By Chris Garson

Copyright 2016 Chris Garson

Sinda heard them clacking behind her, drawing closer.  She ignored her lungs gasping in protest, and the terror pounding through her heart, and pumped her legs even faster, hoping she could put more distance between her and the Skulfs.  Those mandibles were strong as iron.  They’d tear her limb from limb if they caught her.

She’d been running for so long.  She could just stop.  Skulfs looked like wolves from the neck down and were just as fast.  At the speed the monsters were loping, they’d catch up quickly.  If she stopped running, it would be over before she could weep.

But Sinda didn’t want to die.  She was only fifteen.  She had yet to experience so much of what the world had to offer.  She hadn’t even become a woman yet, but she thought she was ready to take that step.  She’d even singled out the lucky guy.  Nevin Halstead.  Nevin was two years older, lived two farms over, and she’d had a crush on him since she was old enough to crush.   The outing began as a fun trip to the Hills of Mourning with her brother, Kam, and the three Halstead boys.  Last night, sitting around the campfire while Kam told the story of the ancient queen mourned by the hills’ howling winds, Sinda almost made the first move, but she chickened out.  Now she’d never kiss Nevin.

The camping trip had turned into a blood fest. Nevin was dead, his two brothers were dead, and Kam was dead too.  They were all taking the Long Walk to Bangal’s Halls.  If she hadn’t been down by the creek filling up water skins, she’d walking alongside them.

She came back to the camp site while the slaughter was still going on.  She heard the screams before she saw anything.  She crept towards her friends, despite being absolutely  terrified, and saw Kam and Nevin’s two brother lying on the ground, torn to pieces.  The monsters had surrounded Nevin, the only one still alive, and were snapping at him.  He tried to fend them off with a smoking branch from the campfire, but he was out numbered, out muscled, and out matched.  One caught him in its mandibles and started shredding him as easily as paper.

Sinda didn’t have time to react.  She didn’t have time to think or mourn the deaths.  Her survival instincts took over even as she heard Nevin’s death screams.  She dropped her water skins and ran as fast as she could.  The Skulfs caught her scent and gave chase.  She’d been running ever since.

As a child, Sinda would hide under her bed at night, terrified of Skulfs and other Dark Ones in the stories, certain they were coming to drag her away to the Dark Lord.  Her parents would hold her and hug her until she stopped crying, and tell her that the monsters weren’t real.  And yet here they were, drenched in the blood of her brother and her friends.

She risked a glance over her shoulder.  Erlik’s Eye!  Her parent’s stories spoke of Skulfs as creatures of the night.  These monsters were hunting under the morning suns, their faceted eyes glinting like giant rubies.  They were gaining on her, driven forward by powerful legs covered with grayish brown fur.  She smelled them as they drew nearer, foul and festering like they’d come straight from the Dark Lord’s Breeding Pits.

She spied a small stand of pine not too far away and prayed to Sudnar for a burst of speed.  By the time she reached the trees, the Skulfs were so close she could hear the mandibles snapping at air.  She leapt for the lowest branch and knew right away she would come up short.  The branch was higher than it looked.  Still, when Bangal judged her he wouldn’t find her guilty of not trying.

She willed her arms and fingers to extend, to reach that branch of pine ever so close and somehow, they did.  Her fingers closed around the limb, so impossibly high off the ground that she wondered how she did it.  It was as if her arms had grown and her fingers too, stretched by magik.

“Praise Sudnar,” she whispered to thank the god of rescues for his blessing.  She would need more help from the god to survive the Skulfs.  She pulled herself onto the branch, then scrambled up two more branches to an elevation she hoped safe from the Skulfs.  It better be, she’d climbed as high the tree would allow.  The boughs above her weren’t thick enough to support her weight.

Sinda looked about in every direction, seeing only the stark hills, the Skulfs and this small stand of pine, the only foliage, indeed the only cover, within sight.  She despaired, certain she’d join Kam, Nevin and the others soon enough.  There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide from the Skulfs.

The pack circled the tree warily, slinking as if she posed them a threat.  Her body tingled, from lack of oxygen she supposed.  She’d never run so fast for so long.  She drew in several deep breaths.  The monsters seemed hesitant to attack.  She didn’t think they could reach her up here, but they would try.  Wolves were good jumpers.  It wouldn’t surprise her if Skulfs were too.

Odd.  Even through the thick layers of pine, the morning sun warmed her still tingling arms.  It was an exceptionally bright morning, as if Aeriel the Dawn Mistress was sending a sunbeam her way.  Maybe the light would drive off the nocturnal Skulfs.  Sinda held her breath, waiting for the Skulfs to slink back into whatever cave they’d come from, but they continued to circle the pine.  Minutes passed.  Maybe they needed encouragement?

“Go away,” she commanded, mustering her authority.  Her voice seemed to come from every direction.  The Skulfs below her stopped circling the tree.  Their movement became irregular.  Their mandibles clacked furiously, as if agitated.

“Go away,” she repeated confidently, suddenly certain they’d listen.  A feeling of exhilaration buoyed her and the tingling sensation grew stronger.  A ripple coursed through her.  She felt like she did when she thought of kissing Nevin, only better.  The light was almost blinding in its intensity.  She gasped as she realized the truth.  The light wasn’t coming from the three Suns.  Bright as they were, Edda, Imma and Olla’s rays couldn’t pierce the thick boughs of the pines.  The light was radiating from her.

One arm gripped the trunk of the tree.  Sinda extended the other outward, her palm facing the Skulfs.  A beam of light shot out from her hand.  The Skulfs didn’t stand a chance.

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