Monday, July 28, 2008

Chapter 83: Vantage Point

~ While Andrew and Jaden sat and gazed out over the storm-ravaged land below them, Takyle lay back on the rock with her face to the sky, eyes closed. Raindrops hit her eyelids and ran down her face like hundreds of tears. After some time had passed marveling at the elements raging around them, Jaden regained his senses.

"Hey guys... Is it exactly a good idea for us to be sitting up here, out in the open, on top of a mountain, in the middle of a lightning storm?"

Andrew shrugged. "Eh, truth be told I'm not too worried. It seems to be letting up a bit, and the main activity is off to the east anyway. And even if we wanted it, there's not a lot of cover up here."

"I suppose." Jaden pulled up his pant leg to inspect his knee. It was beginning to bruise and it seemed to Jaden that it had already swollen up. Below the knee his leg was bleeding slightly from a few superficial scrapes, but the bandage for where the hellbeast had stomped on him had actually protected the better part of his shin from the rock.

"Well aren't you lucky?" said Andrew. "You injured the same leg twice in one day. That leaves you with one good one!"

"Yes. I'm lucky. So very, very lucky," murmured Jaden dryly.

"Check this out." Andrew tilted his head back and pointed to his chin. Deep abrasions ran all along the underside of his jaw, from the right side of his face to the center of his chin. "I slipped and banged it on the rock. Bit my tongue something awful." He paused and his eyebrows drew together in overdone concern. "Be honest with me Jay. Is it bad? Will it... Will it mar my beautiful face forever?"

"Oh that's nothing." Takyle sat up and raised her arm to show its underside. "How's that for abrasions, huh?"

"Yeah ok, I guess she wins this one," conceded Andrew, after taking a long look at Takyle's bloodied arm.

"Well I also bent the corner of my fingernail back, and it really hurt. Surely that counts for something," Jaden added.

"Well if we're counting the small stuff now, then my stomach is killing me and I got some dust in my eye at one point," said Andrew. They looked at one another for a moment.

"Yeah, I guess Ta still wins," Jaden finally said. She grinned and pumped her fist.

"Yes! I'm awesome! At getting hurt... Alright guys, let's see if we can't find a little shelter somewhere to nurse our wounds and rest for a bit before we press on. Perhaps by that time the worst of this storm will be over too."

"I'd also suggest that we try to get a little drier so we don't get hypothermia or something equally as fun," added Jaden.

"Indeed," said Andrew. "By the way, good job picking the route there Boss."

"Why thank you Andrew; I enjoyed doing it. Well, up until that bit where it started raining real hard. You remember that bit?" asked Takyle.

"You mean the bit that's still going on right now?"

"Yep, that's the one!"

"Oh, that bit... I have very fond memories of that bit..."

"Yeah, there were some good times in that bit I guess... Like that one time I almost fell off the mountain!"

"Oh yeah! Man, we were so crazy back then!"

"I've got good news for you, Andrew," interjected Jaden, unclipping his harness. "You're still that crazy now." ~

Friday, July 25, 2008

Chapter 82: A Bigger Challenge

~ Just as they passed the point in time when Jaden's injuries were making the climb not strictly enjoyable for him anymore, the breeze rushing over and down the cliff face began turning colder and stronger. At first Jaden thought nothing of it. Until the sunlight suddenly dimmed and he looked up to find a thick blanket of dark clouds quickly taking over the skies. They were scudding fast and low in front of the wind, looking ominous and angry.

"Those don't exactly look healthy," Andrew called up to him.

"I'll say. Takyle, you notice the weather?"

"Yeah, let's get off of here as fast as we can," yelled Takyle, her voice getting caught and carried off in the wind that was ever growing stronger. Not terribly far off in the distance, Jaden heard the first low rumble of thunder and a large drop splashed against the back of his neck. The storm was coming fast. The wind buffeted the ropes, pinging Jaden's carabiners against the rock with hard gusts. More raindrops splashed against the cliff, falling on Jaden's hands and face, turning chalk dust into paste.

Not five minutes later the rain was coming down in icy sheets. Jaden blinked water out of his eyes as the drops streamed down his face, in a useless effort to clear his vision to find handholds on the slick rock. This was not good. This was not good at all.

A tiny shower of wet grit tumbled down from above and Jaden looked up to see Takyle struggling to regain a foothold. Their fun little stint of rock climbing had quickly taken a very treacherous turn. Jaden's own foot slipped and he banged his knee hard against the slick granite, sending a shooting pain all the way down to his foot.

"Ah, dammit! Ow!"

"You ok?" yelled Andrew, his voice sounding faint over the rain and wind. Jaden bit his lip.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine." He experimentally put some weight on his still tingling foot and found it to yet be operational. He shook the water out of his eyes, and began edging upwards again. As he continued on, his hands grew numb from the cold rain and he began to shiver.

"Good Lord, this is ridiculous. Why the hell am I here?"

"Not far to go!" Takyle shouted down.

"There's nothing quite like the thrill of a win."

"We can do this!"

"And there's also nothing quite like dying."

"No Jaden, take the left one!" directed Andrew.

"Don't be stupid. You're not going to die today."

"Keep that rope clear!"

"I hope you're right about that."

"A little further!"

"I am. You'll see."

"Jaden, give me your hand." Takyle leaned over the top of the cliff, her arm outstretched to Jaden. He grasped her wrist and threw his over elbow over the rock ledge, hauling himself up beside her. He quickly turned to look down at Andrew, only to find that he had swiftly closed the distance between them and was already grabbing Takyle's hand to scramble up onto the top of the cliff. A deafening crash of thunder followed immediately by a stunning double fork of lightning shook the entire mountain beneath them. The members of Team 6 looked at one another, and then out over the land.

For a moment, it didn't matter to Jaden that he was battered, bruised, soaked to the bone and shivering. Storms are impressive from any vantage, but viewed from atop a mountain they are nothing less than awe inspiring. Streaks of lighting chased through the clouds over and over again, running down through rain soaked air to touch the earth here and there in the blink of an eye. Fire slipping through water; then quickly back again to hide in the thunder.

Takyle sat back on the wet granite and shook her head.

"I've never seen anything like it," she said over the roar.

"And you may never again," mused Andrew.

"This is why I'm here," thought Jaden. "It really is the experience of a lifetime." ~

Monday, July 21, 2008

Chapter 81: MacCrimmon's Lament

~ Despite the trauma of the day, once he was on the cliff Jaden found it easy to put everything else out of his mind. The cool rock pressed under his hands and against his stomach and, as they climbed higher into the light, the sun's warmth on the back of his neck calmed him. Rock climbing was something the required his complete concentration and he was more than happy to give it. His burned hand throbbed, and a dull ache was beginning to settle into his shoulders, but it wasn't bad enough yet to detract from the experience as a whole.

After 15 minutes of steady climbing he heard Andrew below him begin to sing.

"O'er Coolin's face the night is creeping. The banshee's wail is round us sweeping; Blue eyes in Duin are dim with weeping, since thou art gone and ne'er returnest.

"No more, no more, no more returning; In peace nor in war is he returning; Till dawns the great day of doom and burning, MacCrimmon is home no more returning.

"The breeze of the bens is gently blowing; The brooks in the glens are softly flowing; Where boughs their darkest shades are throwing, birds mourn for thee who ne'er returnest."

Andrew's singing voice was smooth and strong, and it did the sad, ancient song justice. The words rang out across the rock, getting caught in the wind and carried here and there, giving them an ethereal quality the likes of which Jaden had never experienced before.

"Its dirges of woe the sea is sighing, the boat under sail unmov'd is lying; The voice of waves in sadness dying; Say, thou art away and ne'er returnest.

"No more, no more, no more returning; In peace nor in war is he returning; Till dawns the great day of doom and burning, MacCrimmon is home no more returning."

Even though Takyle continually paused to set anchors, she was a faster climber than Jaden and so was able to steadily maintain the distance between them. She was mindful of their limitations and chose the easier route over the slightly faster one more than once.

"We'll see no more MacCrimmon's returning. In peace nor in war is he returning. Till dawns the great day of woe and burning; For him, there's no more returning."

Twice when Jaden felt he had a firm handhold, he hazarded a look over his shoulder. The late morning sunlight spilled over the treetops on the foothills below, painting them yellow. Far away, beyond the hills a rolling plain began, stretching to the horizon. Clouds floated across the sun, casting huge shadows to race each over the tawny grasses. Jaden took a deep breath, and turned away from the gorgeous view to push upwards, ever higher. A warm wind ran down the rock face, eddying for a moment around him. It smelled damp and clean, and just a tiny bit salty. Jaden had never felt so alive.

"Sensation is deception," his mind reminded him.

"When sensation is this beautiful, I don't mind being deceived," he told his mind.

"No more, no more, no more returning; In peace nor in war is he returning; Till dawns the great day of doom and burning, MacCrimmon is home no more returning." ~

Friday, July 18, 2008

Chapter 80: A Matter of Expertise

~ "I guess we have a decision to make," said Takyle, looking back and forth between Andrew and Jaden. "Someone has to lead and set anchors. Andrew, of the three of us, you have the most experience rock climbing, with me next, but I'm worried about your stomach. I think that I should probably set."

Andrew looked at his hands.

"Ok, if you're comfortable doing that, Ta."

"Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence."

"You know I don't mean it like that. It's going to be a long climb. I've done more than either of you. I just think that it would really blow to die falling from a cliff after we've gotten this far. I trust you to get us to the top safely. I wanted to make sure that you were confident. You know that there's no room for second guessing yourself when you're climbing," said Andrew. Takyle crossed her arms and looked him up and down.

" I don't know if you were back peddling there, but if you were you did a pretty decent job."

Andrew gazed back seriously. "I wasn't. Jaden, I suggest that you go behind Takyle, and I'll be last. That way if you get stuck I might be able to help." Jaden nodded absently, tugging at the straps of his harness, testing their security.

"Do you want me to check it?" asked Andrew.

"Um, yeah, if you don't mind." Andrew stepped over and ran his hands quickly over the connections on Jaden's harness.

"Now listen," he said quietly. "This is going to be a tough climb, harder because we're carrying full packs, but we've practiced together and you'll do fine. Just keep the basics in mind. I taught you everything you need to know for this. Takyle will pick a good route, no need to worry about that. Keep your ropes taut and don't forget to clip in."

Jaden nodded. "I'm ok. I enjoyed it before."

"That's the spirit." Andrew gave Jaden a pat on the shoulder and pulled his ropes out of his pack before putting it back on. "I think we're ready Ta. Be careful, huh?"

"You know it." Takyle pulled her pack on, checked her ropes once more, and dusted her fingers in the little pouch of chalk on her belt. She looked upwards for a moment, choosing her path, and then began scaling the wall. She was a fast and decisive climber.

"If you want the honest truth, I've got a bit more time in, but she's as good as I am. Maybe better," Andrew murmured to Jaden when she was over their heads.

"Thanks," Takyle called down.

"And she has very good hearing," Andrew added, conspiratorially.

When Takyle was approximately ten feet from the ground she paused to place an anchor in the rock and clip in before continuing on. Andrew tapped Jaden's shoulder.

"It's all you. I'll be ten behind."

Jaden dusted his fingers and stepped up to the cliff. He looked over his shoulder, glancing once more back at the woods. In the shadows between trees he was sure he could see a blacker darkness lurking, out of reach of the sunlight. He quickly turned back to the wall, pushed those thoughts out of his head, and started climbing. ~

Monday, July 14, 2008

Chapter 79: Moving Up in the World

~ As Team 6 made their way cautiously through the woods, Jaden's bruised leg settled into a dull, throbbing ache and his head began to hurt to match it. Ahead of him, Andrew slipped easily through the black trees, making very little noise, but Jaden couldn't escape the feeling of being watched. Every time he managed to calm his mind, a rustle of leaves or the soft crack of a twig would immediately return him to a heightened state of alarm. Shadows seemed to take form and move around him and he was unpleasantly reminded of lying in his darkened room as a small child. Trying to sleep, but unable to close his eyes on the malicious faces staring out at him from the wood paneling.

A soft breeze blew through the forest, bringing with it the faint scent of far off rain. Jaden noticed that the underbrush was growing steadily thicker and the huge deciduous trees were giving way to slightly smaller pines and scrub. As the darkness started to go gray and birds woke, relief began to slip over Jaden. They had lived through the night. It was going to be alright. The sun broke over an unseen horizon and the treetops overhead were painted golden in the morning air.

"Hey guys. Do you want to take a break for a few minutes for some food?" asked Takyle. "More importantly: Do you think it would be safe to?"

"Yeah, I think it'd be ok," said Jaden. He was in a decidedly more optimistic mood now that it was light out. If he hadn't been sore all over he might have even been able to convince himself, with considerable effort and a good bit of repression, that last night was a horrible dream.

"Let's just stay on our toes," suggested Andrew, setting his pack on the ground and kneeling next to it. "What do you two want to eat?"

"We have a choice?" asked Jaden incredulously.

"Well... Sorta. Powder or cake of powder... That's a choice. Technically."

Takyle sat down and leaned back against a tree, taking a long drink from her canteen.

"Hit me with a Cake o' Powder, Andy." She took another drink. "You know, I think the tasks are getting harder. I mean, sure the first ones were difficult, but not quite so life threatening." She fell silent for a moment, staring into the distance. "My parents didn't want me to do this."

"No kidding," said Andrew with a laugh. "Your parents didn't want you to take time off school and spend your money to be part of a race that you could quite easily be maimed or killed in? How very illogical of them." Takyle shot a quick look at him.

"Don't tell me that you're taking their side in this. Because you don't have much room to talk. You're in the race with me."

"Yes well, you're paying me. And I stand a chance to win more money than I've ever seen before. That's not bad motivation. And, you know, I like winning and international acclaim. At least, I know I like the first one. I'm not sure about the acclaim; I've never had a chance to find that out."

As his teammates continued their conversation, Jaden studied the surrounding forest. It was definitely thinning out, and the ground had been steadily sloping upwards for some time now, rather than rolling as it had before in the foothills. They were getting close. He could feel it.

Jaden finished the remains of his protein bar and stood. He noticed that before Andrew joined him, he swallowed two of the capsules that the medic had given him. He saw Jaden watching him and raised an eyebrow.

"Remind me to change this bandage tonight, will ya bud?"

"Yeah, sure... Are you... In much pain?"

"Not as much as I would have expected," said Andrew, and started off. Jaden shook his head and glanced at Takyle before following. She met his eye. They both knew Andrew. That was not an answer to the question.

After another hour of hiking they broke through a line of trees and were suddenly out of the forest. Jaden stopped in his tracks.

Just ahead of them was a sheer vertical granite wall. Apparently they had reached the mountain. Andrew stared up at it.

"Well, shit," he remarked calmly. Jaden silently nodded in agreement, tilting his head back to gaze, open-mouthed, straight up the towering rock face in front of them. The sun in the sky overhead glared down on them, washing out Jaden's sight and effectively hiding whether or not the granite cliff had an end.
It was several seconds before Takyle broke the silence.

"Ok well, break out your climbing harnesses, guys." ~

Friday, July 11, 2008

Chapter 78: Falling In

~ Jaden quickly mixed a salve and bandaged his burned hand by the light of his flashlight while Andrew packed their sleeping bags. Takyle sat down beside him and took a packet of antiseptic powder from his medkit.

"Burned bad?" she asked, ripping the corner of the pouch off with her teeth.

"I'll be ok." Jaden rolled up his pant leg and shone his light on the side of his calf. "Friggin' hell."

The place where the beast had stepped on his leg was a large bluish mass of bruising, painted over with blood from three lacerations.

"Damn..." Takyle leaned over to take a closer look. "Andrew, get me some water over here, would you?" she called.

"Sure Boss." Andrew came over with a canteen and knelt down in front of Jaden when he saw his leg. "Dude, what the hell? Scratches? Really? The word you used was "scratches"." Jaden shook his head.

"It's not as bad as it looks. It doesn't really even hurt yet."

"Yet being the key word there. Your shoulder is all bloody too. Take off your shirt," Andrew demanded as Takyle washed the blood from Jaden's leg and began bandaging the cuts. Jaden did as he was told, momentarily surprised by how much blood there actually was on his shirt.

"What happened here?" asked Andrew, cleaning off the deep puncture wounds.

"One of those things grabbed me and gave me a bit of a toss right across the clearing there."

"Hmm, well it ain't pretty. I'm betting that's going to be pretty sore. The good news is that you probably won't get any nasty diseases or anything, what with this being a sim," Andrew told him.

"Oh yes, that's delightful news... Andy, how is it that you don't have a scratch on you from this fight?" asked Jaden. Andrew shrugged.

"I'm lucky. Lift your arm." He carefully placed a gauze pad over the wound and wrapped a bandage around Jaden's shoulder, crossing it over his chest and under his arm to keep it in place.

"Ok, there you go. That ought to keep you together. Alright, Ta, let's see yours." Andrew quickly inspected the shallow gash on Takyle's upper arm and helped her wrap it before standing. "Let's get out of here. I'm not at all convinced that we've seen the last of those things."

Jaden closed up the medkit and stowed it away. He quickly pulled a clean shirt over his head and shouldered his pack as he came to his feet.

"If more of them come... Do you think we'll be able to win again?" asked Jaden. Andrew gave him a quick glance up and down.

"Well you might not, but I intend to," he said dryly. Takyle pulled her pack on and killed her flashlight, sticking it back into its pouch on her belt.

"Ok guys, listen up. I think we should probably try for stealth. Keep quiet, stay aware, keep your daggers handy and your hatchets unfolded and on your belts please."

"Sure thing Boss," Andrew replied. "I'll take point."

"Ok, let's go," said Takyle. "Oh and incidentally, good job with the fighting. So far we're all alive, and that's how I'd like to keep it." Jaden switched off his light and checked once more that he had his weapons.

"I can agree with that sentiment," he murmured in response. Andrew looked at his compass once and set off into the black trees with Takyle and Jaden just behind him. His soft voice drifted back through the chill night air.

"Oh, you people and your ridiculous hopes and dreams." ~

Monday, July 7, 2008

Chapter 77: What It Takes

~ Jaden stared up into the beast's face and felt suddenly sick. It was flat; small nostrils placed high between the wide set eyes. The thing had a freakishly wide mouth with thin, transparent lips that didn't quite cover yellowed, serrated fangs. But it was its eyes that were the worst part.

The creature seemed to stare right through Jaden with those eyes. They were darker than the night. Blacker than anything that Jaden had ever seen before. Staring into the beast's eyes was like staring into the abyss of hell, and he couldn't look away. They were hypnotizing and horrifying. Nameless terror rose in Jaden's throat like bile.

The beast bent forward and snarled over him, its wounded arm hanging useless, blood and saliva dripping down onto Jaden's legs. He tried desperately to get his fingers to work, but it was no use.

"Guess you're going to die now, Jay... That kinda sucks."

"Oh, shut up."

Jaden slowly edged himself backwards, in an attempt to put at least a couple of feet between himself and the beast. Even a few more inches would be an improvement. It snarled again and stepped on his leg with a clawed foot, crushing it into the ground and pinning him in place, causing him to gasp as the talons dug into his flesh.

As feeling finally came flooding back into his arm in the form of a million tiny pinpricks of agony, Jaden realized that his shoulder was resting on something soft. It was his sleeping bag. The creature had thrown him all the way back into the center of the clearing.

The beast reached down to grab his other leg, presumably to either drag him away or rip it off. Jaden left off fumbling for his knife, trapped underneath his pinned leg, and threw his hand out to where he knew the fire had been. He thrust his fingers into the ashes and grabbed a handful of the still scorching coals underneath, flinging them up into the beast's face. Into those blackest eyes. The beast screeched and leap back, swiping at its face with the backs of its furry hands.

Jaden's action had been split second, but it had not been fast enough to avoid also burning his own hand. As he scrambled to his feet, he frantically scrubbed off the hot ashes that were still stuck to his palm. Before he had a chance to decide what exactly he was going to do next the creature sprang at him with a terrifying scream. It seemed the decision was made for him. Jaden tucked and rolled, thankfully coming out of it, once again, on his feet. He spun to face the beast, at last unsheathing his knife.

That was when he realized that his little avoidance maneuver had placed him with his back to the woods, and the beast with an open shot at Takyle and Andrew, still in the thick of their own battles. That was unacceptable. The beast ran at him, driving him still further from the center of the clearing. A glint on the ground caught his eye as he spun away a third time. His hatchet.

He scooped it up and, as the creature came at him for the fourth time, he stood his ground and without pause threw the small ax with all the force and precision that he could muster. The blade landed with a thunk in the beast's chest and it staggered backwards, momentarily stunned. The world paused for a moment as the creature stood there, wavering, and then to Jaden's astonishment it began stumbling forward again.

He sprinted around the slowed beast, and once again gained the center ground. As he stood there frozen, possibilities racing through his mind, something whizzed by his shoulder. A dagger buried itself to the hilt in the creature's throat and with a soft gurgle, the beast gently toppled to the earth. Jaden spun to find Andrew several paces behind him, arm still extended from the throw. At his feet, a third creature lay unmoving. A short distance away was another, Andrew's hatchet lodged in the thing's face. Its mouth was open, teeth stained with its own blood and bared in a hideous grimace.

Jaden's eyes darted to Takyle to find her just pulling her hatchet out of the abdomen of a beast that towered over her. She stepped back and watched it fall, writhing, its belly slit diagonally, entrails spilling over the ground, glistening with dark blood. She moved forward and with one more quick chop she severed its throat and slowly, gradually, the thing stopped struggling. She glanced around the clearing and, seeing no more enemy, called softly to Jaden and Andrew.

"Gather your weapons and regroup."

Jaden cautiously approached his former enemy, still not completely able to trust that it was at last dead, and dislodged his hatchet and Andrew's knife. He attempted not to look at either the beast's ghastly wounds, or its nightmare face, with limited success on both counts.

Back in the center of the bloodied clearing Takyle stood catching her breath.

"Are either of you hurt?" Andrew and Jaden shook their heads no.

"You seem to be limping there, Jay," noted Andrew.

"That thing tossed me a few yards and I just landed wrong. Bit numb; I'll be fine." Takyle nodded at him in the dark.

"Well let's pack up. There are five of those things dead, but at some point one that I wounded apparently drug itself off into the woods. Who knows; maybe it's going to get reinforcements. In any case I don't particularly like this spot that much anymore."

"I agree. We need to move," said Andrew, his voice grim.

"Ok, get your stuff." Takyle began to turn away.

"Hey Ta," said Jaden. "I kinda got a bit of a burn and a couple of, um, scratches. Do I have time to put something on those, or do you want to clear out ASAP?"

"No, do what you need to. One of those things clipped my arm, too. Suppose I ought to put some antisep on it." Jaden heard Andrew snicker in the dark as he turned away.

"I didn't get hurt at all, losers." Takyle shook her head.

"Yeah, go ahead and rub in your superiority there, Stab Wound Lad." ~

Friday, July 4, 2008

Chapter 76: The Valley of the Shadow

~ "Alright guys," said Takyle. "It's been a long day, why don't we try to sleep for 6 or so hours and then we can move on?" Jaden nodded sleepily and pulled his boots back on to grab a few more pieces of firewood before sinking down on top of his sleeping bag and falling immediately into a deep sleep.

What seemed like only minutes later, Jaden was pulled abruptly from his dreams by a shrill scream. He jolted awake and lay perfectly still, his eyes searching the black trees around them. The woods were silent. He had just decided that he must have only dreamed it when another shriek tore through the forest.

The fire had all but burned out, but by the glimmer of light that it cast Jaden saw Andrew's hand move to his knife as he raised himself up. He reached over and tapped Takyle's shoe to rouse her.

"Are you awake Jaden?" he whispered.


"That's the second scream I've heard-" Just then another shriek cut him off. When it died he continued. "That's the third scream I've heard."

"Me too."

"What the hell is it?" asked Takyle. A fourth shriek coming from the other side of the clearing made Jaden jump.

"I don't know, but it doesn't sound human to me," answered Andrew grimly. "Jaden, put out the fire. Takyle, grab a couple of thick pieces of wood that we can use as weapons if we need them." Jaden pulled out his hatchet and loosened his knife in it's sheath while Andrew freed himself from his sleeping bag. Another horrifying scream reverberated off of the hills around them, this time seeming to come from atop the trees.

Andrew was right; it didn't sound exactly human. But it also didn't sound like any animal that Jaden had ever seen. He felt his heart race and a rush of adrenalin steadied his hands. Another scream answered the last one, closer this time, and Jaden was brutally reminded of some of the things he had read about. Demons and harpies, soulless nightmare beings, damned to tread the earth. He reminded himself firmly that these things are not real.

"In a live-sim, anything can be real," his mind answered, coldly. A second animalistic scream joined the first. Either the things were moving quickly, or there were a lot of them. Jaden stood in a triangle with Takyle and Andrew, scanning the line of trees and the deeper darkness between. He whipped his head around when he heard a twig snap and thought he saw movement to his left. There was nothing there. The screams continued, closer together now, and always moving.

"I don't much like being prey," mused the voice in Jaden's mind. He gripped his hatchet tighter, his eyes always moving, heartbeat pounding in his ears.

"Oh just come out and fight already," he murmured aloud.

"Guys, if we do have to engage...whatever this is, stay close. Don't get drawn away from camp by the fight," warned Takyle, hefting her club.

"Maybe they'll just move on and leave us alone," said Andrew.

"Doesn't sound like they're interested in moving on to me, Andy," Jaden whispered. "Sounds to me like they're circling for the kill."

"How very optimistic of you Jaden," said Takyle.

"Well you know me; I try to be a realist."

"Thought you were going to leave that to me."

"Yeah well, you can have the job back if we live through this." Jaden's eyes jerked to the right when he saw a branch move. At first he thought that there was nothing there, and then he saw a pair of eyes, glittering back at him in the faint moonlight. There was more movement beside it and another shadowed form came into view. He heard Takyle draw a deep breath and felt Andrew stiffen behind him, but didn't take the time to look and see what horrors each of them was facing. He knew that the time had come.

The beasts lumbered forward. Nightmare beings they were. Slightly taller than a man, and definitely broader; their shoulders tapered up to a thick, short neck that held a head twice the size of a human's. Two horns, curved like a ram's and thick as the breadth of Jaden's hand, curled out and down, shadowing their faces.

One of them tilted its head back and issued that wretched shriek and they broke into a run. Jaden heard screams coming from behind him as well and felt his mates move to defend. He roared a battle cry in response to the creatures' wail and took four strides forward to meet the beasts halfway.

The first of the two to meet him took a wide swipe with a clawed hand, and Jaden ducked low to avoid it, temporarily throwing himself off balance. He came up on the beast's right and swung his hatchet hard, burying it in the thing's shoulder. The creature roared and whirled at him, jerking the hatchet right out of Jaden's hand. Jaden danced back and watched with dismay as the beast grabbed the shaft of his hatchet and ripped it out of its own shoulder with a jerk, dropping it on the ground. It didn't seem to be that bothered by the wound. The second beast roared and lumbered around its compatriot with surprising agility to take up the fight.

Jaden shifted his makeshift club to his right hand and bolted forward again. The second beast took a swing at him that he successfully deflected with his club, but by the time he pulled the unwieldy thing back to strike, the beast's defenses were back up. The first creature was already on him again, though blood poured from its shoulder, reflecting wet and black in the moonlight.

Jaden ducked another swing from the second beast and drove his club straight up into its groin. From its reaction he could tell immediately that these things had the very same weakness as the one he'd found on Frank Hursey when he was seven and the older boy was trying to beat him up in the alley behind the school. Handy.

Jaden dodged right to avoid the first beast's clumsy left-handed grab and delivered a quick jab to where the thing's kidney would be if it were human. It didn't seem swayed at all, but did turn too sharply to follow him, overcompensating slightly. Jaden took the opportunity afforded him and grabbed its wounded arm, wrenching it around. He heard a sickening pop and the arm became unnaturally loose as the shoulder slipped out of joint. The beast bellowed in rage and whipped around, but by then Jaden had let go and dodged back again.

He glanced over to keep tabs on the second beast and was shocked to see that the creature was already trying to get back to its feet. So they were more resilient than Frank Hursey apparently. For a split second he considered throwing his dagger at the thing while it was relatively still, but just as quickly dismissed that idea. That was exactly what he needed; for his knife to be carried off, buried in the back of some hellish beast. He had no idea what kind of hit could possibly be fatal on these things.

Instead he ran at the first beast, then dodged around the thing at the very last possible moment. He continued at full speed, heading for the second creature on its knees. He raised his club over his head and brought it down with a jarring crash into the base of the beast's scull. The wood cracked, splintering into several pieces, and the beast fell forward. Jaden flipped the jagged piece of wood in his hands over and drove it with all his might into the creature's back. He felt the thing lurch and quiver and then go still. Jaden spun back to face the first beast, his hand reaching for his knife, but he was too late. A deafening roar filled his ears and pain shot up his neck as the creature, already caught up with him, clamped onto his shoulder with a clawed hand. Those things were quicker than he gave them credit for.

The beast lifted him easily off his feet with its one uninjured arm and heaved him away from the creature on the ground. Jaden landed hard on his side and for a moment, lay stunned. He struggled to get back to his feet and pull his knife and found that his right arm was dead numb and completely useless to him. From inches behind him he heard another shriek and rolled over to find the beast with the wounded arm standing over him. It roared again and as it raised its head to the moonlight Jaden finally caught a glimpse of the its face. And he dearly wished that he hadn't. ~