The howl was piercing. It shook bone and rattled the twilight sky. A shimmering of light in the air, a blanket of something falling over the forest. The woods became altogether dimmer, sinking deeper into that equilibrium of light and shadow.
The first gloaming scythe appeared from the treeline, peeling away from its natural mottled—a [Firebolt] slammed into it, setting it on fire. Stronger and brighter than I remembered. Hotter. It practically exploded.
That was just the first. A slew of enemies, as if lethargic, began to converge. I spotted them throughout the treeline, gloom tigers, scythes, moving cautiously. Sunlight wraiths flickering like beacons between the trees, wailing, causing creatures of the dark to flinch and those of the light to gather.
Shadows lengthened as we were pursued. The entire woods under a richer twilight, a stark contrast between dawn and dusk. The odd flora of the forest seemed more vibrant, seeming to drink in the moonlight, thriving.
Our hurried pace trampled them, our rushed feet loud among the muted noise. It wasn’t so much that it was silent, but rather that a pregnant quiet filled the air. The sound of breathing, footsteps, and the rustling of our passing was too loud.
We had nothing. No weapons, no way to fight beyond an exhausted Rose and an injured Parker. I could handle a random stray but that wasn’t realistic for the horde of enemies we faced.
So we ran. Dodging between an enclosing net of enemies only I could see. A suffocating blanket of monsters, born to the [Sleepywood], lying in wait. Creeping up on us. Someone less aware would’ve led us right into the poised six-legged tigers prowling the canopy, the bladed creatures pressed against the trunks, the lesser creatures and hazards, obstacles in our path.
The pace we set was faster than we’d normally dare. We didn’t have a choice.
The roar was like a physical thing, a pressure on our backs. It sent creatures in the canopy into a frenzy, winged figures taking to the sky, higher than the tops of the trees. Things answered back, alien sounds, the uncanny noisemaking of denizens of a silent forest.
My back itched and I eyed the shadow rushing to me. The ifrit didn’t even have time to fully emerge from its shadow before my foot collided with its face, snapping its neck. I’d learned that was their most vulnerable. A clone broke away and forced another one back with his leg, releasing Rose and Rickson from danger.
Rose turned, readying her magic.
“Save your strength!” I told her, faring much better than her. She was dead on her feet, but with dogged determination. She didn’t even bother to respond, only listened, pulling away.
“Watch out!” Parker yelled, and his fist collided with a screaming ghost of sunlight. A flicker of a shadow upon his gauntlets made manifest. Enough to touch the ephemeral nature of the wraith. “We’re not outrunning these, Evahn!”
“We have to!” I yelled back, looking up.
A tiger leapt from the canopy but I was ready. A common foe, dangerous, and much more unsettling than one’s normal idea of a ‘tiger’. I was faster than it was, ready for its attack. So when it fell upon me, I was already shifting, and my elbow cracked its skull. It fell to the floor limp.
Parker was there. [Power Strike]. Its head exploded in blue blood.
I looked at Rose, helping Rickson along with Sixth. Seventh caught back up to us. She was too tired, I grimaced. “Let me take him, Rose. Just stay on your feet.”
We never had a moment to rest. The forest leaned on us, breathing down our necks. Enraged. Why had the thing left the ruins? It was sending everything that heard its roars into a frenzy. Eighth and Ninth tracked it, grabbing the [Twilight Saber] and running.
It was bleeding silver light, a trail of silver buds where its life flowed. Blossoming flowers reaching towards the twilight. The clones harvested them curiously, a swish of the saber netting some cuttings.
Eighth and Ninth followed the creature, tracking its progress. It had a slow, strange pace. Flowing into forms, taking a number of steps, before the moonlight shifted and it was walking between the trees as something else, enraged.
It was faster than we were. The two clones weren’t undetected but both had enough independent movement to stay out of trouble. The same couldn’t be said for us. Through them, I watched the creature move in absolute silence, but with a deadly speed. This was how it had killed my clones so easily, without alerting a single one. Speed and silence amidst the close quarters of the ruins.
Its shifting forms were lethality in motion. If it wasn’t for my clones keeping an eye on it, it could’ve snuck up on us again. Although, it seemed enraged, giving up the pretext of stealth.
We had bitten off more than we could chew. We had overstayed our welcome, got cocky, and now there was a price to pay. It was something we all knew could happen. And we had moved to avoid it in the last moments, too late evidently.
Twenty minutes later, the howl was enough to shake our bones. It changed depending on its form, sometimes deep, sometimes screeching, but always with that inexplicable quality of moonlight. That pale chill.
I turned and saw it flowing between the trees, a bright silhouette of moonlight. And—
The line of silver light sheared a tree width-wise, the crackling of timber and falling leaves shocking us with the sheer volume. Then the trunk exploded in a painfully familiar explosion of splinters. I shielded my face but the debris exploded outward.
I ducked as I felt the explosion of another tree. A silver flash to my right. Streams of silver light. Another one exploded to the left, an orb of silver, the ground erupting.
“It’s on us!” Parker yelled as the beast of twilight blasted through a tree, taking the form of some spiked, plated creature.
The elemental charged us, a deep guttural roar. It tore through the forest like a machine, no longer adopting lithe forms. It rammed into a tree hard enough to shake the entire canopy and the ground. Then the silver light appeared again as it opened its mouth.
“Get down Parker!” I screamed at him as the beam of light ripped overhead. He dove to the floor as another tree exploded.
Eighth, catching up, tried to stab it in the face with the [Twilight Saber] but found the organic moonlight hard. Like the plated creature was just that. It had manifested actual armor. The sword rebounded and it swatted Eighth with a blunt tail, breaking ribs and knocking him painfully to the side.
Ninth ran forward, taking his place. Its form shifted—and a flash of moonlight sent Ninth’s head rolling, too quick to glimpse. The afterimage of a scythe.
I grimaced as a [Firebolt] struck the creature, distracting it. It roared, shaking the flames off its hide and face. It destroyed another tree, trampled the ground, and charged Rose. I had to pull Rickson away, far from this danger.
“Rose! Get out of the way!” I screamed, carrying Rickson off.
I could only watch as the beast—was tackled by Parker. No, not tackled. Rammed. Intercepted like a missile. The creature bent at the point Parker struck it, violently arresting its momentum. Rose screamed.
I didn’t realize it at the moment, but at some point, I’d gone partially deaf again. Parker’s face was twisted in something I could only classify as a battle cry, veins on his neck pronounced, muscles flexed. His entire body was glistening, sweat or blood. I realized the man was screaming at the top of his lungs, hair caked with grime.
[Rallying Cry]! [Battle Rage]! A mental voice so booming I couldn’t have missed it. Raw, exhausted, and so full of wrath.
I heard it then, dull, muted, but enough to send a shock down my spine. It was undeniably his Skill. It was Parker, shouting. I didn’t know what the hell it did, all I knew was I could move easier. A surge of stamina and strength.
I saw Parker’s wild eyes jump to us, Rose and I. That face… I knew exactly what he intended, what he wanted. Emotion bubbled up from within my depths, so unexpected I had to regard it for a half-moment before deciphering it.
I pursed my lips. Annoyance. Why were these people risking so much? I stared at Rickson, unconscious, Rose beyond exhausted. They’d struggled two whole days with dead weight around their neck. And Parker?
The fool was trying to sacrifice himself.