Youâ€¦you shot me. Princeâ€™s face was a mask of disbelief as he stared down at the arrow lodged in his chest. He wobbled then tipped forward and hit the ground with a wet thud.
Fenris held her breath then drew a shaky sigh of relief when the body did not move. It was done. The comforting warmth returned and stilled her shivering.
She then moved past the body and ascended the steps. There was a pocket of warm air as the coals in the braziers still smoldered. The heavy double doors were closed. No light slipped through the cracks at the bottom. She pressed on the door, and it yielded. The door was not barred. She steadied her breathing and nocked another arrow. She could hear something behind the doors. It sounded like fabric being ripped.
The young woman threw her shoulder on the door with a solid boom. As the double doors swung open from the force of her blow, she took a step back and readied her bow. Light from outside slowly filtered into the interior of the lodge. It mingled with the glow from the torch brackets that hung from the three foot wide support beams that flanked the central space all the way to the far side of the lodge. Several paces behind the beams were deep blue drapes that rippled from the inrush of air from the door. They covered the walls and kept the chill of the night at bay.
In the center were rows of tables that ran parallel to the beams with long benches on both sides. The tables had been set. Food and drink sat untouched and forgotten in their platters and flagons upon the tables. Another feast had been prepared, but was displayed on the thick rugs that were spread over the floorboards.
â€œOh gods,â€ she whispered with eyes wide.
She took a step back from the barely humanoid creature hunched over the dead body of one of her clansmen no more than 5 yards from the door. The creatureâ€™s eyes were vacant orbs of polish obsidian set in a vague gorilla-like skull. It had bulging muscles covered in dagger-like thorns as long as long as her fingers in four rows; a pair ran down its spine and another pair down its oversized arms. The tearing sounds came again when it stooped over to rip another chunk of meat from the corpse with its wide jaws filled with needle-like teeth.
Scattered all over the great hall were these monsters. The sound of tearing flesh filled her ears as over a dozen of them feasted on the flesh of the men, women and children of her clan. The thorn ape closest to her looked up from its meal, as if surprised by the interruption.
Fenris screamed her grief and rage as she let her arrow fly. She did not even aim, but her shot was perfect and skewered the apeâ€™s head. Strange energy surged through her muscles. It gave her skin a healthy amber glow as she smoothly drew another arrow. It scared her, but her it also gave her a confidence that she had never felt in her life.
The remaining beasts shrieked and launched themselves towards her. Many trampled half-eaten bodies as they did so, sped on by the snarls of their fellows. Fenris responded with a snarl of her own and drew her bow for another shot. Then the hall knew daylight.
The sudden flood of light blinded the thorn apes. Several of them even turned tail to flee. She ignored the light. It did not blind her in the slightest. â€œYou dare run after defiling the bodies of my kin!â€ she screamed and released another missile. Golden radiance flared from her bow arm to the missile as it flew. The light enveloped the arrow and one became six.
Each shining arrow found the flesh of a fleeing ape and in an instant six of the abominations were dead.
By now a handful of the apes had recovered from the stunned light. Two lunged at her with stubby but wickedly clawed hands. They moved with frightening speed but to Fenrisâ€™ eyes they were sluggish and she easily took a long stride to the right, another arrow already in place. She dropped to a knee as she did so, her other leg extended to brace her body while she drew a bead on the passing apes.
With the grotesque gorillas still airborne, she let her arrow fly. It flew cleanly through the first apeâ€™s skull and embedded itself into the throat of the other.
The dying ape writhed in a spiky mass but she paid it no mind as the entire room erupted in inhuman screams of bloodlust. The light that surrounded her burned with even greater intensity as she sent one charging ape to Malfeas, then leapt over the head of the one right behind it. She twisted her body to bring her bow to bear against a third that had launched itself into the air to intercept her. Its jaws were wide open, she saw rows of needle-like teeth and smelled the rank decay in its breath.
She fed it her arrow.
As soon as she landed on one of the hallâ€™s banquet tables Fenris threw herself into the air once more. Her feet barely left the tableâ€™s sturdy surface before an ape smashed it into so much kindling with a single blow. A startled hiss escaped through her clenched teeth.
She fitted an arrow as she performed a backflip and landed deeper within the central space with tables on either side of her. She counted only four of them left. They were cautious of her now, and took shelter behind heavy tables and thick columns. It would afford them no shelter, she somehow knew, and fired her bow. The arrow flared with the light of the noonday sun as it flew. It burned through the three foot thick support column like paper and felled the beast on the other side.
The final three realized their folly and charged the blond woman. Her hand then became a blur of motion, and three more thorn ape corpses hit the polished redwood floors. They had not even managed to cross more than six feet. The one she shot through the column staggered out from its cover and fell to the floor with enough force to crack the boards. Then the hall was silent once more.
Fenris shook her head and shut her eyes. The smell of death and blood had started to edge into her senses when the battled had ended. Her stomach felt weak and threatened to rebel. She made for the double doors, and took care to keep her eyes away from the bodies of her kin. Instead she looked at her hands, at the radiance that formed a corona around her. â€œWhat was this power?â€ she wondered aloud. â€œWas it your doing, soul-drinker?â€ she asked the emptiness. It hung in the still air for a heartbeat.
A piercing shriek drew her attention to the front of the hall. In the doorway stood the unmistakable figure of Prince. His face was creased with rage, his voice splitting the silence with a shriek that sent a chill down her spine.
Fenris hid her surprise with a mask of anger, â€œWhat have to done to me?â€ she demanded and pulled another arrow out of her quiver.
Burning tears ran like rivers down Princeâ€™s fury-filled face, the liquid flames pooled around his feet, which spread quickly onto the dry rugs. The flames then caught on the walls and snaked out to nearby furniture. The torches around Fenris flared with unnatural fury. Fiery leaves that cut the curtains like razors swirled around his body as he plucked the arrow from his chest and discarded it with a flick of his wrist. His eyes held pure disgust.
What have I done? I only gave you everything you ever dreamed of. Everything you ever desired I set at your feet. But what a fool I have been. I see it now. You have not been faithful. He scooped a handful of the blaze around him and it warped and bent in his hands until it formed a blade of fire. He leveled his sword towards her, the flames were so fierce that his face was all but completely obscured. No. You let HIM touch you; let him make you his whore. After all that I have done for you. Donâ€™t try to deny it. I see his mark upon you now. You still reek of him. The very sight of you offends me. You are not worthy of my love. You are not worthy of anyone!
â€œI know nothing of the madness that you speak, monster. I am sullied by your hand alone and for that and for the honor of my clan I will destroy you just as surely as you destroyed everything I held dear.â€ She drew her bow. Flames danced over the tables and benches as the fire greedily consumed the wood to fuel its march. The torches belched flames into the ceiling and set the beams overhead ablaze. Rugs roared and turned to walls of fire. Smoke filled her vision and choked her breath. The heat lashed across her skin.
The soul-drinker smirked contemptuously and opened his arms wide. Do try.
The corona that surrounded Fenris surged to life once more. The radiance bleached the floorboards and banished every shadow. The flames curved away from her, as though repelled by the light and searing golden light wrapped around her arrow like a sleeve. It stretched up both her arms and flared behind her like wings for a long breath. They then coalesced into the form of two massive wolves that stood at her side.
They were like ghostly statues of gold brought to life, wreathed of burning sunlight. The wolvesâ€™ shoulders stood as tall as hers, their fur rippled like a field of wheat. Their bodies were tense and their paws scratched at the sun-whitened floor, but left no mark. Eyes of the richest purple were their only other color. They hinted to intelligence and power. They were identical in almost every aspect save for a mark on their foreheads. The one to her right had the triple slash crossed by one cut, the mark of her clan. The other to her left had the five petals of the peach blossom imprinted on its brow. The pair snarled soundlessly and bared their fangs at Prince with savage nobility, and for a moment she saw fear in the soul-drinkerâ€™s eyes.
She released her arrow. The missile sliced through the flames between her and Prince, causing them to bend and curl in its wake. Prince was just as fast and moved his blade into the arrowâ€™s path. The two weapons met with a thundering boom and the arrow shattered into a million dusty motes. The blow knocked him backward however, and he disappeared out of the doorway head over heels.
Beams and support columns, already weakened by the fire, cracked and splintered under the weight of the building. Burning debris fell from the rafters, shattering tables and spawned clouds of hot orange ash. Fenris shielded her face with her free arm and leapt with all her might for the door.
Flames licked at her clothes and boots as she crossed the distance, but she was rewarded with a breath of smokeless air as she tumbled outside. The force of her jump kept her moving however, and she slid painfully across the platform and down the steps. A groan passed through her lips as her right shoulder and hip hit the steps hard, and she felt her hand lose the bow. The heat of the flames did not subside. Shocks of pain shot up her shoulder and hip, but she kept rolling to put out the bits of the fire that still hung on to her evermore raggedy cloths.
She caught movement off to her left and rolled into a crouch in time to see Princeâ€™s fiery sword as it descended towards her head. Then the wolves were there. She jumped backward as the one with her clanâ€™s crest snarled at the weapon that sank into its golden hide. The weapon slowed and barely grazed her as she moved out of its range. In an instant, the wolves were once more at her side. They circled her protectively and growled in strange silence.
She did not know what they were, but she was glad for their presence. Were it not for them, sheâ€™d be dead. Her bow lay at the base of the steps, only just out of reach. Her shoulder and side throbbed, and the scrapes on her arms and shins stung. There was a loud crash as a large piece of the lodgeâ€™s roof caved in, sending plumes of smoke and sparks into the open air. Some of these fiery motes flew unnaturally towards Prince, where they swirled around him like a typhoon. He made a lazy gesture with his hand and the sparks transformed into many burning arrows which then shot towards her in a raging torrent.
Fenris dove out of the way arrow-storm, reclaiming her bow in the process. The missiles exploded when they continued unimpeded and exploded when they hit the steps, turning into so much burning tinder. The wolves followed her every move, never straying for more than several paces away from her. They continued to circle her, but because of their semi-translucence, they did not impair her vision.
Hold still! The soul-drinker looked almost childlike in his petulance.
She loaded another arrow and pulled the string taunt. â€œDie already!â€ she retorted and fired, trying to coax the strange light tingling in her arms into the arrow as she did so. The arrow became a bolt of light as she had hoped, then split into six like before. This time, they all streaked towards Prince, who managed to deflect three of them before taking two in the thigh and shoulder. The last sliced into his side, spilling strange iridescent slime onto the ground.
A grim smile touched Fenrisâ€™ lips as the soul-drinker screeched and bellowed in a rage, lamenting at how wrong this was. So far her abilities have been called upon through instinct alone, but she was now able to exert some kind of control over it. It would have to be enough for now. She stood and drew her arrow and felt that it was the last in her quiver. She could feel the fireâ€™s heat on her back as it consumed her home. Wood that supported the weight of centuries cracked and snapped. The flames crackled and roared, and filled the air with black smoke mingled with the scent of burnt flesh. It stung her eyes, and choked her breath, but she stood firm.
Then the insane monster ran.
I cannot die stupid hag. Not whilst the evil witch still draws breathe. He taunted her as he shot into the air and sped away, his maddening giggles echoing through the trees.
Fenris sputtered a curse and gave chase. She sprinted across the lodge grounds, refusing to let the demon out of her sight. When the young woman reached the edge, Prince already had a wide lead. As she leapt from one bough to the next, and dashed down longer branch networks, the wolves at her side slowly faded back into the glowing radiance surrounding her, which continued to burn brightly. It brought day to the darkness that always shrouded the Tangle and bleached ancient tree bark that had not seen the sun since before the time of man.
Prince stopped his flight after passing three building-wide tree trunks and turned towards her. He stopped at a large open space of interwoven tree branches and floated several feet from the ground with the grace of a soap bubble. The wounds on his shoulder and leg bleed that pearly ooze but he did not look the least bit pained. He watched her condescendingly as she approached with her bow ready but not trained towards him.
Evil and loathsome witch, he said with dramatic flare, I now know what your weakness is! With it, you will be banished forever and I can continue my quest to find my princess.
â€œWhat are you talking about now?â€ Fenris snapped and came closer to the center, where he floated. The air was still here as well. No birds or other animals dared to move or to make a noise with the soul-drinker nearby. Her corona had lost some of its brilliance as well, and her muscles quivered from weariness but her need to put down the monster in front of her kept her standing. The smell of smoke and burnt flesh still hung around her, and she doubted that she will ever be rid of the stench.
Prince only smiled a pitying smile when a groan of pain drew her gaze to the edge of the clearing far to her right. The figure that made the sound was hidden in the shadows, but quickly staggered into the glow from her body. Hakon took a step towards her then fell to his knees as his strength failed him.
â€œHakon,â€ she cried and ran to him. As she got closer, she spotted the branch where she had her cousin earlier only a short distance away from the clearing with the light of her corona. The spot was soaked black with old blood.
He began to fall forward when she neared, and her bow and arrow fell from her hands him so she could hold him up. His dark hair was matted and his brown eyes were dazed, as though he had just awoken, and his shoulder was not bleeding anymore. â€œHakon, thank the gods youâ€™re alive,â€ she said breathlessly and held him gingerly, not wanting to injury him further. â€œI thought I had lost you like everyone else.â€ Tears carved channels down her soot covered face, and for a moment, she thought that she still had something to hold onto.
Then Hakon, still hunched over her shoulder slowly turned his head towards her. â€œWhy did you kill everyone?â€ he whispered into her ear, his hands latched onto her arms, just below the shoulders.
Fenris felt as though he had driven a knife through her heart. She tried to pull away but Hakonâ€™s grip was like a vice. â€œI didnâ€™t know this would happen. I never wouldâ€™ve wanted this to happen. I-I justâ€¦â€ she did not know what else to say.
Shame and humiliation bore down on her soul but her cousin did not comfort her. Instead a sickly grin appeared on his face an instant before his strong hands shot up and locked around her throat. â€œWhy did you let me die?â€ he asked. His voice was mockingly cruel. â€œWas it worth it? Was he worth everyone who ever loved you?â€
â€œPlease,â€ she tried to say but the hands around her neck stopped any words she tried to say. She pulled at Hakonâ€™s arms, but they were as immovable as the trees that surrounded them. Her eyes watered as her cousin stared into her with the same malice as the soul-drinker had. Her shoulders began to slump from the lack of air. Unwilling to give up, she drove her knuckles hard into Hakonâ€™s throat, just like her father had taught her. But his grip did not loosen. She heard Princeâ€™s insane laughter in the background, and her mind raced for something, anything else she could muster before she blacked out.
Then there was a flash of silver, and the vice around her neck vanished. Fenris coughed violently as she tasted air once more, and watched as Hakonâ€™s headless body fall away from her and shattered into a cloud of ashes as it hit the ground. His head, still glaring daggers at her as it fell, also collapsed into a puff of smoke when it touched the moss covered bough. The remnants caught on the breeze and coiled around a pair of armored shins before fading into the gloom.
â€œDonâ€™t just kneel there and gawk,â€ said the shinâ€™s owner, a tanned woman as tall as any man in her clan with a short black mane. She wore armor made of silvery metal unlike any of the leather breastplates and harnesses that she has ever seen. Carried effortlessly in the tall womanâ€™s hands was a broad-bladed spear made of the same silver metal with turquoise colored runes inscribed on the blade. The spearâ€™s haft made a distinct â€˜clinkâ€™ sound when the woman tapped it on the moss-covered ground and said brusquely, â€œFinish him before I steal your kill.â€
Fenris looked towards the center of the clearing and saw the soul-drinker, having lost his advantage, speeding away in a swirl of burning leaves. She scrambled for her bow and arrow. Her shaking hands fumbled a bit, but she managed to ready it in time and drew the string back. The blond woman clenched her jaw as she aimed, he was already too far. She desperately willed what was left of the warmth she felt within her threw her arms and into her hands. Daylight returned to the clearing once more, then she held her breath and fired.
The missile streaked through the air with a trail of golden ribbons, not dropping off when it sped passed the limits of the bowâ€™s range. Nor did it err, but struck Princeâ€™s retreating back. The arrow pierced his breastplate and sliced cleanly through his chest and out the other side. Fenris winced as the soul-drinkerâ€™s ear piercing shriek filled the forest, causing birds from all directions to break into flight.
Flames appeared around the arrow wound, which quickly spread to the rest of his body. Prince fell from the air, but forward momentum kept him going. He tumbled past a wide trunk, but slammed into another. His body shattered like a glass pitcher upon rocks, the pieces then burst into flames and in a breath there was nothing left of him, as though he had never been.
The forest seemed to have sensed the monsterâ€™s destruction; nightingales returned to their nightly habits, crickets resumed their symphony and other nocturnal creatures resumed their lives, filling the forest with sound. Fenris dropped her bow and breathed a sigh. Her hands were numb and her vision became blurry. She felt empty and cold and she did not notice when the ground rushed up to meet her.