“I don’t like this.” Tia’s expression was nothing new when it came to magic. That look of contempt could make any man feel ashamed, and Jenario was no exception.
Ever since the group was brought into the cave, and with news of a portal within close proximity, Jenario had heard every excuse not to go near it. Even into early morning, Tia harped on the subject of him disappearing into a world they knew nothing about.
“I don’t like it either.” Jenario hoped his confession would appease her for the time being. He glanced around at those huddling near the fire. The cave had served well for shelter during the winter storm, for it was back up to howling across the opening again. A torn canvas flap from one of the tents served as a door to keep out as much cold air as possible. Still, it was better than digging in the wet snow trying to get a fire going.
The clink of ladles dishing out warm broth suggested it was time to get moving with their next line of duties.
“We need supplies, Tia. And Abraham still has a cold.” Even as he spoke, he could hear his young son coughing beneath the blankets of his makeshift bed. Others had also picked up the wintry illness, but none sounded as worse as what their son was getting. “Nickademis could do with some fresh ingredients as well, which the portal may provide once we go through.”
“But what if it closes while you’re still out there? Then we’d have nothing!”
“Nick has said he would stay. As it is, he’s a little uncomfortable with the idea as well.”
Tia sighed and just rolled her eyes in a sarcastic manner. “At least he has sense not to touch it. I’ll bet Shafari’s thrilled. He would be, finally having something around that’s meant for him, and only HE knows how to operate.”
“Shafari knows nothing more than what we already do.” Jenario gripped both her hands in his own and held them against his heart. He wanted to sound brave, like Thomas Gracie when things needed to be done. But now as he held her, he felt that his panicking heartbeat would betray his own worry. “It’ll only be for a few hours. I promise. We’ll get what we need and come straight back.”
“You’d better.” Tia pulled a hand from his grasp to send a teasing slap across his left cheek. A coy smile cracked the corner of her lips. “And don’t think I won’t be counting those hours!”
Jenario rubbed his cheek in pretend hurt where she had slapped him. He leaned in for a farewell kiss, only to be greeted by empty air as his fiancée retreated to where their son lay resting. With a heavy sigh, Jenario pulled a pouch over one shoulder before departing down the familiar passage containing the portal.
He found Shafari leaning up against the wall just outside the portal’s chamber, leg crossed over the other and a long pipe stuffed into his mouth. A white haze puffed out at the tip, some unholy matter that made Jenario queasy whenever the smell hit his nose. It did so now with a force that nearly made his stomach turn inside-out.
“Ugh!” He frantically waved a hand in front of his nose. “Do you have to do that now?”
Shafari pulled the pipe from his mouth and licked his lips to savor the taste of smoldering herbs. “She gave you an earful, didn’t she?” He cracked an all-knowing grin.
Jenario’s face remained devoid of emotion. Holding his breath, he stepped past his reeking friend to join Thomas Gracie and Nickademis, who were making final preparations.
“Took you long enough,” Nickademis greeted with a somewhat serious tone. “Though I don’t blame you. Trusting unknown magic can be dangerous, and you know that’s not something I delve in should anything happen while you’re on the other side of this thing.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the portal.
“You know Tia.” Jenario just shook his head.
“We do,” Thomas Gracie said. “She’s a right to worry, but Shafari’s analyzed it enough. Should still be fine.”
Jenario sent Shafari that look that read, “And we trust your judgement on this?”
“Aww. Someone’s not giving me credit.” Shafari tapped out the remains of his pipe and stuffed it in one of his belt pouches.
“I’m glad I didn’t add anything else about you,” Jenario admitted.
“Ha! You make it sound like I’m her brother all over again!” Shafari balked. “At least I’m content with what I already have. Sure, it’s not perfect! But it’s gotten us out of some situations.”
About to counter, Thomas Gracie cleared his throat.
“And we’re all grateful for it.” He paused long enough for his words to sink in. “Now let’s be mindful of what we’re about to do, because once we’re on the other side things might change. Nick, you’ll be in charge while the three of us are gone. Keep tabs on the portal. Use the tracking stones Shafari’s made to signal us if you think it looks unstable.”
“You have the list of ingredients?” Nickademis nodded when Thomas Gracie held up a piece of paper.
“Here, Jen.” He handed the list to his companion. “You’re better at identifying these than myself. You’ll be in charge of gathering what Nick needs.”
Jenario glanced over the list, all of which were the same type of plants studied through alchemy.
“Good! Shafari?” Thomas Gracie motioned to the magic-user. “Be our eyes and ears. Your magic is to be used only for defense purposes, got it? No playing around or practicing. If where we’re going is where I think it is, then I’m sure they’ll be plenty of magic already strewn about.”
“What of you?” Jenario said. “Are we not taking a Trapper, or will you hunting yourself?”
Thomas Gracie chuckled. “I was fairly decent at one point. But…not yet. I’ll look for game…and more.”
“More?” Shafari said. “As in?”
“Well, if this land proves to be a suitable place to inhabit, then perhaps we can leave Astra altogether.”
“What?!” Jenario and Nickademis stood in shock. Shafari, however, seemed pleased.
“Huh. Why not?” he said. “Someplace the council won’t except to find us should they come looking.” He walked over to the wavering ring, its outer rim glowing and ready for use. “I’m curious to see what we’ll encounter out there. Nick, you know how to use the stones, right? They’re very sensitive to touch. I’ll feel your presence the longer you hold it.”
“Won’t explode in my hand, will it?” Nickademis stared at three white pebbles lined across a rocky platform jutting up from the cave floor.
“So little faith,” Shafari mumbled, watching the other two go through first. “Makes me wonder how I even call you a friend.”
“Get on with ya, now!” Nickademis gave him a playful shove, sending Shafari stumbling through the portal. The doctor’s cheeky grin met that narrowed look when the magic-user turned to swear up and down at him. Ignoring it, Nickademis bent to retrieve one of the stones. “So you feel ‘em when they’re picked up, huh?”
It was hard to believe such a small thing was so important. Yet his suspicions of impeding concerns grew more apparent the longer he held it. Is this thing getting hot?
“Ack!” He let it drop when it suddenly flared red. It smacked the corner of uneven stone flooring and bounced away from him. It did not get far, as its heated surface began to warp into a molten pool of red goo.
“Well, don’t waste ‘em!” he heard Shafari’s scolding voice through the portal. “I told you they were sensitive!”
Nickademis whirled on the wavering image of his friend. “If that had been my hand..!”
Once through the portal, Jenario studied the list of ingredients: red clover, yarrow, jewelweed – the list went on of herbs needed to help with sore throats, coughing, all the symptoms his son and others had developed. But will I recognize them as much in the wild versus being delivered fully cleaned to my lab?
He looked around at the plentiful vegetation growing in and around the mouth of the cave and along tree trunks. A wide variety of fern covered the majority of space, with patches of nemorosa sunning their yellow and white faces in the early morning light. There was a sense of serene dignity about the forest. Unlike the night before, Jenario savored the light that pushed back shadows and allowed a glimpse into a new world. The trees themselves seemed taller, thicker, their bark stretching up into a canopy filled with large, green leaves.
Here and there, small birds fluttered from one branch to another. Their energetic songs triggered an intense chatter above their heads. No doubt, our strange appearance probably alarms them, he reasoned.
A series of fir trees and holly caught his interest along one side of the cave. The ground angled slightly downward where they stood, taking his eye along a path of dry leaves and bramble. The way grew relatively darker farther away from the cave, and he hoped his search led him elsewhere. Straight out from the portal’s standpoint, a natural trail of roots and smaller foliage seemed more reasonable to follow.
Doubt edged its way into his heart. In Mayla, people brought him things already gutted and cleaned. LIke fish, he thought grimly. They never let me study anything properly. It was just what they wanted me to see. With the plants already tampered with, there was no telling whether valuable ingredients had been left out. Now he was to find the plants himself in their true beauty. Where to look, however, was another question.
“Everything all right?” Thomas Gracie noticed his friend’s puzzled expression.
“Uh…yeah! Yeah, it’s fine. I’m just…not sure where to start looking for this.” By then, Shafari had finished his little rant with the doctor. He stepped beside Jenario to glance over the list with him.
“I could send out my orb to look for you,” he said. “It’s scatterbrained but will get the job done.”
“No, Shafari.” Thomas Gracie shook his head. “No magic. Let him at least try to find it on his own. Remember, we don’t know what magic already lingers here, and we certainly don’t want to catch its attention by drawing it to us.”
“Just a suggestion, nothing more.” Shafari cleared his throat and stepped away. “You’ll do fine, Jen.”
“Am I being scored for this?” Jenario answered sarcastically. “That’s what the council did.”
“Never mind the council,” Thomas Gracie said. “We all know how they treated people…with the barest of nothing! Do the best you can. If you can’t find what’s on the list, then maybe you’ll come across something better.”
“We’re not separating, are we?” Jenario arched an eyebrow in question as they started through the trees. He glanced back just as the portal resumed its illusion as a mirror. “Shouldn’t we move that thing back into the cave a bit more? Anything passing by will see it.”
“That is a good point.” While the others waited, Thomas Gracie went back. Thinking the mirror would revert to a hovering oval again, he hesitated. When it did not, he gave it a good shove, surprised at how lightweight it felt. He soon returned after pushing it back into the mouth of the cave. All the while, the mirror’s reflection still retained the image of Nickademis watching from the other side. “Ready?”
“As always.” Shafari took an elaborate bow. “Lead the way, oh fearless one.”
“Your charm’s about as good as my boot, you know,” Thomas Gracie said with a wide grin, and Shafari laughed.
Amber eyes peered down through the dense treetops. A new scent peaked its interest to scan along the ground where three humans had appeared. Nostrils flared to take in the strange smell. When it exhaled, dark lips parted to reveal a set of fangs.
It adjusted itself along the limb, a russet flesh tone speckled with the same colors as tree bark. Curious, a crest of feathers stood on end to complete a look of shadowed leaves. Taloned fingers dug into the wood as it skillfully made its way after the strange men. When it could go no farther, dark wings unfurled into a silent glide to the next tree, only to slip back into shadow. It sniffed the air again with an inner hunger that lit its eyes. Like two yellow orbs, they blinked once beneath the shadowed foliage before fading completely.
“Wouldn’t the council love to know where we are now!” Shafari laughed. He paused to examine some wild berries.
“We’re not out of their hair yet.” Thomas Gracie also took note of the dark red berried clumped together within a scraggly bush. “Careful. They may not be edible yet.”
“Are those..?” Jenario studied the small fruit that Shafari held up.
“For sure and certain. These are Falconberries!” Shafari said. “I’d recognize these any day!”
“You’d drink them any day, too.” Thomas Gracie just shook his head with a look of dismay. “Don’t go getting any ideas.” He started on his way again. “We’ve barely just seen what this place offers, and you’re already thinking about wine.”
“Do you know how expensive this is? We gather enough of this—”
“And what?” Thomas Gracie cut him short. “Sell it back at Mayla? I’m sure that’d go over smooth.”
With a sigh, Shafari let the subject drop as Thomas Gracie took lead.
Jenario followed in quiet contemplation until the magic-user leaned over to whisper, “We’d do well to come back and make our own. We’ll be sitting pretty like the council once did when they had it.”
“Do you know how?” Jenario whispered back, and in return received a wide grin of confidence. With a sigh, he glanced over the list again, then around the area.
“Well, I suppose Falconberries are something,” he said. “Doubt it’d be useful to Nick, though.”
There came a sigh before Shafari swiped the list from his fingers.
“You worry too much, Jen. These things are probably all around us.”
“And you’d recognize them?” Jenario crossed his arms.
“’Course I would…with a little help.” Shafari cracked a grin.
“Alright, you two.” Thomas Gracie peered over his shoulder at them. “Enough hen pecks back there.”
Shafari cleared his throat as they caught up to their leader. “Jenario and I were thinking it might be best to look in different directions, then meet back in a central location.” When Thomas Gracie looked doubtful, Shafari continued. “Let’s face it – we’d cover more ground that way. Besides, what he’s looking for is not the same as what you’re looking for. Plus, he’s worrying himself to death about a measly list!”
“Jen?” Thomas Gracie glanced over the young man in disbelief. “I don’t particularly like the idea of separating. But…we would cover more ground if we did.”
Jenario felt the nudge of Shafari’s elbow and knew he was expected to chip in with suggestions. “Um…we could…meet back at the portal afterwards?”
“Splendid!” Shafari slapped him on the back. “The two of us will go together. I’ll help him with what he needs. You do your thing.”
Jenario felt Thomas Gracie’s gaze scanning over him for any signs of opposition, so he tried to his best to keep a placid expression.
“Alright, then,” he finally said. “Back at the portal before noon, got it?”
Jenario’s head was spinning. Separate? We don’t even know where we’re going! He wanted to shout in protest but decided against it. Yet the moment they were out of ear-shot, the young man was yanked up against a tree and pinned there by Shafari.
What are you doing?!” Jenario demanded, but Shafari just held a finger to his lips for silence. When no sound came from their companion’s direction, he released his friend’s shirt.
“I needed to be sure, that’s all.”
Jenario brushed his backside from flecks of broken bark stuck to his clothing. “Of what? That he wouldn’t catch you using magic? You nearly gave me heart failure!”
Shafari sighed loudly. “I’m sorry, Jen, but we’re not in Mayla anymore. I didn’t agree to come just so I could hold back what I am. Neither should you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you see the potential in this place? We don’t need supervision from another to tell us how or when to use our talents.” At this, he spread his fingers to unleash a dance of crimson fire that caught the excitement in his eyes. “The council cheated us – you especially. They should have enhanced your alchemy. Without that, we don’t have ways to define medicines or even formulas for what few magic-users are actually in our group. As it stands, I believe I’m the only one who still practices.” He stepped away, and when he did his hand clenched to extinguish the flames.
Jenario studied him, letting his words find meaning as he replayed the scene in his mind. One thought led to another, and before he realized what he was saying, the question of Tia’s brother popped up.
“Did the council have anything to do with his death?” He let his gaze trail along the ground while he waited for an answer. He had yet to see one ingredient on his list while vegetation grew denser the deeper into the woods they went.
“Yes and no,” was the reply. “Did the council plan his demise? No. But it was because of him that they decided magic was too dangerous to keep inside the city, even going as far as…well, you already know.”
“What really happened to him?” An image of Tia and her brother clouded his thoughts. “He always seemed so strong-willed.”
“Ha!” Shafari balked. “You think Tia gives you a hard time now? You should have seen her when her brother decided he was going to invent a new type of spell.”
“Is that possible?” Jenario cocked his head in curiosity.
“Is discovering raw materials to work with possible? Of course! But you have to test it over and over. Isn’t that how alchemy works?”
Jenario nodded. “I can remember working long hours into the night.”
“And that takes great patience as well as practice,” Shafari said. “Tia’s brother wanted results right away.”
“So what did he do? Try to pronounce two spells at once?”
“Huh! He’d have been better off had he done so. But what he wanted was a completely new spell, one that wasn’t in any books. I advised him against it because he had no experience in formula development. Yet, he insisted he knew what he doing. I left shortly before he blew himself up.”
Jenario cringed at the memory. “Even the council was shaken up afterwards. The blast literally ripped the house apart. Just think what would have happened had you stayed.”
Shafari chuckled. “I probably would have knocked him unconscious first.”
Briars clung to their pant legs after wading through thick underbrush. Finally, they came to a stop. When they peered overhead, the canopy seemed to engulf them in the shadows of close-knit trees. Strange calls carried on from animals they could not see. Jenario could not even place a single one. Was it bird, or beast?
“I think now’s a good time for some help,” Shafari said. “What say you?” He lifted a hand to call forth his orb. The light of its bobbing form was comforting, as they could see into the deep shadows around them.
The spherical light darted around its master as though in delight. Then, as if noticing Jenario for the first time, it swirled around the young man in examination.
“Yes, yes. You know who he is,” Shafari said. “Show it the list, Jen.”
“Can it actually read? Like a person?” He held up the list.
In response, the orb hovered slightly above the parchment. Each word encountered triggered a pulsing glow until it had scanned over the entire list. It then returned to its owner.
“Think you can manage?” Shafari motioned to their surroundings, to which the sphere immediately began scanning for traces of required herbs.
Jenario kept checking for any signs of movement toward the trees, especially in areas where the orb’s light did not reach. “Are you sure it’s safe to have magic out like this? Remember what Thomas Gracie said.”
Shafari just frowned. “Jen, magic is not going to come flying out at us just because I have an orb.”
“So magic isn’t alive?”
“Not in the respect of thinking. It’s more like a living energy that acts on impulse, like chemicals. I’m sure you can relate. To control it, you have to code it with formulas. That tells it how to act.” He sighed. “But I cannot tell you how many hours I spent creating what you see now, though its behavior seems to have developed all on its own.”
He raised an eyebrow when the sphere’s light pulsated in a sort of giggle to his explanation.
“So in a sense, it’s alive,” Jenario said.
They watched the orb dart over a wall of bramble.
“In a sense.” Sarcasm drenched his tongue. “What did I tell you about keeping me in sight! I swear that thing is more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Maybe it found something.” Jenario searched for a way around the bramble. He was careful not to touch the thorny branches tangled in and around itself. Near the bottom, he noticed a place where something had burrowed beneath. It seemed a large enough opening for a person to slip to the other side. “Here’s a way in. Think you can manage not to catch that robe on a thorn?”
Shafari shot him a dirty look. “Not that you’d see much if it did.” He stared down at the hole. “I’ll pass, thanks.”
Jenario knelt to see if he could peer under when Shafari’s orb suddenly shot out of the opening. While Jenario yelped in surprise and fell back, its master was busy trying to calm its wild behavior.
“What has gotten into you!” He raised a hand and threatened to extinguish it.
“Wish it had an answer.” Jenario got to his feet, the feel of his racing heart slowly subsiding at the false threat. A short breeze rattled through the upper boughs, creating a hiss. It was not until he started brushing off his pants that the hissing moved down into the thicket, even when the wind died. “You hear that?”
Shafari was still fussing when a snap of branch caught their attention. Between the shadowed trees, two yellow eyes blinked back at them. The hiss came again, causing the orb to dart behind its master’s back. The eyes followed, intrigued by the glowing object.
Both men remained frozen while a large creature crept into view. A black stripe ran from forehead down to its russet chin. Nearly three times their size, Jenario thought it resembled a muscular human with feathering covering its chest and underparts. When it rose on its hind legs, a pair of dark wings opened to help balance the action. Black lips parted in a throaty growl as it studied them.
Jenario nearly choked. Were those fangs?
“Don’t…move,” he heard his friend whisper through clenched teeth. His own were clamped shut to keep from chattering. Just the sheer size of the thing raised every hair follicle. “When I say ‘go’, dive under the bramble.”
What about you! Jenario wanted to yell. Instead, his gaze flicked toward the magic-user, then back at the creature. It sniffed the air before stretching out a clawed hand. Its large, upper body teetered to one side at the shifting weight, but with the wings acting as a counterbalance, it was soon creeping toward them. Those talons have gotta be four inches long! We’d be dead in one strike!
Flickering light drew his attention to Shafari. The orb pulsated even brighter. While its master raised a hand to control the effect, it now held the creature’s full interest.
“Go!” Shafari shot the orb forward.
Caught off guard, the it nearly toppled backwards. Wings opened in full display of power as they beat the air to keep upright. Thorny bramble shredded on impact, and was continuously pommeled by its powerful strokes to maneuver into a counterattack.
The orb darted around its face, keeping it distracted while the two men made a dash for the opening. Jenario dived first, kicking up dirt as he pushed himself under. He clawed at the ground when he felt thorns scrape across his leather vest. They did not catch, however, and he scrambled to his feet. When he turned to check Shafari’s progress, he found him already halfway under.
Suddenly, he reached out for help.
“I’m stuck!” There was no need to guess. Jenario already knew the crimson fabric had snagged as he quickly grabbed hold and tugged.
A blood-curdling scream of rage stilled Jenario’s breath. He felt the cold pang of fear clouding his better judgement when an explosion of light meant the orb had extinguished. Panicking, Jenario about wrenched his friend’s arms off trying to get him under. There came a rip of fabric before the two fell back at the sudden release. Just in time, Shafari’s feet cleared where claws gashed into the earth.
“Go go go!” Shafari was on his feet faster than Jenario’s thoughts could process. As the two started running, Jenario tried to make sense of a silhouetted form rising above the bramble.
Wings, he reminded himself. Right – it can fly. It had been too dark to see what they looked like other than a dark mass of feathers. But can it fly through a dense forest?
The two men dashed through the trees. Jenario’s heart pounded to the beat of his own feet crunching over decaying leaves and twigs. A little ways to the right, Shafari darted between trees. He was ahead by two strides.
Sunlight was sparse. Aside from his own heavy breathing, there was no telling whether the thing was following or not.
“Shafari!” Not a trace of red garment was seen in the next patch of light. “Where are you!”
He slowed, nearly impossible to detect movement with the pounding in his ears. He turned a full circle, hoping to catch sight of his friend.
A crack made him turn. “Shafari?”
“Di cu’ niédo,” a deep-throated voice answered.
Jenario froze. His eyes flicked between the shadows until movement pinpointed its location.
“You…speak?” Blood drained from his face. It followed that fast? He watched it creep closer, a dead weight in his feet preventing him from moving. Once again, those wings opened as a counterbalance to offset its lumbering form. Why is it so calm? Is this one different?
It spoke again. Its words slurred in a growl that could have been speech, but for the heavy dialect Jenario was not sure. To him, they were simply a mix of deep-bellied grunts. Filtered light played over those each talon digging into the earth.
Jenario took a step back.
A flash of red flicked his gaze to the trees. Fingers curled around a trunk, glowing with the familiar power of a magic-user’s wrath.
“No, wait!” Jenario staggered as a blast of fireball ignited a branch above them. The crackling flames drew a hiss from the creature as it craned its neck to look up. When the branch collapsed over its wings, it screeched and jerked back at the still-burning limb singing its feathers. Yet, the momentary distraction was enough for Shafari to rush from hiding. Jenario could barely think as he was pulled by the arm in the direction the magic-user ran. “Are you insane?! What if you had missed again?”
“I did miss!” Shafari answered. “Just keep going! We need to lose both of them!”
“There are two?!” Jenario hardly got the word out when a crash of foliage directly in front of them turned their course.
“And they’re apparently working together!” Shafari grimaced when a pair of large, black wings opened across their path. The two men skidded to a halt, with Jenario nearly plowing into his backside.
“Use a different spell!” came his hoarse whisper.
“I’m trying here!” Shafari gritted his teeth while the winged creature proceeded to charge. He had just raised a hand to call forth another fireball when its sudden stop threw up bits of dirt and dry leaves in his face.
Jenario cowered behind his friend, who hastily wiped around his eyes. Once clear, he commenced another incantation, then fell silent. Although the creature had risen to full height, its gaze was not centered on them, but the approach of another. A bone-chilling growl made them turn to find a second one preparing to pounce.
“Get down!” Shafari pulled Jenario to the ground as the two winged beasts dove at each other, snarling and clawing. Feathers flew everywhere. Their muscular, upper torsos took each other’s blows with ease, and was the perfect distraction for the two men to slip away. Yet at every attempt it seemed the creatures were tossing each other across their path.
Jenario ducked a claw swipe that dug a long ditch through the dirt. He could feel Shafari’s grip to the back of his shirt trying to moved him from harm’s way.
“Watch it!” Jenario heard, before he felt a shove just as a wing back-slapped Shafari into a tree. While the push sent him careening into some underbrush, he at least was out of the fighting. Shafari, however, was not. He lay with his back against a trunk, tenderly holding his arm. His face contorted into a look of both concentration and pain. His lips moved, but when Jenario he could not make out the words he realized Shafari was casting a spell.
Between sounds of exploding foliage and wild screeching, Jenario was not sure who struck first. When he came to, he was on his back with a strong odor of smoke lingering from the blast. Slightly dazed, he scrambled to find his footing. Screeches of anger filled the air while a large chunk of shredded wood obstructed his view.
A horrible screech answered instead, and it was all Jenario could do to keep from tripping over his own feet to get away. From behind, he heard bark ripping down the side of a tree. Tears stung his eyes, sure that his companion was dead. Yet he dare not slow.
Jenario kept looking up into the shadowed leaves, terrified something would drop down at any moment. Branches swatted him across the face. Somewhere, claws clapped along overhead boughs. It’s too fast!
Suddenly, the trees opened to a moss-covered clearing. Every place he looked was coated in green. It hung from branches overhead, clung to logs across his path, but it was far better than traveling in the dark. He kept going when a thrash of limbs and foliage suggested the creature had broken through behind him.
Jenario sprinted once out in the open. Yet here, there was no place to hide. A dead tree covered in hanging moss perched next to a set of large, flat rocks. Like a staircase, they stacked up against the tree as though meant for climbing.
The beating of wings grew louder, and he hew it was on top of him. In the midst of his mad dash, he scooped up a rock. Courage was slim to nil at this point. Still, he closed his eyes, whirled on his heels and threw as hard as he could.
“For Shafari,” he breathed.
There came a thunk of solid hit, followed by a shrill cry that paralyzed him other than to cover his ears. Something smacked into him, and he went flying back. He landed hard and opened his eyes to find himself in a similar position with his back against the dead tree. Yet Jenario knew his end would not be the way Shafari went. There was no dramatic spell he could cast for quick release. His side ached where the thing’s wing had probably cracked a few ribs. Trying to move brought unbearable pain. All he could do was wait.
Thomas Gracie’s probably dead, too, he thought in despair while watching the creature finish rubbing its feathery face.
Amber eyes finally turned his way, the pupils little more than slits. A snarl of anger revealed a set of fang while other features stood out that Jenario had not noticed in the concealing shadows. It looked a bit awkward as it stood upright like a human. Its upper torso was a massive mound of muscle meant for pumping those huge wings. And yet it did an extraordinary thing by folding them into a fade.
Jenario stared, his pain forgotten. The wings…were gone!
“Di cu’ niédo,” that deep-throated sound again as it slowly approached, looking more and more like a feathery gorilla without its wings. “So much noise.”
The translation from one dialect to another nearly stole Jenario’s breath.
Jenario’s gaze flicked to the ground for another stone, but there was nothing close to where he could reach. He could only watch it approach with tears streaming down his cheeks at impending doom. He pressed himself as tight up against the tree as his body would allow and closed his eyes when a talon aimed for a final blow.
A vibration along his spine suggested something was moving, though he paid it no heed while awaiting death. When that blow never came, however, he gradually opened one eye to see why it had stopped. Another pulse along the tree trunk caused for alarm when the creature’s gaze no longer fixed on him, but the tree itself. A low-bellied rumble shuttered from the top portion of the trunk.
Petrified at what else had possibly flown in, Jenario craned his neck to look up. Another rumble shook the tree down to its roots. Something extended from its inner core. He could feel it pressing it up against his back as a bulge made its way out. Branches pulled to either side, resembling that of mossy wings instead of decaying limbs.
When the protruding part finally slowed, Jenario realized it was a neck that stretched out over him. Like a turtle emerging from its shell, its features came intact with a crest of mossy scales that resembled the color of bark. The lighting that shone down in the clearing reflected off a set of elongated teeth that held his attacker at bay. Though its teeth extended into root-like points that grew directly from the jaw, it nonetheless would inflict the same amount of damage should its bite dig into flesh.
A…dragon? Jenario guessed, but the story depictions he had grown up with did not match the appearance of this tree-residing snapping turtle. The length and shape of its skull did not match a sleek fire-breather. Still, the use of mossy wings suggested a dragon variation, though being so close to one was nonetheless terrifying.
Amber eyes flicked between prey and dragon. Taloned feet scooted back an inch to get its bearings before unfurling its wings in a push-off dash for flight. Just as quick, scaled neck lashed out and snatched it from mid-air with a bone-crunching snap!
The horrific scene of flailing arms and flying feathers was cut short. Jenario did not even hear a whimper as the dragon simply lifted its head for its catch to slip down its throat, yet not before one of the wings flopped to the ground. The last thing he saw before fear drowned everything else out was its hollow gaze turning to stare down at his frail form scrunched up against the base of the tree.