Progeniture, Ch. 4
She darted to the left, then stopped suddenly behind another tree, pressing her back against it. Moving silently, she skirted around the trunk as Vess followed her trail up to the point of her disappearance.
He drew up and stood still for a long moment, trying to catch some hint of her direction. His nostrils flared as he sniffed. His head jerked towards a subtle motion or sound off to his left. He darted off, careening through the dense undergrowth.
She waited till his footfalls faded into the rustle of leaves before slipping away. Her ears strained constantly, listening for the calls from home. They would warn her if the beast approached, and give her a sense of its direction.
Dahlia had just caught a glimpse of her Father swelling above the forest on a neighboring hillside when the calls became more urgent. The beast had picked up her scent, not the boy's. It was racing up the trail, bearing down on her in a frothing, frantic hunger.
Another shriek echoed through the forest, and a small fear bored into her heart, like a wood beetle into a dense knot. She moved with all the haste she could muster from her stiff joints, but the calls said it wouldn't be enough. The beast was closing the gap too fast.
She came to a halt, and drew an arrow from the quiver that hung against her thigh. Carefully nocking it, she backed up behind the trunk of a wide sequa, putting it between herself and the approaching threat. The bow’s curve deepened as she drew the arrow back, the string barely sinking in to her hard fingertips.
A quiet moment stretched, broken only by a distant cacophony of bird calls, and the canopy’s ever-present whisper.
Her arm wasn’t nearly what it had been 500 years ago, though, and her shoulder and back started aching from the strain of keeping the bow half-drawn. It would take all her strength and perfect timing to punch through the creature’s thick skull, though, so she kept the bowstring taut and waited.
An acorn bounced off her forehead.
She closed her eyes, restraining herself from jerking the bow up and to the right. Dried leaves crunched, then again, softly, then once more.
On his third step forward she met Vess’s luminous gaze. What trickery had he used to hide from the birds? Why didn’t they give any warning of his approach?
He took another step forward, and suddenly the crackle of dried leaves was sharp, painful. Like tiny snapping bones. Dahlia swooned, lowered her bow, shook her head, rubbed her eyes. Waves of heat rolled through her again, but this time with no sign of fading. Vertigo twisted through her senses, and the ground seemed to pull away from her feet.
She dropped to her knee, leaning heavily on her bow. Vision blurry and increasingly narrow, she tried to focus on the boy, on his face. His eyes were more than luminous now, they radiated, casting a pale glow on his dirt-smeared cheeks. They cut through the darkness to cast odd shadows in her mind, visions of shadow spirits drifting between trees.
They terrified her, but not as much as the creature that bore down on them both. Even as her head spun from the strange curse, she kept listening carefully to the cacophony of bird squawks and shrills, close enough now that they enveloped the whole forest.
Vess gazed around wonderingly as he came to stand beside her. “What's happening, old lady?” He bent over a little, coming face to face with her. “What scares the birds? What's wrong with you?”
She fought through waves of nausea and darkness to look up into the boy’s eyes again. They shone like twin suns. All other lights became dim in comparison, so that the world faded and his eyes became everything.
“Crattha coming, boy. Run.”
His eyes dimmed, and their light turned cold. The birds suddenly went silent.
Dahlia blinked. She saw shadows again, ghosts that drifted and faded, oblivious to them both. One shape didn't drift, however. It loomed some twenty or thirty strides beyond the boy- bigger, darker, more substantial than the rest.
The hulking shape darted forward, impossibly fast for something so huge. Dahlia stood and drew the arrow back to her shoulder in one smooth motion, but nausea swept up her throat as she did so, and she convulsed just as she released.
She couldn’t be sure if her aim was true, because she lost consciousness just as her fingers relaxed and the arrow leapt free. Her eyes flickered madly behind her lids even before she crumpled to the ground.