It was a barrat.
I managed to stifle the scream that had climbed into my throat. The thing was huge, bigger than a boar. Its slick, oily fur rose along its curved spine. Ears pointed and snout as long as half my arm, its claws dug into the grass, ripping it from the ground as it tried to get at the Huntsman.
Phillips turned in his seat, bow in hand and arrow nocked. He let it go, the projectile whizzing through the air, striking the creature in the back of its neck. The thing shrieked as Noah tossed it from him, its legs kicking as it rolled, attempting to dislodge the bolt.
Scrambling to his feet, Noah pulled his short sword free. The bloodstone glinted in the beam of sunlight as he brought it down, silencing the beast.
“Gods,” he grunted, wiping the spray of blood from his forehead. He turned to Kieran, who still held his bow, a new arrow nocked. “Thanks, man.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“If there’s one, there’s a horde,” Hawke advised. “We need to get—”
From every direction, it sounded like the forest had come alive. A rustling grew louder, coming from the right.
I jerked back, all but plastering myself to Hawke as the horde did indeed arrive. Noah cursed as he leapt to a low-hanging branch, pulling his legs up as the rodents burst from the shrubs and moved in between the trees.
They didn’t attack.
They ran past us, darting between the agitated horses. There had been dozens of them, chattering and squeaking as they crossed the roots and then disappeared into the brush and trees.
Nothing about what had just happened gave me relief. If they were running, it was because they were running from something.
Glancing at the ground, I saw thick tendrils of mist gathering. Tiny hairs all over my body rose. The sudden scent…
It smelled like death.
“We need to get out of here.” Kieran had noticed the same thing I had. “Now.”
Noah dropped to the ground in a crouch, his feet disappearing in the rapidly thickening mist. My heart leapt into my throat as I leaned forward, gripping the pommel. I felt Setti tense under me as Noah ran to his horse, grabbing the reins near the horse’s neck with one hand, his sword with the other. He lifted the blade into the air.
The Craven was as fast as the arrow that had struck the barrat, rushing out from between the trees. His torn and ragged clothing flapped as he caught Noah, digging clawed fingers into the Huntsman’s chest as it latched on to his neck. Crimson poured down Noah’s front as he screamed and fell back, dropping his sword as his horse ran, blowing past the guards at the front of our group.
A howl turned my blood to ice, and my stomach seized as it was answered by another and another—
“Shit,” growled Hawke as Luddie turned his horse around, catching the Craven who’d downed Noah in the head with a bloodstone spear.
“We won’t make it if we run.” Luddie flipped the blade of his weapon upward. “Not in these roots.”
Heart thumping, I knew what that meant. The mist was now at our knees, and our luck had run out.
“You know what to do,” Hawke told me. “Do it.”
I gave a curt nod, and then he swung one leg off Setti, dropping to land on the roots. I slid from the horse, stepping down so I wasn’t in the twisted mass. I glanced to see the others doing the same. Airrick spotted the dagger in my hand, his brows raised.
“I know how to use it,” I told him.
He gave me a boyish grin. “For some reason, I’m not surprised.”
“They’re here.” Kieran lifted his sword.
He was right.
They flew from the trees, a mass of gray, sunken flesh, and decayed clothing. There was no time to feel panic. Despite being almost nothing more than skin and bones, they were frighteningly fast.
“Don’t let them get to the horses,” one of the guards shouted as Hawke stepped forward, thrusting his sword through a Craven’s chest.
I braced myself, seeing nothing but blood-stained fangs, and then one came straight for me. Snapping forward, I slammed a hand into its shoulder, ignoring how the skin and bone seemed to cave under my palm, and then shoved the dagger into its chest. Rotten blood spurted as I yanked the blade free. The Craven fell, and I spun, grabbing the torn shirt of another Craven who was making a run for Setti. Shoving the dagger into the base of its skull, I grimaced as I pulled the blade free.
I looked up, my gaze snagging with Hawke’s. He gave me a tight smile that hinted at the dimple. “Never thought I’d find anything having to do with the Craven sexy.” He swung, lopping off the head of the one nearest him. “But watching you fight them is incredibly arousing.”
“So inappropriate,” I muttered, letting go of the Craven. I turned and danced out of the grasp of another. I shot toward it as it grabbed hold of my cloak, slamming the dagger into its chest. It went down, nearly taking me with it
My blade was effective. Unfortunately, however, it required close contact. I quickly scanned the area and saw Kieran moving with the grace of a dancer, a sword in each hand as he took down one Craven after another. Luddie was making great use of his spear, as was Phillips with his bow. Airrick stayed close to me, the mist now to our thighs.
Wailing, a Craven rushed me. Grip tightening on the wolven bone handle, I waited until he was within grasp and then darted to the left as I shoved the bloodstone up under its chin. Sucking in a sharp breath, I took a step back as I willed my stomach to settle. The smell…
“Princess. Got a better weapon for you.” Picking up Noah’s fallen bloodstone sword, Hawke tossed it to me, and I caught it.
“Thanks.” Sheathing the dagger, I turned and struck out, slicing through the neck of the closest Craven.
I loved the dagger, but the lightweight bloodstone sword was far more useful in this situation. Able to keep a bit of distance, I cut down another Craven as my heart thumped against my chest. The back of my leg bumped into something, and I jerked to my right, putting my foot down. My boot slipped into the roots as I swung out, catching the Craven in the chest. It wasn’t a clean blow. I’d missed its heart. I yanked the sword free and shifted my legs to brace myself as I went for his neck.
I’d forgotten about the roots.
Foot snagged, I tripped and tried desperately to catch myself, but I went down as someone crashed into me, knocking me free of the roots. Airrick. He caught the Craven as I fell, tackling him as they both disappeared under the mist.
My head slipped under the fog, and for a moment, there was nothing to see but a white film. Panic exploded in my stomach. My free hand hit the ground. It was too slick under my palm. I was thrown back through the years, to when I was tiny and frightened, my grip on my mother desperate and slipping—
I heard Vikter’s voice in my mind. A warning he’d given me in training at the very beginning. Never cave to panic. If you do, you die. He’d been right. Fear could heighten the senses, but panic slowed everything down.
I wasn’t a child.
I wasn’t tiny and helpless anymore.
I knew how to fight back, knew how to protect myself.
With a shout, I pulled myself free of the memory and pushed to my feet just as a hairless Craven reached me. I jammed the sword forward, slicing into its heart. It didn’t even so much as whimper as its soulless eyes met mine. All it did was shudder and then fall backward. I turned to find Airrick, realizing that the mist had retreated, slipping down our legs and thinning. That was a good sign as I stalked toward a now visible, wounded Craven crawling across the ground toward one of the horses. I planted my boot on its back, shoving it to the ground as it howled. I jabbed down with the sword, silencing it. The mist was all but gone now.
Breathing heavily as Hawke thrust his sword through the chest of the last remaining Craven, I turned to survey the damage. Only five guards were standing, not including Hawke. I saw Kieran and Luddie above a Huntsman who was very clearly dead. I saw the guard whose sword I held, and I knew that Noah had been gone the moment the Craven had sunk its teeth into his neck. I kept turning until my gaze found Phillips. He knelt beside…
He was on his back, both his and Phillips’ hands pressed against his stomach. His pale skin made his brown hair seem so much darker, and there was…there was so much blood. Lowering the sword, I walked over to where Airrick lay, stepping around the fallen Craven.
“Is…she…is she okay?” Blood trickled out of his mouth as he stared up at Phillips. “The…”
Phillips glanced up at me, his brown skin taking on a shade of gray. His eyes were somber as he nodded. “She’s more than okay.”
“Good.” He let out a wheezing breath. “That’s…good.”
Heart sinking, I lowered to my knees and placed the sword beside me. “You saved me.”
His eyes flicked to me, and he coughed out a bloody, weak laugh. “I don’t…think you…needed saving.”
“I did,” I told him, glancing at his stomach. Craven claws had caught him, digging in deep—too deep. His insides were no longer in. I hid my shudder as Hawke drew closer. “And you were there for me. You did save me, Airrick.”
Hawke knelt beside Phillips, his gaze meeting mine. He shook his head, not that I needed to be told. This wasn’t a survivable wound, and it had to be so painful. I didn’t need my gift to tell me that, but I opened my senses, shuddering at the raw agony pulsing through the connection.
Keeping my attention focused on Airrick, I picked up his hand and folded both of mine around it. I couldn’t save him, but I could do what I hadn’t been able to do with Vikter. I could help Airrick, and make this easier. It was forbidden and not exactly wise to do it when there were witnesses, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t sit here and do nothing when I knew I could help.
So, I thought of the beaches and how Hawke made me laugh, how he made me feel like I was living, and I pushed that warmth and happiness through the bond and into Airrick.
I knew the moment it hit the guard. The lines of his face relaxed, and his body stopped trembling.