The women knew that they could be found and recaptured at any moment. There was, however, little that could be done. Kazé was injured and couldn’t be carried around all day safely, even if they were strong enough to do so. Their only choice was to stay put until nightfall and hope.
Prag was right about the moon. With luck, the sky would stay clear and the moon’s rays would help to heal Kazé overnight. This meant, however, that they would have to spend the night exposed and away from the safety of the cave. They prayed that their recent string of good fortune would hold through the night and by morning they would be fit to travel again. Neither of them had any delusions of safety, however. They kept their weapons close at hand and spoke only in whispers. The day would have been one of terrible anxiety if not for the antics of their curious companion.
The boy had grown tired of walking. Having mastered the basics, the advanced techniques of turning and stopping were proving far more challenging. He tumbled into the rock wall many times before eventually giving up and moving on to investigate his possessions.
His pointy thing and the shiny white thing were definitely his favourites. The way that the sunlight bounced off of them made him very happy. His pants were next. He didn’t like the colour, but he liked the feeling of taking them off and putting them on again. His shirt was also nice. It rubbed against his skin in pleasurable ways when the wind blew.
For much of the afternoon he crawled about near the cave naked, tasting various things. He quickly came to realize that the other two that were watching him had a pretty sound idea as to whether something was going to taste good or not. They scrunched up their faces at most things. They actually took away a soft round spongy thing he found and threw it off into the woods before waving their fingers at him and making a lot of very displeased noises. He decided that it must taste very bad, though he couldn’t imagine it tasting much worse than the little black and yellow fuzzy flying thing that he’d caught earlier. Not only did that taste foul, but it had hurt him when he put it in his mouth.
Cariolta was astounded with the boy’s apparently inexhaustible appetite for the inedible. As he spent his morning ingesting dirt insects, she pondered his origins.
His age was hard to determine; he was tall enough and developed enough to be almost a man, perhaps sixteen or seventeen. However the complete lack of hair on his body save the light brown tangled mass on his head, and the bright curious eyes made him look much younger. “Who do you think he is Kish?”
“I think it’s less a matter of who and more a matter of what.” Kish responded as she observed him sampling the flavour and texture of various colours of rocks.
“Alright, what do you think he is?”
“I have no idea. This kid could wrestle a dragon. I’ve never heard of anything that strong except a couple heroes of legend, and I expect that those stories were somewhat exaggerated.”
“Is it possible he is like Canifor or Desidor, children of gods? Or possibly even the God Emperor reborn?” Cariolta started her query with excitement, but trailed off as she watched the boy chew on his own foot and then thrash violently in surprise when he discovered that it hurt him, like a dog that had finally caught his own tail.
“You’ll forgive me if I hope that isn’t the case. Come on, help me move Kaz, it’s nearly dark.”
They laid Kazé out in the clearing that the boy had been walking in earlier. There was a noticeable rut in the ground where he had tread. Both women looked back at the boy in confusion. A stray thought crossed Kish’s mind as darkness settled over the glade. “Why do you think Prag let the kid keep that sword?”
“Any number of reasons, I should think. For one, the boy seems rather attached to it and I’m certainly not going to try to take anything away from him. Also, it’s a bit ostentatious. Prag probably didn’t want to be that easily noticed.”
“I suppose you’re right. Still, for a man so bent on profit I would have thought he’d try just about anything to nab that thing. I imagine it’s worth a small fortune.”
Kish laid out a blanket for the boy and he wrapped himself up in it immediately. He was asleep within minutes. He reminded her of a puppy, tired out from a day’s adventures and excited about the prospect of sleep. She smiled softly at him as he lay there in the soft grass.
“I’ll take first watch. You get some sleep.” Kish instructed the Princess, pulling her eyes from the sleeping child. “I’ll wake you as close to midnight as I can figure by the moon.”
“I’ll stay up for a bit more.” She replied. “I want to see the moon on Kazé before I sleep.”
They waited in silence for the pale half moon to rise above the trees. As the light slowly poured over the edge of the woods and into the glade, it appeared to flow into Kazé. The almost runic pattern of inter- twining stripes and zags which covered the wolf ‘s pelt, unseen in daylight, slowly began to glow. They traced their path, starting as small estuaries, meeting and growing stronger into a river of wildly swirling blue light, until the wolf was almost aflame with the wild patterns etched out upon his pitch black fur.
“I will never tire of seeing that,” said Princess Cariolta, smiling as she wrapped herself in a blanket and lay down to sleep. “Goodnight, Kish. I pray your watch is uneventful.”
Hours later, Cariolta found herself wishing that she had been more thoughtful in her prayer. She considered a variety of phrases that would have been much more fortuitous. ‘I pray that the night passes uneventfully’ might have been sufficient; ‘I pray that we reach our destination safely’ might have been an improvement over that. A greedy ‘I pray that this marks the end of our troubles’ would have been ideal, in hindsight. Instead her prayer was answered to the letter.
Just as Kish had woken her to switch shifts, a half-dozen shadows crept from the forest surrounding them and drew blades. Now she was standing in the middle of the glade, back to back with Kish, spear ready and hope draining quickly.
One of the shadowy figures repeated himself “Surrender yourself, Princess, and no harm will come to you. As he spoke, the men advanced. The six they had seen surrounded the women while two more crept from the shadows to hold blades above their unconscious companions.
They had seen these men, or ones like them before. They had been the ones who initially attacked them, and who had hounded them all the way to Ashun. They all had magical cloaks of some kind that made them blend with their surroundings. They appeared as dark shadows in the daytime, but at night they were effectively invisible until they drew their blades, all of which were uniformly short, curved, and quick.
The princess stalled “And what of my companions? Can I have your word that they’ll be unharmed?”
“Of course, Lady, if they lay down arms and come peacefully, they will be unharmed,” lied the leader of the shadowy figures.
The first time that they were attacked by these men, they had the element of surprise. They had been thought to be defenseless women and Kazé to be merely a guard dog. The attack was instead focused on the retinue of guards with which Cariolta had traveled. Together the three had surprised their assailants, badly wounded three of them and fled. These men, if they weren’t indeed some of the same men, were being much more wary of the ‘defenseless women’.
There were more than twenty that had attacked them then; they could only see eight now. The Princess hoped that this was in fact a smaller hunting party and that the rest were not hiding in the woods with arrow tips trained on them. She could feel Kish behind her. She knew that Kish was doing the same as her: running the numbers, figuring their odds of escape. Both sides contemplated their strategies, both postured and adjusted stances. Everyone was looking for an opening, a moment of weakness. The seconds drew on for hours, neither side willing to yield or advance.
The only advantage held by the women in this situation was that the cloaked men seemed to want the Princess alive. If that had not been the case, then they would have been well dead already.
Finally the princess saw an opportunity. One of her assailants had underestimated the reach of her spear. She began to lunge and everyone reacted, each blade flashed in the moonlight as it rushed in to strike. Not a single one landed before the battle was abruptly interrupted.
There was a horrible noise from a forgotten part of the glade which stopped both advance and defense dead. It was a harmony of pain. Two voices screaming, coughing and drowning in a terrible melody.
All turned to witness an horrific scene. Before them was a huge wolf, his black fur blazing with interwoven patterns of light. He stood hunched over his kill, licking his teeth which dripped with blood from the throat they had just shredded. Kazé leveled his gaze, flaming blue in the moonlight, bared his teeth and charged.
The terror of a ferocious beast bearing down upon the shadowy kidnappers would have been enough to turn the tide of battle, but it made up for less than half the horror in the moonlit diorama. A couple of yards from the noble and vicious beast was a young man, face also dripping with blood, who was mimicking the wolf ‘s actions movement for movement.
Kazé looked like a bolt of lightning as he charged—a streak of blue that bore down the closest man to him in less than a breath and eviscerated him in less than a blink.
The boy that followed was more like a crashing wave. He lacked the grace and precision of his counterpart, but made up for it in vigour. He smashed into one of the shadows at full speed sending them both flying in a tangle of limbs across the clearing. There was a very one-sided wrestling match once they hit the ground that ended in a blood curdling scream which came to a sudden and horrible stop as he tore the shadow’s head from his body.
Everyone still standing broke from their frozen terror and fled, including Kish and Cariolta. It wasn’t until the would-be kidnappers had broken the tree line and vanished into the night that the women’s animal instincts faded and reason reminded them that they were in fact running from an ally.
They turned back to see Kazé ravenously devouring the body of the man he had just downed while the boy stood, watching him curiously. His mouth and hands were covered in blood and his fingers were still wedged in the holes they had made in his victim’s skull.
They reconsidered running.