I walked back to where I had left the hunters. As I went I wondered what the sisters would want with this world door and why they needed me. Did they want me to transfer Melsa to this creature they were afraid of? Were they there when my brother died? My Father never mentioned them being there. Were they watching from the shadows?
Melsa flew from tree to tree as I trudged through the woods. I couldn’t figure out how Ashlyn was able to walk without stepping on a twig or kicking a root. I made so much noise as I walked, the hunting party knew I was coming long before I arrived. Not only that she moved faster than I could.
“Ho, Mr. Hill!” Hane called.
I waved and continued my approach. Lien met me as I got closer, he had used my delay to set traps.
“Mechal,” He began “This is bad business, the sisters. I don’t even know what you talked about, but I know they’re baiting you. And this business with the bird is at the heart of it.”
“What would you have us do? If I ignore them, they’ll sabotage us any way they can. They’ve already tried killing you five off so I’d be alone.” I said.
Lien rubbed his stubbled chin. “Hm. That’s true, I hadn’t thought of it that way. It looks like we’re already in their trap. The bad part is, you usually end up gnawing off your own leg to get out of a snare.”
“Besides, they have information I need.” I said.
Lien’s eyes grew wide. “Well then, they have you in a grasp trap! Animal puts it’s paw in.” He gestured excitedly to show the action. “An’ grabs a tasty morsel, but then it’s paw is too big to pull back out. Does it put the morsel down so it can get away? No! It hangs onto that tasty bit even up to the point where the trapper comes and puts it down.”
“What?” I responded incredulously.
“Ay, that’s you. You’ve got your hand on a tasty morsel an’ won’t let go. You think you’ll get what you came for, eventually but they’ll put you down before they let you have your prize.” He said.
“That might be but if this is a trap I have something they want too. They can’t just kill me.”
“Yeah, but what about the rest of us?” Lien asked.
We arrived at the path. Thian and Morg approached.
“Well?” Morg demanded.
“The sisters will go ahead of us as we originally intended. They’ll leave messages showing the best way.” I said.
“Ok, ok, but what are they after? They want something, what is it?” Morg said.
“Have any of you heard of a world door?” I asked.
Each man shook his head.
“It’s new to me too. Ashlyn said the village founders talked about doors that would reopen. Their children lost faith in the story and didn’t speak of them. Maybe they thought it was a fantasy. Anyway, she says they found one. What they want with it she wouldn’t say. They need me to help get to it for some reason.” I said.
“What about our hunt?” Morg asked.
“Don’t worry about that. You’ll still have it. We will find out what this error is, and then I’ll go with them while you hunt. They’re moving out ahead of us, so we should get moving.” I said.
“I don’t like the idea of you going alone with those two.” Thain said.
“I appreciate the concern Thain. With all respect, I don’t know if all of you could protect me from the sisters if they decided to hurt me. There’s more to them than they show. It’s no wonder they won’t let anyone else hunt with them.” I said.
Lien came up close to me and whispered, “You should consider packing up and returning to the village.”
“We’ll continue, I know that there’s trouble ahead but the cost of turning back is too much. The village would turn against me and my family and we need something to pay off the cost of our provisions.” I said.
Slowly, each man picked up his pack and started walking.
“We’re about a day behind now. We’re going to have to pick up the pace and rely more on hunting.” Thain said.
The Masdodil screeched as Hane prodded it forward. The trail was made by hundreds of hunting parties that have made their way out into the wilds. The way was rutted by the passage of huge carts bringing food, leather and other valuables that come from the beasts. Sometimes a tree would be in fruit and a hunting party could bring food from it but without hunters, there would not be any food.
We marched as hard as we could that day. I thought I was doing well until we stopped to camp that night and found my feet were blistered. My shoes were not made for hard marching and we left in such haste there was no chance to equip myself with better gear.
I didn’t want the others to see how bad my feet were, so I kept them covered.
At breakfast Lien approached me again.
“Lad, I’ve been thinking. A lot of times, a trap is just a matter of a trick of the mind. Find yourself in a trap and the first instinct is to try to pull free. That’s usually what tightens the trap. Don’t pull away and it might be easier to get out without losing too much.” He said.
“So you’re saying go along with them?” I asked.
“Well, not exactly, but don’t fight it until you’ve slipped out of the trap. You’ll only hurt yourself.” He said.
“I think I understand what you’re getting at, but I’m not sure how to do that in our situation.” I said.
“Well, the trap is us.” He said. “I mean me and the other men. Without us, what do the sisters have to hurt you with? You said they need you, they can’t do anything to you. Well, maybe they could hurt you a bit but you’re more worried of what they’d do with us.”
“Ok, maybe. What about it?” I asked.
“Well.” He began, then looked straight into my eyes to emphasize his words. “An’ I ain’t sayin’ this out of cowardace.” He paused again to make sure I understood. “But if we left you when they ain’t look’n, you push forward and we double back, they’ll be too far ahead by the time they notice we’re gone to catch up with us.”
“It would be an unprofitable trip.” I said.
“Not necessarily.” He said with a little smile. “You see, ‘bout twenty years back, there was trip that went out an’ one fellow in the party sabotaged the rest of the hunters. He made out pretty well bringin’ in a hunt for himself but the mayor made him compensate the other hunters when they show’d they’d been sabotaged. I figure that what the sisters are doing counts as sabotage an’ they’d have to compensate us.” Lien said
I shook my head. “I’m not too sure, maybe. You should talk with the others and see if they’ll take that chance.” I said.
“That I’ll do.” He answered.
“But what do I do after that? I’ll be alone with them.” I worried.
“That I can’t work out. They got somethin’ unnatural going on but I ain’t seen what it is. This much is certain though. They’re after something more.” Lien said.
“They can have whatever it is, I don’t really care. I just want to know what they know about Jash and my family.” I said.
Lien groaned a little. “Don’t be too sure ‘bout that. Those two are mighty dangerous, an’ I don’t just mean in a fight. I’ll tell you somethin’ These guys love a fight. They want to go up against every wild beast there is. I’ve always thought a smart man’ll let his enemy tire themselves out and then clean up.” He looked me in the eye again. “An’ you never fight an enemy where they’re strong. You find what they’ve ignored an’ come at them from there.” He slapped my chest with the back of his hand. “Listen to those two things, you’ll live longer.”
I nodded to acknowledge his advice.
We packed up the camp and started marching. Every step hurt and only got worse than the last. I struggled to keep up. I tried to keep my mind off the pain by thinking about all the questions I had but the pain made concentrating impossible. All I was doing was making myself more miserable.
I thought the blisters were bad but my legs were sore from walking so much. I’d never traveled so far in my life.
We found arrows marked on the road, showing which fork in the road to take, left by the sisters. Each time we followed their path I wondered if they were guiding us safely or bringing us into a trap. The thought slowly faded as each time our way was clear. They even left kills of small animals for us to supplement our food stock. Dilan and Hane rode the cart and cleaned the animals and packed them in salt.
As the sky dimmed, we began to look for a place to camp for the night.
Morg kept looking behind us with a worried look.
“What’s the matter Morg” Thain asked.
“Do you hear that?” Morg asked.
Thain picked up his head. “No.” He waited again. “No, nothing.”
“I thought I heard the sound of a trot.” Morg said.
Thain now grew concerned. “If you did, it’s a predator and they’d be close. Any idea how big?”
“It was real quiet.” Morg answered.
“The Sisters, they lead us into a trap!” Dilan exclaimed.
“No.” Morg said, “They’re up ahead of us, this was from behind. Something’s been tracking us.”
“Look!” Lien said, pointing into the woods.
We looked where he pointed but saw nothing.
“What was it?” Thain asked.
“All I saw was a shape, a bit bigger than a man.” Lien said.
“Wait.” I said. “Melsa, are there any large predators out there?”
“Yes, there are seven tigerwolves less than thirty five meters away and closing.” Melsa said.
“They can cover that distance in a blink.” Lien said.
“Can you lock them?” I said.
“I can lock one of them.” she answered.
“Lock it and transfer to another.” I commanded.
“Done.” She said and the pidgemartin flew away.
“Eyes up!” Morg shouted.
In an instant five huge tigerwolves launched themselves into the clearing of the road. Their claws unsheathed and teeth flashing in the fading light.
Morg caught one on his spear as it leapt at him, impaling it as it’s weight carried it forward, but the spear only caught one lung.
Thain let loose his arrow into the shoulder of another. In the blink of an eye, Thain had his sword drawn and brought it down on the creature’s head, stunning it and sending it circling away.
I started to draw back my bow, but remembered that I could not attack these creatures or I would no longer be a TOW. The locked Tigerwolf and the one that Melsa transferred to would be free to attack.
Hane swung his sword at a charging beast but failed to connect. Even though Hane was easily a head taller than me he looked tiny as the tigerwolf swatted him, ripping open his leg with it’s claw. Lien ran up and stabbed the tigerwolf with a dagger.
Dilan released the mastodil from the cart just as two of the predators lunged at it. The mastodil’s reared up to attack with it’s front claws and snapped at the tigerwolves with it’s beak.
The tigerwolf Morg had speared, flailed and snapped the shaft of the spear.
Thain’s tigerwolf circled and charged at Morg this time.
“Morg! Behind you!” I shouted.
Thain dropped his sword and before it hit the ground, he fired off an arrow. I caught the tigerwolf in the back and sunk deep but didn’t stop it. It continued to charge and swatted Morg to the ground.
Thain let another arrow fly as the tigerwolf bore it’s teeth to crush Morg’s head. The arrow struck it’s neck and it collapsed.
The mastodil managed to stomp down on one of the tigerwolves with it’s huge clawed feet with an awful crunch. The other tigerwolf, must have decided it didn’t want to end up like it’s partner and ran.
The speared tigerwolf staggered and snarled. Morg grabbed another spear from the cart and charged it. He hurled his spear and struck it in the chest. Before it fell, it gave a spiteful glare at Morg that I will never forget.
“Hane” Dilan called out.
Hane was bleeding badly from his leg and didn’t look like he should be standing. He held a bloody sword in his hand and looked like it was more than his blood on him.
“He. He saved me.” Hane said.
We looked over and saw Lien, his body ripped and broken. He gave Hane enough time to hack at the beast and kill it but it was at his own expense.
We gathered round Lien’s body. As it has always done, the ground slowly drew his remains down into it. Small tendrils of roots grew up all around to wrap up his body and then larger ones continued to enwrap him until the whole mass sunk beneath the ground.
A tigerwolf approached and Thain drew his bow.
“What is your evaluation of the tigerwolves?” it asked.
“Melsa! We thought you were one of them.” I said.
“I am one of them.” She said.
“Well, yes, but you’re not going to attack us.” I answered.
“Why would I do that?” She asked.
I didn’t answer. Lien was gone and Hane was badly wounded, I wasn’t in the mood for this banter.
“We should get to a Glyph to restore the one that died.” Melsa said.
“Restore? What do you mean restore?” I asked.
“The system has preserved him, the Glyph can repair and restore him.” Melsa said.
“But we can’t get the Glyph to answer us.” I said.
“We must correct that.” Melsa said.
“The Glyph can bring back the dead?” Morg said.
“We need to help Hane or we’ll need the Glyph to bring two back.” Thain said.
We wrapped Hane’s leg as well as we could but the bleeding was so bad we had to tourniquet it. He would lose the leg now.
Dilan was having a hard time getting the mastodil back in it’s harness he was too shaken by Hane’s condition. We helped him corral the beast and reconnect it. All of us were tired from traveling and shock was setting in. We tried to set up camp but we did a poor job. Our fire barely lasted through the night and wouldn’t have kept anything away.
Melsa lay down next to me. It was unnerving to have her in that tigerwolf. Her breathing was heavy as she lay awake. She did not seem to require any kind of sleep.