explode out of her. “Well done” he had told her. She looked up at Evan and saw the same smile mirrored on his and everyone else’s faces.
“I always knew he was big but…he totally dwarfed those Dogs!” Icarus exclaimed.
“I know. He had never looked so huge before!” Sam sighed as she remembered the sight of the Black Dogs following after the Lumil Eliasul like puppies. “Where do you think he took them?”
“My guess would be to Dame Starflower. I believe she’s one of the few people left who can speak to them” Eanrin said.
“Then we might see them again!” Sam said excitedly.
“For now we should be heading home” Alex said.
They stood just inside the Wood, their gear packed onto their bikes and a Path at their feet.
“Well, I wish you all a safe journey and” Eanrin pointed to Sam and Alex “do seek me out in the future. I’m sure we could have a splendid time of it!”
“Will do!” she replied with a grin.
“It would be my pleasure!” Alex answered.
“Until next time then!” the Poet said as he set off with a wave.
“Well then, shall we?” Alex gestured to their Path.
“Pity the Prince didn’t heal your ankle while he was there, huh Sam?” Icarus asked as he turned on his engine.
“Actually, I think I’ll enjoy the time off!” Sam sighed.
“You and me both!” Evan said.
As they pushed off and started driving, the loud roar of the motors drowned out most conversation but, from where she sat, Sam could still hear Evan’s quiet question. “Hey Sam?”
“Yes?” she asked.
“Would you still rather I called you Samantha?”
He couldn’t see the look of surprise that crossed her face, nor the soft smile that replaced it. He did feel her grip on him tighten as she hugged him.
“No” she responded “Sam’s kinda grown on me. And it’s easier for everyone else too!”
A sigh of relief escaped him before he grinned and sped up. Sam laughed as they left the others behind, much to Icarus’s irritation.
VOTING: If you would like to vote on this or any of the other fan fiction submissions, send me a list of your top three favorite POEMS and your top three favorite STORIES. (firstname.lastname@example.org) Voting is for fans of the Goldstone Wood series only.