Today is exciting,
Marlowe thought to himself.
He was sitting in an old, wooden horse-drawn cart, listening to the sound of wheel and hoof as they clattered along the cobblestone path. With a heavy sigh, he fingered his bow, plucking at its string with his index finger. Nope. He still didn’t feel good about this.
The cart hit a deep rut, nearly jarring him from his seat. He shifted his position slightly, and a rush of winter wind blasted by, freezing his breath to ice. Shivering, he hunched his neck between his shoulders. His coat and pants were made of squirrel skins, and looked like a patchwork mess. To just about any observer, it was clear that this particular outfit was homemade. Though Marlowe was no expert in this type of work, he’d at least made sure to tighten all the seams.
“Hey, Marl.” a gruff voice said. “Getting cold yet?”
Tilting his head slightly, Marlowe allowed his gaze to travel across the rest of the faces in the cart.
Rick was the brown-eyed, red-haired brute that was teasing him. He wore an intimidating-looking bearskin with the head still attached. The head had been pulled up over his skull, almost serving as a hood. The rest of his face was taken up by a thick red beard, encrusted with the silvery glint of frozen breath. His clothing was mainly made of bearskin, and he carried a massive greatsword, which was slung in a heavy scabbard on his back. Even his gloves were bear-themed, and had been fashioned from actual bear paws. Whoever had done the job had purposely left the animal’s claws on the product; causing Rick to favor them very much.
The next hunter was James, a rather skinny fellow wrapped in deerskin. He had two gleaming shortswords lying across his lap. Their blades had slight hooks on the ends, and every curve of their design suggested that, clearly, they’d been made with utmost care. His hood came complete with some hollowed-out antlers, and he wore a dark-furred scarf that covered his face from nose to chin. His furs had been stitched tightly together, smoothing his body to near feline proportions. Knowing he was being observed, James made eye contact with Marlowe. At the sight of the man’s wild-looking amber eyes, the rookie quickly averted his gaze. James never said he didn’t like being stared at, but then again, he didn’t talk much to begin with. Still there was something unusually feral about those eyes of his. Some men said that he had been a savage living in the hills. Others, a miner beneath the earth, and even a retired bandit lord. Marlowe didn’t know what to believe, but the story about James being a savage seemed to fit him the most.
Beside James was a short, somewhat stumpy fellow in rabbit skins. His name was Brent, and rumor had it that he was a dwarf. He never confirmed if this was true, but, with that immense blonde-colored beard of his, it was hard to imagine him as anything other than one. The beard wasn’t that visible now. Brent had recently bought a massive black fur scarf, which, when wrapped about his neck, obscured nearly his entire face and beard, except for the tip. It stuck out in a ridiculous-looking tuft from the bottom of the scarf.
Beside Brent was his faithful wolf-dog Frost. The canine followed him everywhere, and was the sole reason that Brent was neither teased nor challenged…at least…not yet. So far, in all the taverns they’d been to, Brent and his wolf-dog were given a wide berth and drinks on the house. After all, who’d want to mess with a silver-toothed wolf anyways?
These three had decided to hunt with him. They’d been his friends for a long time; longer than he could remember. They’d been through only two major battles so far; each one involving protecting some innocent village from an ogre or dragon. Marlowe thought these had been great fun, but James had wanted more. He yearned for a real challenge…so that’s what the four had been looking to find for a long time. Marlowe, being the youngest member as well as the rookie, secretly wished this pursuit would never be fulfilled.
Much to his disappointment, Rick crossed paths with an old friend who brought rumors of a mysterious creature that roamed the forested lands.
Tales of this beast had been scattered far and wide across the land, each one varying widely from the next. In fact, Marlowe was pretty sure that not many of these tale-tellers knew how Vamprina even looked like. Her appearance varied so much from one tale to the next, that once he’d even been told that she resembled a gryphon with three tails and an actual snake in place of her tongue! This was ridiculous of course. Everyone knew that the gryphons had been wiped out years ago by the pelt seekers.
Marlowe’s real fear, however, was not in the creature’s appearance, but what it did. Many had gone up against it…and all wound up dead one way or another. Outsiders called Vamprina a myth, a ghost story to scare children and gullible strangers, but the native hunters knew better. The bodies were real, and they’d all been killed the same way. Necks snapped back, and fang marks right through the jugular vein. Sometimes the bodies were impaled in places, and inspection of the wounds deemed that whatever the creature had used, it was sword-like and really, really
Honestly, he’d hoped more people would have interested in fighting the Vamprina monster. He had only three people to watch his back. Three…out of those 30 or so brave-looking warriors they’d come across. Marlowe wasn’t surprised. After all, the quarry they sought was quite out of the ordinary, to say the least. So far, the slightest whisper of her name ignited fear in the eyes of all who they’d told about it.
A brief, but sharp pinch of pain snapped him out of his reverie. Flinching, his grip tightened on his bow, but a burst of laughter beside him caused him to relax. Rick had pinched him, obviously looking for some sort of entertainment.
“Please…” Marlowe said, his voice soft. “…I don’t want to goof around right now.”
Rick huffed and mock-punched the rookie’s shoulder.
“Lighten up, little man.” he grunted. “We’ll be there soon. No use fighting an enemy with dampened spirits, am I right?”
Marlowe said nothing. He went back to fondling his bow. It was a little worn out, but its string was still in good condition. Seeing that he was being ignored, Rick snorted and turned to James. The savage just stared at him, and Rick quickly turned his attention to Brent. The dwarf nodded respectfully in his direction.
“Hey, Brent old buddy!” Rick cried, sounding a little too jovial, considering the situation.
“Yes, Rick my brother?”
“How about a song?”
The dwarf chuckled, his voice sounding quite muffled in his scarf.
“I’m afraid I can’t do much with this thing over my face. Winter freezes voices as well as water, you know.”
Before Rick could respond, the cart stopped moving. Smiling, he got up immediately.
“We’re here boys!” he cried, clapping his hands once. Frost barked, causing Brent to rub the wolf-dog’s head. The dwarf then rose as well, shortly followed by James. Marlowe was the last to get up, and kept looking about at the frozen forest encircling them.
“Driver…” Marlowe began. “Is this really our stop?”
“Yes.” the driver said curtly, slight fear edging his tone. “Please dismount using the step and have a nice…um…good luck.”
The warriors exited the cart in an orderly fashion, their boots sinking in the fresh snow. Taking long, silent strides, James came up beside the driver and paid him for his services. Marlowe watched, standing slightly behind Rick, rubbing nervously at his bowstring. Glancing to his right, he saw Brent inspecting his dagger. The weapon might be short, but, given the dwarf’s size, it could easily pass as a sword. James rejoined them, the puffs of his breath wreathing his face in mystifying smoke.
“Alright brothers!” Brent addressed the group, pointing with his dagger-sword. “This here’s the place we heard the demon was at. Come on.”
He walked off in the indicated direction without another word, his wolf-dog close behind him. James and Rick followed, but Marlowe hung back for just a moment, watching as the cart rattled off into the distance. The driver was hurrying it along quite quickly. Shaking his head, Marlowe hurried to catch up with the others.
The forest was alive with the songs of winter birds, and the occasional hiss of disturbed ice serpents, stirred by the passing troop. The snow here was not quite deep yet, its fall hampered by the wide spread of the tree branches above them. Aside from the birds and the ice serpents, there wasn’t an animal in sight. Marlowe continued after the others, confused. The monster had only been reported to kill humans, not animals. It had even spared the horses of the hunters that had been tracking it. He clenched his fists, trying to think of things more positive in nature.
At length, Brent paused, and Frost whined eagerly.
“Look at the trees.” the dwarf urged, and the party paused a moment to look about. Most of the trees around them were gouged with deep claw marks, and all were very high up the trunks. Marlowe strained to see the topmost scars, and felt a chilling sweat break out on his forehead, despite all the furs he was wrapped in. Given all the stories he’d heard, no one had ever mentioned how big the beast actually was.
Frost circled one of the marked trees, whining and sniffing as high on the bark as he could. Brent shook his head.
“That smell’s too high on the trees for you, old boy.” he grunted, folding his arms.
Rick snorted at the marks, unsheathing his greatsword and switching it from one hand to the other.
“Perfect.” he huffed. “Just perfect. We’re too late.”
Privately, Marlowe breathed a quick sigh of relief. Good. Now they could all go home and be safe. He looked up at the rest of his companions, ready to suggest that they should all give up, when he noticed James standing stiff and straight. The savage looked about quickly, and then drew both of his swords. The fur on the back of Frost’s neck bristled, and the wolf-dog growled deeply. Recognition dawned on Marlowe’s face.
“She’s here.” he breathed.
Now all of the warriors had their weapons out. They waited, tense, but heard nothing. Marlowe shot a quick glance in James’s direction. The look in his eyes confirmed the rookie’s suspicions. The forest was dead silent. Danger was close. Marlowe returned his attention to the frozen forest around him; his bow loaded and ready. He tightened his grip on the weapon, trying to stop his hands from shaking.
Suddenly, Frost barked, and as the warriors turned in the canine’s direction, a shadowed shape burst from the trees. It blazed right past them, too quick to focus on. As the warriors spun around, they realized that one of their allies was airborne. Brent surged away from them, most of his body shrouded by a blurred black shape. The dwarf was struggling and kicking, but his efforts were futile. Marlowe aimed his bow, but the mysterious winged thing vanished swiftly above the treeline, taking their companion with it. Rick barged in the direction Brent had gone, sword at ready. James and Marlowe followed, but Frost pulled ahead of everyone, barking fiercely all the way.
Presently, faint screams of terror could be heard. Frost whined, but continued towards the noise.
“Brent!” Marlowe cried, adrenaline firing through him. “Brent, we’re coming!”
The screams cut off abruptly, and Frost skidded to a halt, growling menacingly. Confused, Marlowe slowed down. Rick came up on his left side, brandishing his sword.
“Coward!” the brute bellowed, swinging his blade back and forth. Fury burned in his eyes, and his muscles were tensed in anticipation. “Come out and fight like a real warrior!”
Marlowe glanced briefly in Rick’s direction, wishing he felt the same confidence. James moved up on the rookie’s right side, silent, gripping his blades tightly. Suddenly, the air before Frost shimmered, and the shadowy shape appeared out of nowhere.
It had a perfectly spherical head, with large red eyes and sharply pointed ears. Its black hair was long and straight, and its bangs nearly shrouded the creature’s glowing eyes from view. Its body was thin and lithe, with large bat-like wings in place of its arms. Bat-like, because instead of a thumb on each wing, there was a three-fingered claw. Its slender legs ended in vicious-looking talons, each one looking as though it was cut from pure glass. Its hand claws seemed to be made of the same “material” as well, and gleamed harshly in the winter sun.
In the creature’s mouth was a very familiar-looking weapon. Marlowe heard Rick swear under his breath. It was Brent’s dagger. The being smiled, revealing every one of her pointed black fangs. She took the knife out of her mouth, twirling it in her left claw.
Frost sprang forwards, snarling, but the shadow locked eyes with him and bared her fangs. The wolf-dog yelped, flinching as if it had struck an invisible wall. It crumpled at the creature’s feet, whimpering. Satisfied, the shadow turned its attention back to the warriors.
“Gentlemen…” it hissed, her voice chilling the men’s blood. “…you are quite
far from town. Are you…lost?”
Rick pointed his greatsword at the creature, anger burning in his eyes. “We are right where we want to be, Vamprina. The time has come for us all to end your murderous killing spree.”
“A killing spree?” Vamprina laughed, switching the dagger to her right hand. “Is that what they’re calling it?”
She smiled at Rick, not looking intimidated in the least.
“Please…” she continued. “I’m a professional. I don’t do massacres. It’s assassinations that draw my
blades from the darkness.”
Vamprina stroked the edge of Brent’s weapon, causing sparks to flash as her claws rasped across it. Marlowe cringed at the sound. His hands were shaking so badly that he doubted he’d be able to get off a single shot.
“I don’t care what they call it.” Rick continued. “You’re a murderer. Murderers must die.”
With that, the brute charged, bearing down on the assassin with a feral roar. Marlowe took that as the attack signal, and shot arrow after arrow. Vamprina hissed, and then flew straight at Rick, talons at ready. Talons and blade clashed together, showering the earth around the duelists with bright white sparks. Vamprina retreated and went for another slash, which Rick parried quickly. Behind him, Marlowe struggled to find a position that wouldn’t put his ally at risk. The uneven forest floor was not helping, as did the rookie’s frequent stumbling.
Forcing the bat creature back, Rick laughed and pointed his blade at her.
“Come on!” Rick challenged. “Is that all you got?”
Vamprina twirled in the air, releasing a pleasant chuckle.
“You’d wish it was.” was her reply.
James circled the fighters, and then sprang forwards, blades high. Vamprina saw the attack out of the corner of her eye, but Rick’s sword was a little too
close for her to avoid. The assassin twisted in the air, both feet slamming onto Rick’s blade, so hard, that the brute staggered from the impact. Perched there, Vamprina brought her wings up, and their leading edges transformed into night-black blades. James’s swords smashed down on the new weapons, the added force causing Rick to crumple.
With a graceful twist, Vamprina leapt off Rick’s sword edge and twirled into the air. She dove down at James, her talons aiming right at his head. The savage stood his ground, ready, but the assassin twisted at the last moment and lashed out with her talons, ripping deep into his left shoulder. James wailed in pure pain, a terrible sound that tugged at Marlowe’s heart. Overcome by a sudden surge of anger, he shot an arrow, aiming right at Vamprina’s head. The assassin’s wing went up, deflecting the projectile off its edge. She glared at the rookie, and he shrank before her gaze. Still, Marlowe reached for another arrow.
Meanwhile, Rick had regained his footing. Heart racing, the brute made a slow approach behind Vamprina. Right now, her focus was completely on Marlowe. He had his strike opening. Taking a deep breath, he raised his sword high above his head. Now Rick was the focused one. Mind on the glory of the attack, the brute failed to notice that one of the assassin’s ears was turned in his direction.
Suddenly, Vamprina whirled in a swift circle, sending Brent’s dagger (which she’d been holding in one claw the entire time) right at Rick’s face. Caught off guard, the brute changed tactics, deflecting the projectile off the edge of his blade. That was all the time the assassin needed. She lunged, wings spread, opening her mouth wide. A powerful sonic pulse blasted from her throat, stabbing mercilessly into Rick’s ears. The brute cried out, nearly falling to one knee. The next moment came too late for his reaction, and the last thing he saw was Vamprina coming right for his face.
The sound attack distracted Marlowe as well. He gasped, sending his arrow into the woods. Behind him, James staggered, cringing; the pain obvious in his expression. Though the sonic blast was brief, it seemed to take forever in those short moments. By the time Marlowe recovered, he looked up to see with horror that Vamprina had Rick’s neck in her jaws. The brute’s face was white with terror, and, though his lips moved, all he managed was a choking gasp. The assassin released him, and he collapsed immediately, eyes staring into nothingness. Above him, Vamprina folded her wings. She floated there, ghost-like, face impassive. Then Vamprina looked over her shoulder, locking eyes with Marlowe. A smile spread across her face.
The rookie swallowed hard, reaching behind him to load an arrow. His fingers met nothing, and cold sweat broke out on his forehead. He was out of arrows.
Vamprina drifted near to the rookie, settling soundlessly on the snow. She approached him slowly, wings still folded by her sides.
“Running low on arrows, are we?” the assassin cooed, a dangerous edge to her tone. “What a shame. I was really
looking forward to avoiding more of them.”
“You killed all those people.” Marlowe choked, his throat contracting in fear. “Why?”
“Back on my world, there’s a word for it. Survival.
” Vamprina replied. As she spoke, she moved closer to Marlowe, enjoying the way he squirmed in discomfort.
“Besides…I’ve been a little out of practice lately.” she continued. “It never hurts to brush up on a few skills.”
Vamprina stopped. Now, she was so close to Marlowe, that he could see his reflection in her eyes. Her smile unwavering, Vamprina bent down, her hair almost brushing the human’s face.
“If you’re my target though…” she whispered, her smile turning to a fanged grin. “…my skill will
hurt. Very much.”
The rookie held his bow tightly, wondering if he could use it as a melee weapon. Would she expect him to attack her right now? Of course she would. Otherwise she wouldn’t be so close…right?
A brief, tense moment passed, and Vamprina laughed but didn’t change her position. Marlowe on the other hand, tried to think of as many ways out of his predicament as he could. None seemed worth an attempt. All things considered, Marlowe was pretty sure he had no chance of doing anything while she was turned in his direction. Just as Marlowe was about to try something really foolish, James suddenly appeared behind Vamprina, swinging his remaining blade at her as hard as he could. The assassin blocked the blow with one wing and shoved him back. Turning her gaze to him, a frown edged the corners of her mouth.
“Hmmm…” she murmured, half to herself. “You’re a persistent one.”
James lined up for another blow, his injured arm dangling uselessly by his side. It was wrapped tightly in furs that he’d torn from different parts of his deerskin clothing. The flesh he’d exposed was pale and vulnerable; covered with heavy scars.
Marlowe seized his chance and thrust his bow at the assassin’s leg, but she caught it in one talon without even turning his way. She kicked it into his face, catching the rookie in the nose and sending him sprawling onto his back. Vamprina then took to the air, landing far out of Marlowe’s melee range. Once there, she brought up her wing blades, waiting.
As James approached however, she lowered her left arm. The right one was still up though. Vamprina smiled at the savage, and took on a new battle stance.
“Two blades versus one just doesn’t seem fair, don’t you think?” she asked.
James made no reply. He just began to advance, slowly, his eyes locked on her weapon.
“You’d be too easy to kill while flying…” Vamprina continued, beginning her own cautious approach. “…so, I won’t.”
Helpless, Marlowe just watched as the two blade-masters charged each other, weapons clashing. The entire forest rang with the cacophony of parries, blocks, and ringing swipes of their battle. At first, the fighters seemed evenly matched, but then the battle got much, much
faster. Vamprina forced James to his knees three times, but each time she always waited until he got back up. It didn’t take long for the rookie to notice that the savage was tiring, and quite quickly at that. Soon, Vamprina distanced herself from James, cocking her head.
“Exhausting, isn’t it?” the assassin asked, pausing a moment to chew some crusted blood off the edge of her blade. “I’ve always found the low stamina rates of humans very
inconvenient. Yours though, seems higher than most.”
James lunged, but Vamprina had anticipated the attack and parried it with one of her talons. The savage pitched forwards, nearly falling flat on his face. Vamprina secured the blade in her claw, shaking her head.
…” she continued, shoving the blade away. “…was predictable.”
James staggered, but then whirled with surprising swiftness. The attack was so unexpected that Vamprina was forced to use her left wing to block it. A smile spread across her face.
“There.” she laughed. “That’s more like it.”
Twisting her wing blade, she disarmed James easily. His blade hit the ground with a depressing thump. The savage took a huge, gasping breath, and then fell to his knees. He didn’t get up this time, but was still, head bowed, waiting for the end. Vamprina took to the air and surged off, picking up his other weapon. She then stood before him, holding the savage’s blades in her claws. Her own wing blades vanished, and Vamprina inspected the design of the weapons she held.
“These are impressive weapons.” the assassin mused, looking up at James. He didn’t move. “Fortunately for you…I find your skill worthy of my respect.”
With that, Vamprina raised the blades high. Eyes on her silhouette, James noted her position, and closed his eyes. The blow never came. The blades clattered before him, causing the savage to raise his head. Their eyes met; his bright with understanding…hers, dark and wild, like a reflection of his past life. Vamprina smiled, and James let his head droop down once more. He’d lost, and both he and she knew it.
The assassin leaned over, her mouth by his ear. Her words were whispered.
“Don’t take your defeat too hard.” Vamprina soothed. “I meant what I said. Think of our little spar as…training. Remember me at your next skirmish, and none will be able to stand against you.”
The assassin put her claw under the savage’s chin, tilting it up gently.
“Strength, brother.” Vamprina told him. “Strength, cunning, skill.”
James met her gaze again, and he nodded slightly, causing the assassin to flash him a fanged grin.
Marlowe, who had taken cover behind a rock that was way too small to hide him, sought a clean shot. He’d found one of his arrows on the ground and was trying to line the arrow up properly. However, an irritatingly strong wind had picked up, and Marlowe didn’t trust himself to make such an accurate shot from this distance. His shoulders slumped, but then the rookie spotted Rick’s sword lying in the snow. Trembling, but not knowing what else to do, Marlowe rushed over to pick it up. As his hands closed around the hilt, a surge of confidence burst through him. Heaving the weapon up onto his shoulder, Marlowe rushed towards Vamprina.
She was still preoccupied with James. With a rather girlish-sounding battle scream, the rookie brought the blade down, aiming for the assassin’s back. However, he’d miscalculated how thin it was. By the time he realized that, the sword was under the influence of gravity and couldn’t be stopped. The weapon impaled one of Vamprina’s wings, grinding into the earth with a frozen crunch. Vamprina fell, pinned. Without hesitation, Marlowe drew his last arrow and aimed right at the assassin’s head.
She turned her head, looking over her shoulder at him. The assassin sighed.
“Go ahead.” she said softly. “I’ve lived long enough.”
Shaking, Marlowe came closer, making sure that he wouldn’t miss this time. Suddenly, Vamprina’s talon shot out, securing a grip all the way around the upper part of his leg. Marlowe froze, and the assassin chuckled mirthlessly.
“Well, well, well…” she said, giving the rookie’s leg a slightly tighter squeeze. “…it seems as though we’re at an impasse.”
Heart beating wildly, Marlowe shot a quick glance in James’s direction. The savage stood a short distance away, staring at his weapons. His expression was distant; disconnected from reality. Marlowe’s heart sank. It was just him and Vamprina now.
“Tell me…” the assassin continued. “…what is your most valuable possession?”
Marlowe opened his mouth, but then shut it again. This creature had defeated his companions so easily. The last thing he wanted to do was sell her some sort of secret. The assassin shut her eyes.
“You don’t have to speak. Your shadow told me everything already…Mr. Marlowe Aethris Snowblade.”
The rookie stiffened. Aside from his family members and a couple select relatives, no one had any idea what his second and last names were. Everyone knew him as Marlowe. Just plain old Marlowe and nothing else. He raised his bow, but he was still hesitating for some reason.
“I know what you value.” Vamprina continued, sensing she’d hit a nerve. “You have a wife and daughter. I even know where they live. Do you want me to tell you?”
Anger sparked within Marlowe, but his hands were shaking again. He struggled to keep them firm.
“Don’t you dare hurt them!” he sputtered, his bowstring taut. At this range, he couldn’t miss.
“How?” the assassin asked. “I’ll be dead soon anyways. But so will you.”
Marlowe lowered his weapon, looking down at his leg. The creature’s talon was still locked around it. Noting his reaction, Vamprina sighed.
“It’s sad, really.” she told him. “You see, if you shoot, my talon will close. My instincts allow me to react very quickly…faster than your arrow, in fact. You’ve seen me up against your companions, yes?”
Marlowe said nothing.
“When I die, you lose your leg, and out here…well…your chances of survival aren’t that great.” Vamprina continued. “Think about your family. Is your life really worth my death?”
For a moment, time stood still. Marlowe stood rigid, mind whirling. The assassin had a point. Did he really want his little Annabelle to be fatherless? And Marie? A widow?
The thought stung him. He couldn’t do that to her.
“I…” he faltered. “You…I can’t…I don’t want…”
“Make your choice.” the assassin interrupted. “It won’t be long before something fierce catches wind of my blood.”
Marlowe took a deep breath, and then he brought his weapon up again. Tightening the bowstring, he let the arrow fly…right into a nearby tree. As soon as he did, Vamprina tore her wing free, sending bright red blood splattering across the snow. It looked so human, that Marlowe found himself fighting the urge to retch.
Vamprina stood before the rookie, her injured wing bleeding freely. She smiled.
“You’ve made the right choice.” she told him, and then suddenly she leaped into the air, blazing bright white like a star.
Startled, Marlowe stumbled backwards, shielding his eyes as the creature grew brighter and brighter. Squinting, the rookie took his arm away for just a moment, and caught a glimpse of…well…something that looked like Vamprina. Instead of bat wings though, she had six feathered ones, and her fur was whiter than any snow he’d ever seen. Her eyes were light blue, and as he stared, she made eye contact with him and winked.
“You guys aren’t my targets.” Vamprina said. “You all deserve to live. It was a fun fight, but I’m not here to kill you…at least…not today.”
She surged off into the woods, and returned with a dazed-looking Brent in her claws. Dropping him on the ground, she rose into the air, transforming into a star-like form…so bright…that no one could look directly at it. The star hovered there for a moment, and then vanished in a dazzling burst of light.
Blinking, Marlowe got to his feet. He was feeling fresh and invigorated all of a sudden. Puzzled, the rookie looked about, and then spotted the rest of his teammates coming to join him. A wave of relief passed over him, and he immediately ran to Rick and gave him a huge hug.
“You’re alive!” he cried.
Bewildered, Rick gave the rookie’s head a few awkward pats.
“Um…yeah.” he said, unsure of how else to react.
Frost bounded past them, barking happily. The dog shoved its nose into the dwarf’s chest, eager whines bursting from its throat. Brent embraced Frost, burying his face in the excited canine’s fur before addressing the group. As Marlowe turned to face everyone, he realized all of them had healed up. James had had use of his arm again…and…judging by the way he was holding it, he was happy.
“So,” Brent began, his face cheery and determined. “I was out for a while and must have missed all the fighting. Did any of you boys get the demon?”
Marlowe shook his head.
“No one got her.” he answered.
“What? Where did she go?”
“I don’t know. She just…healed all of us and left.”
As Rick and James nodded in agreement, Marlowe approached Brent and looked him carefully up and down.
“What did she do to you?”
The dwarf shrugged, scratching the back of his head.
“I’m not entirely sure.” he replied, slight confusion clouding his face. “One minute, I was with you, and then the foul demon came and snared me in its claws. She took me above the treeline and then I blacked out. I have no idea what she did.”
Brent paused in his tale, shaking his head in disbelief before adding:
“Why didn’t she kill me I wonder?”
The dwarf then fell silent, and all the hunters looked at each other. Rick shifted his feet awkwardly, and then spoke.
“If she’s gone…” he said. “…what do we do now?”
Marlowe smiled, and his face grew hopeful.
“We go home.”
The men set off, unaware that they radiated a brilliant white aura. The aura was invisible to their eyes…but to all the threats that hunted in the wood, the light was quite real indeed. Guarded by Vamprina’s luminescence, every hunter returned home safely. The radiance stayed with them until morning, vanishing with the fleeting night.