Chapter 5

Mourning doves cooed from branches high above as the five men trudged through Bonial Woods. They picked a particularly poor day to search. A light rain drizzled from the treetops, trickled through the leaves, and splat against the wet ground. Layers of mud, shrouded beneath dark puddles, scattered the ground like hidden traps. Dryden found his gaze constantly dropping to where his next step would be. One mistake could easily cause a broken ankle or twisted knee, and he didn’t feel like becoming the forest’s next victim.

Further ahead, Herthrim shoved a dead tree from his path. “This place stinks.” He inhaled through his bulbous nose. “Something around here must’ve had quite the upset stomach.”

“That’s the fungus growing in the forest,” said Chrizodo. He snapped an ear-shaped mushroom off the side of a tree. “Try some. It’s good for your lungs.”

Herthrim waved his hand in dismissal. “You can have it. You’re the one who used to smoke all day long.”

Chrizodo tossed the mushroom away and readjusted the bow and quiver fastened to his belt. “Haven’t smoked since I got married.”

Ulvimon, who happened to be smoking a pipe, spoke through clenched teeth. “What’s been more difficult? Not smoking or staying married?”

Chrizodo made an indifferent gesture. “Having you as a neighbour’s been worse than both.”

Flint chuckled. Everyone seemed to be in relatively good spirits, despite the potential danger and the serious nature of the scabbards they carried at their sides. Though they lacked the plated armour or polished weapons of city soldiers, Dryden thought the group looked more than fit for battle. He wouldn’t have chosen any other men to help seek out an unknown threat.

The tattered bridge brought little more than a delay in their progress, and as they approached the forked path leading to the top of the rock-face, Flint took the lead and chopped through obstructing branches until they arrived at the first sign of Sargan’s demise.

Chrizodo bent over to scoop the mess of tangled rope. “So, Sargan really was setting traps. It’s clear he has no idea how to hunt if he thought he could catch game up here.”

Ulvimon pushed a sapling out of the way and joined Chrizodo. “He obviously found something. What would tempt a man who never hunts to try it in the most dangerous forest?”

“It’s a shame Kinmount hadn’t talked to him longer,” said Flint. “He might’ve convinced him not to go.”

Ulvimon hummed in agreement. He looked to the ground, lost in thought. “I know we aren’t supposed to bring it up, but do you think those foreign men had anything to do with this? It sounded like Sargan was awfully concerned about them.”

Flint shook his head. “What does setting traps in a forest have to do with the foreigners?”

“A decoy? Bevera wouldn’t have let him go if he said he was going to pick a fight with some strangers.”

“That’s true,” conceded Herthrim.

As the older men dissected the theory, the conversation Dryden had with Janir after the meeting echoed through his mind. I wonder if there really are foreigners hiding in here, and why Janir wants me to keep it a secret. Should I tell them anyway? It wouldn’t do any harm. He thought of the morbid seriousness in Janir’s voice, and his strict warning to keep silent. Well…maybe I’ll wait a little longer.

His thoughts were interrupted as Flint called from behind an ivory-hued shrub. “Follow me. The hat was somewhere around here.”

The men trekked on. Dryden scanned the columns of towering elms, searching for any sign of human activity. Even something as small as a sliver of charcoal could lead them closer to the truth—that, or deepen the mystery even more.

He kept pace with the others until they found the hat lying where he had seen it four days ago. Ulvimon picked it up and examined the tears, grimacing as if it contained the tangible sufferings of a murdered victim. “No doubt, Flint. Something clawed him across the head, and it was looking to hurt him badly.”

Herthrim peeked over Ulvimon’s shoulder. He recoiled with a grunt. “That was a big animal! I sure hope it wasn’t a dragon.”

“Enough of your dragons,” cried Ulvimon. “You say things like that, then get all upset when people make fun of you.”

Herthrim scowled. “What do you want me to say? It was a rabbit?”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Chrizodo. “It’s got large claws. We need to be careful.”

Flint pointed to his right, towards a wall of tree trunks. “Sargan’s hand was in that direction. Let’s see what we find over there.”

A noticeable caution highlighted every man’s step as they ventured to where the dark silhouette had been lurking before. Dryden’s eyes darted from one side of the forest to the other, half-expecting something to leap from behind a bush and slay them without a struggle. He found his fingers had involuntarily tightened around the handle of his sword.

Ulvimon paused. He lit his pipe then tossed the match into a puddle. “So, Flint, you say you never saw any anachlems, eh?”

Flint’s expression dampened. “Nothing. Which was a good thing for us, but for Sargan…”

Ulvimon frowned. “Yeah…if Ghathil never came to get him, then it must mean he was eaten…He’s probably wandering the world as an Unspeakable now.”

Herthrim shuddered. “Don’t use that word! I hate it.”

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” muttered Ulvimon. He exhaled a puff of smoke through his nose. “Ah…poor Sargan! He didn’t deserve it.”

They kept walking. The mood fell to a reflective sombreness. Rain continued to drip from the leaves. It felt like the hours had slowed to a crawl as they rummaged the area for anything that might lead them closer to Sargan’s fate.

The rain must’ve washed away any footprints or bloodstains, Dryden thought to himself. The forest looks untouched. I don’t even see our tracks from before.

Flint seemed to be thinking the same. He stopped with an annoyed look furled across his brow. “This is going nowhere. Why don’t we head for the ravine? It’s obvious the animal moved somewhere else.

“Lead the way,” said Chrizodo.

Herthrim and Ulvimon gave low murmurs. Agitated expressions marked both their faces. Dryden shifted to the rear as the group backtracked to the fork in the main path and took the left turn. A steep descent led them to the foot of the precipice. Crystalline falls poured from two separate tunnels stacked on top of each other in a vertical cliff side. It swirled together at the start of a creek then stormed past a flock of needlepoint rocks. Though it wasn’t too deep, the current looked more than capable of tipping a well-balanced canoe.

 

While it provided a reprieve from the endless blur of trees, it did little to ease the difficulty in traversing the forest. An undulation of stone lined the shore like a collection of upturned staircases, and the rain kept them slick as ice. Dryden found his youth an advantage as he climbed and descended the many ledges, whereas the older men grunted, huffed, and trailed at half the speed. Now at the head of the group, he wrapped his fingers around the lip of a particularly tall surface. He tried hoisting himself up, but his leather gloves slipped from their hold. It took two more attempts before he wriggled his way on top. He shook the mud from his shirt and pants then paused at the sight of something tangled in a thorn bush further ahead.

His stomach dropped as he edged closer. Burs covered a filthy, trampled, and battered boot. A strip of cloth hung from a branch above. Another dark object lay beyond a dense veil of foliage. Dryden muscled his way past the thicket, squinting as branches scraped his face and jabbed his arms.

He broke through into an unexpected clearing. Withered brown grass speckled the area—an oddity among Bonial’s affluence of bright greenery. Five prominent boulders, close to twice Dryden’s height, rose from the ground like spires. They circled around a lone pine tree, which loomed over a sixth shorter and rounded body of stone. Most notable, however, was a trail of messy, shredded earth that curled to the opposite side of the rounded boulder, almost as if it were a deliberate guide coaxing Dryden forwards.

Before he could inspect, the shrubbery rustled behind him. Flint and the others emerged, each with a solemn, curious expression. “What’s with this?” asked Herthrim. “It opened up so suddenly.”

Chrizodo scanned the surroundings with his lips pursed. “I’ve never seen this spot before.”

Flint pointed at the tears in the ground. “Something went through here. At least we can say for certain we’re after an animal now.”

“Did you see the boot?” asked Dryden.

Flint nodded. “I wonder how the creature got here from the rock face without leaving any tracks.”

“It could have wings,” said Herthrim.

Ulvimon snickered. The pig farmer cast him an odious look. “I didn’t say dragon! Stop laughing at me.”

“Does everyone have their weapons ready?” asked Flint. “It looks like it has nested behind that boulder. I wouldn’t doubt it’ll come back here anytime now.”

Ulvimon marched in the direction of the trail, the humour wiped from his face. “Let’s see what’s on the other side.”

They crept across the brittle grass, their footsteps crackling as they rounded the boulder. The gaping mouth of a cave greeted them. It plummeted downwards into a vat of impenetrable blackness, with a rancid stench of dead animal rising from within.

“A cave?” cried Herthrim. “Seems you’re right, Flint. This is definitely where the creature’s been staying.”

His words ricocheted into the depths. “Not so loud!” hissed Ulvimon. “It might be in there.”

Herthrim stuttered backwards, his face reddening. “Sorry.”

Dryden narrowed his eyes in an attempt to decipher what lay inside. “What should we do? Do you think it’s really in there?”

Chrizodo approached the entrance with an arrow notched. “We can find out. I’ll take a shot, and if I’m lucky, I’ll hit it—maybe even kill it. At worst, I’ll lure it out of the cave.”

Herthrim’s lips bobbed with half-finished words, but nobody else protested, so Chrizodo drew his bow and fired. The arrow clanged off a rock and echoed several times over. Silence followed.

“Try one more,” said Flint.

Chrizodo aimed lower on the second shot. It hit something hard. A rustling sounded. They all waited, fixated on the darkness, when a screech exploded with the tenacity of a crossed banshee.

Dryden clutched at his ears. His heart drummed against his chest as a small red glow appeared from the cave. A hulking silhouette, darker than the cave’s own interior, grew in size as footsteps thundered towards them. The outside light caught a row of exposed teeth.

Dryden flung himself backwards. Saliva sprayed him in the face as the jaw snapped inches shy of his nose. Scrambling to his feet, he raced for safety.

Chrizodo fired an arrow. The creature screamed again. Dryden pulled his sword from its scabbard and turned to face it. He met what could only be described as a monster wrapped in a metallic-like shell, standing taller than a full-grown horse. Hooked claws protruded from all four feet. It had a lone crimson eye and a set of pointed horns, fit to gore through the toughest hide. It was unlike anything he had ever seen, either from this world, or from mythological tales.

The sight of it brought involuntary tears to his eyes. The foreigners do have monsters here! Janir was right after all. It hurts to look at it, just like he said.

The creature lowered its head. Blood dripped from a joint in the shell near its neck, where Chrizodo’s arrow had struck.

“What is that?” wailed Herthrim. “We’ve got to run!”

The group scattered in all directions. Dryden fled to the nearest boulder and crouched behind it with Flint. “What do we do?” he asked. “Should we fight or try to escape?”

“We’ll never outrun it,” answered Flint. “I don’t want to lure it into town, either.” He peered around the boulder. “The gaps in its shell open when it moves. I bet we could sever the tendons in its legs if we catch it right.”

“Assuming we can get close enough,” said Dryden. “I doubt we can face it head on with those horns.”

“We have numbers—” Flint leapt from his spot without warning. “Move!”

Dryden barely had time to react before the monster veered around the boulder. He leapt to the side as it charged, then swung his sword. His blade grated against the shell. The monster knocked him away as if he were no more than a gnat.

The world spun as he cartwheeled across the ground and tumbled to a halt. A pair of arms scooped him off the ground moments later.

“Are you alright?” asked Herthrim.

Dryden shook the fog from his head. The monster had shifted its attention to Flint. It barrelled towards him with its horns bared, but Chrizodo caught it from a distance with another arrow. It gave a shriek, then clamoured backwards as Ulvimon waved his sword in front of its face.

“Now’s our chance!” said Dryden. “Let’s go for both hind legs!”

He raced ahead while Herthrim sputtered a frenzy of complaints. Flint shouted something at him as he ran, but his mind had narrowed to the strip of flesh just above the monster’s left heel. He thrust, but its leg shifted and his blade bounced off the shell.

The monster spun about. It caught Dryden with its shoulder, throwing him into the thorny confines of an outer bush. As it turned to glower at him, Ulvimon hurled forward and plunged his blade into its heel. “Got you!”

The creature reeled back in the opposite direction, tearing the sword from Ulvimon’s grip. It gnashed at him, but he dodged, then Flint and Chrizodo fled with him to the shelter of another boulder. Herthrim rushed to join Dryden. He pulled him out of the bush.

“You can’t run in so recklessly! You could’ve broken your ribs there.”

Dryden rose to his feet, feigning insouciance as a soreness tightened around his chest. He plucked some small barbs from his sleeve. “I’m alright. It’s faster than I thought it’d be…”

Herthrim’s cheeks sagged. “We shouldn’t have come. If only Martron had sent for soldiers from Feldamor.”

The three other men shouted. They scampered from behind the boulder as the monster drove them out of hiding. Chrizodo fired an arrow that soared past its target.

“We’re going to die!” moaned Herthrim. “I don’t want to be killed out here! We won’t get a funeral! We’ll become those—those—”

“We’re not going to die,” murmured Dryden. “But we need to act fast if we want to survive.”

“How’re we going to stop it?” complained Herthrim. “Ulvimon caught it clean in the heel, but it’s still moving, even with the sword stuck in it.”

Dryden didn’t answer. He watched the monster slow to a pace. It seemed to have lost sight of the others, or had decided to strike more tactfully. For a brief stretch, it stared at the boulder they’d hidden behind, then it opened its jaw. A mass of glowing energy shimmered between its teeth. Dryden could do nothing but gawk as it spewed a substance as bright as a flame, with forked branches that flashed like lightning.

The boulder split down the middle. A quaking shook the earth. Flint and the others dispersed with curses and screams.

Herthrim dropped to his knees. “We’re doomed…We can’t stop this thing.”

Terror ruptured every bone in Dryden’s body as the remains of the monster’s attack flickered through the blades of grass. His legs nearly dissolved beneath him. He felt like submitting to the inevitable death, yet the men’s cries and Herthrim’s whimpering somehow imbibed him with a staunch, irrational temperament. As if drunk on fright, he took Herthrim by the hair and shook him, speaking as though someone else were dictating his words.

“What are you doing? Are you going to lie here feeling sorry for yourself while you let them die?”

Herthrim looked up with teary eyes. His lips quavered.

“We need to do something,” insisted Dryden. He scanned the clearing, mind racing for a plan.

The monster spat another wave of energy. The light scurried across the dry grass, twitching in erratic directions. A shrub on the outskirts caught fire. The monster then lumbered towards Flint and the others, its pace casual as if it had grown arrogant. Chrizodo quickly humbled it by lodging an arrow close to its neck. It gave a rattling screech.

“The flesh around the neck seems to be the only place it feels pain,” shouted Flint.

“But the arrows aren’t enough!” cried Ulvimon. “And we can’t reach it with our swords.”

Dryden watched blood drip from the new wound. As it bowed its head in search of the lodged arrow, another rift in its shell stretched open. An idea flashed through his mind.

He took Herthrim by the shirt. “Get up. I have a plan.”

Herthrim obeyed, though he looked far from consoled.

“There was plenty of exposed flesh when it bent its head down. If we can lure it into the cave, it’ll have to stoop to get in. I’ll climb on top of the cave, and as it’s lowering its head, I’ll jump and stab it.”

His idea was met with revulsion. “Are you insane?” Herthrim cried. “If something goes wrong, you’ll be killed for sure!”

“Then I’ll make sure I don’t mess it up!”

He took off, Herthrim’s protests floundering at his heels.

At the far end of the clearing, the monster struggled with the arrow, its back turned while Dryden scoured the cave for a scalable surface. He couldn’t find a hold, so he turned for the lone pine tree instead. Once he had climbed high enough, he leaned for the side of the cave. It stood just out of reach, so he set one foot against the trunk and leapt. His knee banged into the stone. Ignoring the swell of pain, he scrambled for a hold, pulled himself to the top, then perched himself above the mouth of the cave.

He cupped his mouth and hollered at the others. “The back of its neck has the most exposed flesh! Try to lure it into the cave and I’ll attack from above.”

Ulvimon answered in a tone devoid of compliancy. “Then what? We’ll be stuck inside!”

“We don’t have many other options!”

“I’d rather save suicide for last!”

Dryden’s cheeks grew hot. He shouted back in a manner that managed to surprise everyone including himself. “What do you want to do instead, run about in circles until you’re killed? Because that’s as far as we’re going to get!”

Before Ulvimon could dispute further, Chrizodo ran to his side and handed him his bow. “If you won’t do it, stay outside, and if it follows us into the cave, shoot some arrows to draw it back out.”

Ulvimon pushed the weapon away. “You don’t actually think it’s a good idea, do you?”

The monster had abandoned the arrow in its neck and shifted its attention to Ulvimon and Chrizodo. Flint circled wide on his own, away from its line of sight. “There’s no use debating. Let’s do as Dryden says.”

He hurled a stone at the monster’s backside. It spun around, horns pointed in his direction. As he dashed for the cave, Ulvimon joined him, cursing all the while. The monster gave a snarl before thundering towards them. Dryden, meanwhile, waited with his toes dangling over the edge, his grip so tight on his sword, he thought he might rupture the bones in his fingers.

Flint and Ulvimon vanished beneath him. The monster dug its claws into the dirt to slow itself. It lowered its head to peer inside the cave.

Dryden’s breath jammed in his throat. The ground suddenly seemed miles away. He tried in vain to qualm a wave of anxiety chaining his feet in place.

“What are you waiting for?” bellowed Flint.

His voice snapped Dryden from his panic. He sprang off the ledge, eyes locked on the back of the monster’s neck. He landed in the right spot, but his feet buckled beneath him. The sword fell from his grip. Tumbling forward, he clawed for a hold to keep from falling. His hands found a ridge in the shell.

The monster responded by rearing and shaking its head. Dryden could feel his fingers slipping as sweat dampened the inside of his gloves. The monster dropped, shook again, then flicked its head upwards. Dryden flew through the air. He crashed against his back. His skull struck a piece of stone. He tried to scream, but his breath had vanished from his lungs, and a numbness crept into his body. He attempted to swallow a foul taste in his mouth, but vomited instead.

Darkness encased his vision. All the noise in the clearing began to merge into a dull, indecipherable drone. He lay his head down and watched through a blur as the others battled with the monster.

It seemed Flint and Ulvimon had escaped the cave, but he couldn’t tell for certain. Fuzzy dots darted about in a frenzy, accompanied by the haze of drawling sounds. A prominent black mass recognizable as the monster whirled about. People seemed to shout. The cries grew more and more frenetic.

He blinked twice. The movements slowed. It looked as if the monster had stopped. Three figures rested at a distance, motionless as well. He blinked again.

The monster seemed to have crouched onto its belly while holding something under its forelegs. Dryden rubbed his eyes. He noticed his father’s hat lying upturned on the grass.

The monster opened its mouth. A light shone. Only then did Dryden realize it had Flint pinned in place.

His daze vanished as quickly as if he’d been startled from a nap. An inexplicable sensation flared through his veins, disintegrating the pain the moment he jolted to his feet. As he raced for his father, the earth seemed to bow under the power of his stride.

He slammed against the monster’s head. The light sputtered as he seized its jaw. Rifts cracked along the shell. Every fibre of energy seemed to transmute into a compacted force within the palms of his hands. He lurched the monster’s head side to side, nearly blind from the uncontrollable impulse. The shell exploded into shards. His fingers found bone. He pulled with such a tumultuous might, the neck tore from its shoulders like an uprooted plant.

Blood flooded the grass. The monster’s body collapsed. Pine needles rained from the nearby tree as a reverberating crash resounded through the clearing.

Dryden paused. The severed head was still in his hands. His father lay below him, wide-eyed and soaked in blood. The smell of burnt leather wafted in the air. As Dryden’s mind slowly unwound, his strength vanished. He crumpled to the ground, winded and nauseous.

Silence lingered over the clearing. Flint crawled out from the monster, his expression still frozen in a dazzled stupor. He wiped the crimson stains from his face. “Dryden…how…?”

Ulvimon’s voice interrupted him. “Flint?”

Dryden looked over. Ulvimon, Herthrim and Chrizodo stood with their shoulders tensed. They glowered at Dryden, swords and bow raised as if he were their next target.

Flint’s eyes flashed. “What are you doing? Put your weapons down!”

Ulvimon lifted his higher. “Explain what just happened.”

“What do you mean?” cried Flint. “Dryden saved us, that’s what!”

“He did more than save you,” groaned Herthrim. “That looked like black magic to me.”

Flint seemed ready to burst into flames. He stomped towards the three, one leg trailing with a limp, but stopped as Chrizodo notched an arrow.

“Don’t move. Explain some things first.”

“I don’t believe this!” shouted Flint. “I never thought I’d see the day my three closest friends point their weapons at me!”

Chrizodo’s expression broke into an anguished disarray. “Look at it from our perspective!” His arms trembled as he spoke. “Dryden just decapitated that thing with his bare hands! A moment before, he looked unconscious. If that were anyone else, they’d still be lying flat on the ground—if not dead. How do you explain that?”

Dryden tried to answer himself, but he couldn’t find the air to form any words. He lay sprawled on his side instead, his hands clamped around the monster’s head while Flint roared at the three.

“You must be joking! Do you think Dryden has secret powers or something? Do you think he’s a demi-god in disguise—or some kind of sorcerer? You can’t be that stupid!”

“Give your reasons, then!” demanded Ulvimon. “Do you think you could’ve killed the monster like that?”

Flint flailed his arms. He began pacing circles in a fury. “How should I know? Maybe the monster is weaker than we thought. We don’t know anything about it. There could’ve been a weak spot.”

“There’s something suspicious about all this,” prattled Herthrim. “It reeks of those old tales: the ones where the special child is abandoned in secret by his parents and raised by—”

Flint jabbed a finger in the direction of Herthrim. His voice fell to a whisper, though his tone could’ve split one of the boulders in half. “If you ever mention that again, I’ll break your neck!”

Herthrim’s face paled. “That’s not—what I—”

Chrizodo cut him off with a shaky voice. “Flint, I trust you like a brother. We’ve been friends since we were children. You wouldn’t keep a secret about Dryden from me, would you?”

“You know everything!” spat Flint. “Dryden is an ordinary thruin. There’s not one secret I’m keeping. Even if there were, I’m sickened to think this is how easily you’d turn on me!”

“I wouldn’t turn on you…” muttered Chrizodo.

“Put down your weapon, then!”

Chrizodo remained motionless for a time. His eyes darted from Flint to Dryden before he lowered his bow and tossed it to the ground.

Ulvimon cast him a betrayed look. “Chrizodo!”

Flint took a step forward. “Enough, Ulvimon. Don’t we have enough to worry about? I don’t need to deal with Sargan and this monster, and then have the town suspect Dryden of black magic.”

Ulvimon’s gaze fell to his feet. “I’m not convinced that that was normal.”

“What do you want, then? A trial? Are you going to have my son dragged to the city and locked up with witches and warlocks? Will that make you happy?”

Dryden shuffled, but he couldn’t find the strength to rise. Ulvimon fixed him with a cold stare, one he returned without faltering.

“Well?” said Flint. “What do you want to do? Stone him? Hang him? Beat him until he confesses?” His tone shifted to a spiteful mockery. “Clearly, you know black magic better than anyone else here. Go on! Bring justice to this terrible threat!”

“Shut up!” barked Ulvimon. “You make it sound as if I hate Dryden.”

“You act like you do! You discard the integrity of my honesty! Should I compliment you on your free thinking?”

“We don’t need to bicker,” peeped Herthrim. “We’re all friends.”

Flint turned to him as if he hadn’t noticed him until now. “Then why’s your sword pointed at my son? Drop it!”

Herthrim let his weapon fall as if it were a live ember. The action seemed to calm Flint. He addressed Ulvimon once more, this time in a collected voice. “If you’re going to think up wild theories about Dryden, do me one favour. Keep them to yourself. You’ll ruin his life if you spread any rumours about black magic, no matter how vague. Will you do that?”

Chrizodo seconded Flint’s request. “He’s right, Ulvimon. The least we can do is keep our mouths shut. He did save us, so we owe him that.”

Ulvimon didn’t answer. He kept adjusting the grip on his sword while peering from one man to the next.

“You know he’s a good kid,” continued Chrizodo. “Let’s keep quiet for his sake.”

Ulvimon finally lowered his weapon. A frustrated, defeated look darkened his face. “You won’t admit it’s strange how he tore the monster’s head off?”

Chrizodo’s lips twitched. “I…I trust Flint.”

Ulvimon seemed far from appeased. “It doesn’t make sense…” His eyes shifted to Flint. They carried a look of uneasiness. “You don’t have to worry about me. I won’t say anything that’ll hurt Dryden, but someday, someone else might suspect something, and it could turn into a disaster then.”

“It doesn’t have to leave this clearing,” answered Flint. “If you three keep your stories to yourself, we won’t have anything to worry about.” He approached Dryden and crouched beside him, one arm outstretched. “How are you feeling? Need help?”

Dryden withdrew from his father, afraid to take his hand. “No, no, I’m fine. I can stand.”

Though his body felt as sturdy as rotted lumber, he forced himself to his feet under his own power. The entire clearing wobbled beneath him. A sudden, unbearable longing for his bed assailed him. The need to sleep nearly eroded his composure, to the point where he felt on the verge of tearing his hair and bawling like a madman.

Flint examined him with the soft expression of paternal worry. “You look ill. We need to get you home.”

“I hit my head hard,” Dryden admitted. “I don’t feel well.”

Herthrim approached the two. “We ought to bring the head with us, don’t you think? I know Martron will want to see it.” He clasped the end opposite of Dryden and gave a surprised grunt. “It’s heavy! We’ll need at least two to carry it.”

“Let’s take it to the edge of the forest,” said Flint. “I want to wait until nightfall to bring it back. We don’t need anyone to see this except Martron. The whole town will panic.”

“Where will we keep it?” asked Herthrim.

“I can put it in my shed,” answered Flint. “My farm is the closest from here.”

“It won’t be long before it starts to smell,” mused Chrizodo.

“I don’t plan on keeping for more than a day or two,” replied Flint. “After Martron sees it, I’ll burn it.”

Herthrim rubbed his chin, as if deep in thought. “It’s a large creature. I wonder what it tastes like.”

Ulvimon recoiled with a cry. “You’re joking! You can’t just eat the flesh of some unknown animal. It might be diseased.”

Herthrim scowled. “I didn’t say I was actually going to do it. I was just wondering.”

“You can have some of my own food if you’re that hungry,” grumbled Ulvimon. “I swear, if you come back here for it—”

“I’m not going to eat it,” growled Herthrim. “It’s just a shame we don’t know whether it’s edible or not. That’s a lot of meat.”

Ulvimon eyed the bleeding carcass. “I’d starve before I thought of touching that. Look how grey the flesh is.”

Herthrim rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. “Does it make your eyes sting when you look at it?”

“A little…” Ulvimon blinked several times, as if he hadn’t noticed until Herthrim pointed it out.

“Let’s get moving,” said Chrizodo. “I can feel some bruises starting to form.” He edged to where Dryden stood and reached for the monster’s head. “I can take this end, Dryden. You look exhausted.”

Dryden slid his hands off then hid them behind his back. His nose curled from the stench of melted leather. He noted, to his horror, that where his grip had been, blotches of soot smudged the cracked shell. Chrizodo seemed to notice as well. He wiped a finger, examined the residue, then took the monster’s head without a word, though Dryden could practically hear the thoughts rallying in his mind.

“Heave!” cried Herthrim.

They hoisted the head onto their shoulders. Blood dripped off the end of the neck bone. Flint and Ulvimon walked at the front, cutting through the foliage to clear a path for Herthrim and Chrizodo. Dryden trailed at the rear, his hands still clasped behind his back. The pungent stench lingered around him. Nobody questioned the smell, but they must’ve noticed it, for it consumed the air more so than Bonial Woods’s native fungus.

He was relieved they chose to ignore it, for he knew its source. The leather of his gloves had burned away above the palms, exposing the gems imbedded in his skin. The two largest of the bunch, centred in both palms, had begun to glow, as if they had suddenly woken.