Someone shakes me awake, and I open my eyes sharply, scanning my surroundings. It takes me a minute to remember where I am. Kyne is crouched over me.
“Come on. We need to move.” Painfully, I stand up and follow along as Kyne goes through the same series of stretches from yesterday. I put the tent on my back again, and follow Kyne as he leaves at a light jog. We accelerate until we’re running. My muscles were tight in the beginning, but they loosen as we go, and now there’s just a burning. The longer we run, the more everything seems to fade into the background, until only the wind and the beating of my heart are important. We maintain a run, occasionally slowing to a walk for a few minutes at a time. We take a break in the middle of the day to eat, but are moving again soon. I don’t notice time moving, until the sun is starting to meet the horizon, coloring the sky purple and gold. With the trees blocking most of the sky, it shrouds us in an artificial darkness. As we run, I’m woken from my stupor by a howl, similar to a wolf’s, but deeper and more substantial. It echoes through the forest, and I don’t know what direction it comes from. Kyne looks around sharply.
“Follow me!” He yells, his voice booming. I follow without a thought, my heart beating faster in my chest out of fear. We veer off to the right, sprinting now. The gap between us widens considerably, before Kyne glances back and slows down for the first time since we left.
We exit the trees onto a wide riverbank.
“Can you swim?” Kyne yells over the roar of the water. I watch the thin stream of water, moving so swiftly that white foam sprays wherever it collides with rocks sticking up from the riverbed. I shake my head vigorously.
“Damn!” Kyne curses and scans our surroundings. I wait, straining my eyes and ears for any threats. Another howl, this time magnified at least three times over, comes from just beyond the brush, behind us. I turn to face it, breathing quickly. Kyne grabs my arm and throws me down the bank. He falls down after me, and hands me his pack. Picking up clumps of mud, he smears it on my face and arms.
“They have poor eyesight, but great hearing, and an exceptional sense of smell. Stay quiet no matter what, and stay under here.” He grips my shoulder and stares me in the eye. “If anything happens to me, you need to keep heading north. You’ll either stumble onto the camp, or a small town living in a group of caves. Don’t make any fires and travel quickly. Do you understand?” He talks rapidly, and I don’t respond at first. He shakes me. “I said, do you understand?” I nod my head, still too scared to speak. Kyne gives me a reassuring smile and squeezes my shoulder, before easily jumping onto the bank I’m hidden under. I hear nothing for a while, except the river rushing by steady and strong. I focus on the sound of it, and it soothes me.
Another howl resounds, overpowering the river and pulling me from my brief respite.
A moment later, I hear a wet, ripping sound, along with both human and animal grunts.
A yelp of pain, and then a beast’s body falls onto the bank, partly in the river.
I stare at it: Fur black, short and spiky, long snout, narrowed eyes; pupils black, outlined in yellow, long limbs ending in wide sharp claws.
Dirt cascades down from above me,
I hear a grunt, then a scream.
Kyne’s arm, sword still in hand falls not four feet from where I hide,
His body follows, the beasts tackling him, ripping his flesh from his body with small, sharp teeth.
I whimper, my knees curled up to my chest, but the roar of the water washes the sound away.
Why am I here?
What am I doing?
I close my eyes and bite hard onto my thumb to stop from screaming. The horror is close enough that I can hear the awful sounds of their biting and chewing, crunching of bone, flesh and everything in between.
I taste blood in my mouth but keep my mouth clamped, tears coursing down my cheeks.
The beasts leave after a time.
I refuse to open my eyes, sobbing until I can’t muster any more tears. Still, I don’t move. Instead, I focus on the sound of the river, hoping to drown out the sounds of the beasts, stuck in my head. I feel numb.
Head North. Find Gwynn. Knowing I have no other choice, I open my eyes and see the bloody mess of Kyne’s body. I fall forward onto my hands and knees to vomit. After a few minutes, I stand up, wiping my mouth clean with my shirt. I clamp a hand over my nose to stop from smelling the death lingering in the air. My eyes roam everywhere, except where Kyne lays. They end up on the body of a beast. I stare into its lifeless eyes.
What are these monsters? Moving back to the alcove, I gather up the tent and Kyne’s bag. I glance at the sky. The sun is just rising, and thick storm clouds are in the distance. Before leaving, I force myself to search for Kyne’s sword and scabbard. I vomit again in the process, nothing but bile this time, but soon have the sword strapped to my back underneath the tent. The sword is light, but combined with everything else I carry, is still an impediment. Still, I owe him this much. I need something to remember the man who gave his life for a stranger he just met.
I forego stretching, instead wanting to put as much distance between me and here as quickly as possible. I start out at a light jog, and accelerate into a run which I maintain all day. I slow down to a walk whenever I feel I might collapse, but speed up when I’m capable. Daylight fades and I decide to stop for the night. I lay down my packs and pull out a small portion of dried meat and bread, eating slowly and mechanically. I sip from the canteen and rest my head on my pack, clutching Kyne’s sword in my hand. I attempt to sleep, but whenever I get close to unconsciousness, I hear the beastly howl in my head and startle awake. My paranoia and exhaustion remain at odds for hours until, inevitably, my exhaustion prevails and I fall into a fitful slumber.
I wake with the dawn light, and am up and ready to move in less than a minute. My thoughts are simple: Head North. Find Gwynn. I cling to the task at hand, not wasting energy on other thoughts.