An alert Wulfrik strode between pines and yews bleeding with sap, with Reuben on his right. Both were ready to unsheathe their swords and unleash their wrath upon the dæmon, or whatever came next. But even after explaining it to Reuben, Wulfrik worried that his brother didn’t truly understand what evil it was. Or that the dæmon cannot be slain or cut down by mortal weapons. That it does not bleed. For it is as what we cast day and night. A shadow.
Reuben rooted through his possessions for his daggers. Fine Austantan steel that had tasted blood on many an occasion. Though after a few moments, he seemed almost panicked. For he drew neither Inedia nor Siti from his satchel.
His next words sounded hollow when he asked, “Wulf, where are my daggers?”
“You placed them in your bag before you began on Præmos.”
As Reuben realised the blades had gone missing, he growled and swore, swinging his sword high through the air as he did.
Briefly, Wulfrik noticed a raven in the canopy. Roosting quietly, and quite focused on the men. And not at all threatened, but intrigued. Or as intrigued as any bird has ever looked, with a cock-eyed expression, and beak agape. And it seemed familiar to him.
Reuben continued to curse loudly however, and Wulfrik turned back to the Executioner, to allay the pain of his loss. But the hardy branches of two old spruces stern stopped him half-step and mid-sentence.
Wulfrik took his sword out too, as Reuben tried to hack both trees down, sending splinters flying, though they were strictly unmoving.
“The forest means to hold us captive,” said Wulfrik.
“For what? They have a dæmon in their midst, but they choose to toy with me! Soon there will be three beasts to deal with!” Reuben exclaimed.
Without warning, they heard the crunching of twigs and undergrowth, to which Wulfrik asked if Reuben had heard.
“About six. Quadrupeds, with a large tail.”
For but a moment, an impressed Wulfrik thought, You’ve come far, Reuben; your hearing is much improved.
Then Wulfrik breathed in the frosty air, and through the mask of juniper and cedar detected the stench of large prowling felines.
“I smell fur drenched in blood. Lions perhaps,” said Wulfrik.
“In the forest? Unlikely.”
While both of them gazed into the wood, it was Reuben who spotted a grey reptilian tail. “Certainly not a lion.” the young man added. “Have you caught a cold?”
“My nose is as strong as a wolf’s. Do not underestimate me.”
Like thunder, the roar of a massive beast erupted from the shade of the wood behind them. And as Reuben and Wulfrik spun around, they saw the creature’s ruffled fur and scorpion tail emerge from the bramble.
Four strong legs held up a behemoth of a thing, stone grey and hairy, with five sharp claws each. Its head and its torso, were like a lion too, with its bloodsoaked mane, but a mouth with three whole rows of teeth along each jaw. Then at the tip of its segmented tail, were barbs which when fired, were like the sharps of arrows tipped in poison. The towering beast was the stuff of legends, the likes of which the hunters had fought only once before. A manticore.
But it was not alone. Five more swarmed the men to match Reuben’s estimate, baring claws and bloody teeth.
“It’s about time we had some fun,” Reuben joked.
“We cannot kill all of them. We need to separate before they engulf us.”
And Reuben agreed they would do so on Wulfrik’s count. So Wulfrik did.
Wulfrik listened to his brother inhale deeply, preparing himself to run.
Then he heard his heart beating, so fast; like a destrier riding into battle. But then the world slowed all around him, and his pulse dropped, and he was calm, as a rush of adrenaline coursed through his veins before he finally said, “One!”
His brother ran one way, while Wulfrik ran the other, deeper into the thicket until Reuben could no longer be seen.
Only two manticores came after him, and he presumed the others pursued Reuben. But no matter how far, and how fast he ran, the monsters were always close behind. For the trees moved closer and closer together making it near impossible to run at all. Even after twice changing direction.
Finally he stopped in the forest, where there was no glade to stand, let alone swing a sword, as trunks as thick as elephants had taken root. Where the yews were so close together he could not even face the beasts head-on his shoulders were so wide. Nevertheless, he manoeuvred around to do just that, and held his sword before him.
Come at me you fuckers.
Rampaging through the woods, with their golden eyes glaring, and shrieking loudly came creatures twice as large as the one he killed in the Klu Forest, a southern jungle where they were native. These two seem the largest of the six, thought Wulfrik. As they moved, ancient trees as tall as giants fell before them.
Suddenly a bolt was fired from the lead manticore’s tail, but Wulfrik blocked it with his sword. Then came another which Wulfrik deflected yet again. A third came from the rear beast, but the dart flew past his leg, grazing his trousers.
Then it started to snow. Flakes began to fall, and as they did, they gently settled atop Wulfrik’s curled black locks as well as his shaggy fur coat. His element. Wulfrik saw it descend, and so he belted out his battle cry and he shook his sword to taunt the beasts— who snarled just as loudly in return.
In a single bound, the first manticore leapt toward Wulfrik, its mouth wide open to swallow him whole. However, Wulfrik ducked down as the manticore went over him, and knocked over half a dozen trees as it tumbled over, making a clearing in the process.
Meanwhile the second manticore, just behind, galloped at him with its tail flailing. This time Wulfrik barely moved out of the way as he jumped to the side, back into trees bunched close together. The second manticore crashed into the first, skidding in slick slush, and knocking over a few more trees. But neither were dead. Nor were they injured.
Having regained his footing, Wulfrik clambered out of the timber and into the small clearing. There was room to swing his sword now, but very little to move around. Brandishing his weapon properly at last, he twirled the sabre in his right hand, before juggling it to his left. Then he advanced upon the proud beasts, and sneered.
Both of them stood at the same time, and without a moment of delay charged at him, forcing Wulfrik to step back.
One shot another thorn at him but he was swift to deflect it. And with both hands on the blade, Wulfrik slashed the beast nearest him across its gaping mouth, before sidestepping between the manticores, and cutting the side of the other on his backhand as it ran forward.
But the assault was far from over. On the charge, the second beast tried to impale Wulfrik with its tail but he dodged it, and it stabbed the ground instead, leaving behind a sizable hole.
At a sharp angle they turned aboutface, ready to attack Wulfrik once more. But the man was ready, and when the manticore whose face was disfigured, snarled at him, he swung his blade downward like a hammer, and struck it in the head. Effectively, splitting it in two. This time it fell dead.
Sadly, the other beast was undeterred and continued as if nothing had happened. Jabbing at him with its tail and catching Wulfrik off-guard.
He dove out of the way just in time, and rose to his feet in a flash, awaiting yet another onslaught from the beast. Unfortunately for the mercenary, the manticore whipped its powerful tail, sending Wulfrik flying into the dense trees.
Wulfrik was out for but a second and came to immediately, but he was stuck. Trapped. His right hand especially; at the wrist. As it was, he was lodged between a number of larger trees and lying on a sapling. It appeared that the trees had done their best to squeeze as close together as possible, to prevent Wulfrik from moving.
Worse still, his weapon had been flung far from his hands. He looked besides, and to his left, caught in a tangle of snow-covered vines and thistles on the forest floor… was his sword. At least an arm’s length away from his own.
Out of reach.
He saw the remaining manticore stare at him coolly from across the clearing, showing off its many teeth. There it stamped and snorted, and he saw its breath steam as the air began to chill.
Again Wulfrik struggled to free himself, but to no avail. He looked back to the sabre and stretched for it, but this too proved futile. Time was running out for Wulfrik, for the creature rushed straight at him.