Arc 4 Ch. 20: The Shadows are Alive
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I didn’t even realize how dark it had gotten until after Alice and I gently pulled away, ending our hug. I could barely make out the features of her face in the sunset’s retreating light. The sun had nearly dipped all the way beneath the western mountaintops, blanketing our surroundings in the darkness of night.

A sudden chill made my whole body shiver. I had never been out in the wilderness this late before. We weren’t supposed to be away from camp at night when those things came out to hunt.

“Alice, we need to head ba—”

My fox ears twitched overhead as if on instinct. I barely turned around in time to spot a giant shadow with two yellow eyes leaping toward me.

Then everything happened at once.

Alice screamed. A gaping mouth full of razor-sharp fangs descended on me. I held up an arm to block. A searing pain erupted where the monster bit down. The adrenaline rush hit like lightning.

Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck—!

The thrashing mass of pitch-black scales tried tearing through the cloak protecting my arm. Without wasting another second, I grabbed the hilt of my dagger and plunged it right into the monster’s neck.

The dourling released its bite on my arm a moment too late. A network of glowing violet lines lit up on my obsidian dagger, its deadly enchantment sealing the predator’s fate.

It tried to turn tail and run, but it was no use. The giant wolf-sized monster shuddered on its four reptilian legs as if stricken by a sudden heart attack.

Then… it raised its lizard-like head to the night sky and let loose an ear-piercing shriek. I had to cover my ears—all four of them—and even then, the ungodly force of its dying cry made me wince in agony.

I thought the damned beast was never going to shut up… until its shriek finally trailed off into a raspy croak and it fell over to one side, dead for good.

I was still gasping for breath on the ground while I processed what just went down. That thing… Christ, that actually just happened…

“Beryl, are you okay?!” Alice cried.

My arm was still burning as if on fire where the monster had tried biting me. I held it up to take a look, but I couldn’t see anything in the darkness until Alice lit up the clearing with a Light Flare spell.

“It hurts like hell, but I don’t think my arm’s broken,” I said. “This cloak is actually enchanted against piercing attacks. I thought this would come in handy. See, that thing didn’t even draw any blood!”

The skin on my arm had deep, reddened indentations where the monster’s teeth had tried biting through, but I wasn’t bleeding anywhere. Huh… even if my enchanted cloak couldn’t be torn or pierced, it didn’t do a whole lot to stop the crushing impact from attacks. Actually, it kind of hurt to move my fingers…

Alice set down her rucksack and rummaged through it. “Beryl, you’re still hurt! Drink this.”

After I recognized the health potion she offered, I quickly gulped it down and felt instant relief. When I went to retrieve my obsidian dagger from the dead monster, a stream of dark blood came oozing out of the wound.

“You know, these things really aren’t that tough!” I said. “I don’t get what Titania was so… worried about…”

My blood nearly turned to ice at the sound of a far-off shrieking, howling cry. Then another. And another. And another.

All around us from every possible direction, the whole mountain range quickly came alive with that same bloodcurdling noise. Ten, twenty, forty—no, there were too many dourlings howling over and over to count… just like we were caught in the middle of a war cry straight out of hell.

I felt Alice hugging my arm, her whole body trembling. “B-Beryl…”

I heard the rest of our party approaching even before I saw them. Titania led the way for Viela and Freya, clanking in all her armor with her lance at the ready. When she spotted the dourling corpse on the ground next to us, she cursed under her breath.

“You actually did get jumped by one,” she mumbled.

“What the hell is happening?” I asked.

“From what I’ve heard… the worst case scenario,” Titania began in a low voice. She had to collect herself before continuing. “The dourlings are supposed to be solitary hunters like many other carnivores. But when one of them gets fatally wounded and lives long enough to send out ‘the call,’ they all get riled up like this. They group up into a pack and don’t stop chasing the new threat until they’re all dead. That means us. That’s why you’re not supposed to fight them.”

“Damn it, couldn’t you have been a little more specific about that before?!”

Viela held up a hand. “Now’s not the time for this,” the fox spirit said, a bit less calm and composed than usual. “We have to get moving.”

The chorus of distant howling still hadn’t stopped. In fact, they almost sounded a little louder now… like they were coming closer.

“The cave! Freya, how do we get back?”

Something about the snow leopard spirit’s aura made me shiver. Even with her two cubs held tightly in each arm, her fierce grey eyes stared wistfully at nothing.

“We’ll meet again tonight,” she muttered. “That killer, after all this time…”

“Freya, the cave!” I shouted.

Freya snapped back to her senses and quickly handed Sasha and Arwen over to Alice. With a blur of light, her whole body shifted into her full-grown snow leopard form.

“Follow me—and try to keep up!”

***

All the nights we had spent in the Dourland had been more or less blissfully quiet. As we were running after Freya now, it felt like we had actually ended up somewhere in the depths of hell.

Or more accurately… hell was on its way to us.

Viela cast a globe of light above us to illuminate our mountain path, but it wasn’t the dark of night that made our way troubling. The scattered howls around us kept changing in pitch and frequency. They weren’t just trying to scare us… it almost sounded like they were communicating with each other.

My feet hurt running fast enough to keep up with Freya, even though she wasn’t going at full speed. The other three weren’t faring much better. It was only a matter of time until one of them caught up with us.

I saw the pair of glowing yellow eyes leading the shadow running alongside us, even before I heard its cry. The damn thing is going to alert the others! If we get surrounded out in the open before we make it back to the cave…

Someone is going to die tonight.

Ignorance really was bliss. With my sharper fox vision, I could make out all the new shadows sprinting toward us. They could run faster than us, too—we were going to get intercepted.

Three dark, scaly monsters leapt out from the forest to block our path, snarling at us. Freya abruptly stopped and fell back, quickly scanning our surroundings for more.

“I’ll take these,” Titania said, stepping up and raising her lance with a chilling bloodlust in her eyes.

The lancer charged at them and shouted.

“Titania Thrust! Titania Lunge! Titania Penetrate!”

“Wh-What? Why are all your attacks so fucking sexual?!”

Her redheaded ponytail swung and bobbed with every jab and swing, the tip of her lance tearing through scaly hide. The first was pitifully unprepared; the second tried and failed to avoid a bloody end. The third managed to score a swipe on Titania’s armor before she skewered it through its throat.

When a fourth dourling pounced from the shadows to tackle her backside, Freya leapt through the air to intervene. Her snow leopard fangs sunk into its neck, not letting go until the monster stopped thrashing.

Shit, I’m glad they’re on our side…!

“Nice work, but I thought you said these things were supposed to be really smart?” I asked Titania.

“Those were probably the reckless ones who underestimated us,” Freya said. “The rest were just watching and learning.”

She cocked her feline head at the many pairs of pissed off eyes staring from nearby. Was that her intuition as a fellow hunter…?

“Let’s keep going. Beryl, watch the rear.”

Sure enough, after we started running again, I caught several pursuing monsters moving behind us. Out of all of us, for some reason they seemed most focused on Alice… or the two cubs in her arms.

The bastards are going after Sasha and Arwen!

Before I could come up with a plan, a dourling came sprinting dangerously close. It leapt toward a screaming Alice like it was trying to pin her down.

I jumped between them and cast Mana Shield. When the monster faceplanted into my magical barrier, I immediately followed up with a swipe of my dagger. Just when my blade was about to reach, the monster scrambled away for a hasty retreat.

Damn it, this thing is too short! I need some kind of ranged attack… think!

Mana Bolt was the only projectile spell I knew, but its magical explosion didn’t do any real damage. Mana Wave might sweep them off their feet, but I’d spend a lot of mana and put myself in danger for a follow-up attack. And my basic Fire spell just created fire over my hands! If only I had something like Viela…

Wait. I remembered the first rainy day that we entered the cave. Back then, it looked like Viela had just cast Fire, but somehow she managed to turn it into a flamethrower. It felt like the same principle with her new Flame Orbs spell.

If fire magic really was just ignited mana, and I could already launch mana with Mana Bolt, then maybe…!

It took more concentration than usual to keep running while tracing magic symbols like this, but I quickly had a decent flame flickering over my fingertip. Now if I just tried casting another spell at that dourling readying for another charge…

“Fire Bolt!”

A ball of flame shot out from my finger and exploded on the monster’s face. The sounds it made weren’t pretty.

The dourling flailed and thrashed about as if trying to shake off the flames engulfing its upper body. I wasn’t sure what happened to it in the end, but it never came back to chase us again.

“Nice shot!” Titania called back to me.

Another monster sprinted closer, still aiming for Alice. I cast another ball of fiery death at this one… and it leapt to the side unscathed.

Shit, these things are adapting!

Another dourling fell back from the side to join the surprise attack. Titania called for Freya to stop and took a defensive position.

“No, we need to keep going!” Freya barked. “They’re… it might already be too late.”

I turned to Viela, but she was still on ‘light duty’ keeping our path illuminated. The monsters already knew where we were anyway.

“I’ll keep Alice safe,” I told Titania. “We can’t get caught out in the open, even if they’re stalling.”

With a grunt of frustration, the lancer relented. I still wasn’t sure how I was going to get rid of these two damn things on our tail…

After we took off running again, I found myself looking at Alice. Arwen was cowering in her arms, but Sasha had been staring at me intently. A series of images and emotions flickered in the cub’s grey eyes toward me.

‘Two,’ Sasha ‘said’ to me. ‘Two paws, Fox.’

I was actually kind of pissed I understood the message.

“That’s a good idea, but I’m still not a fox!”

I had never tried it before, but with enough focus, there was no reason I couldn’t cast spells with both hands at the same time. First I traced the symbol for Fire with each hand, then I waited until the two stalking monsters had sprinted close enough that they couldn’t dodge.

They weren’t ready for Double Fire Bolt.

I had to concentrate with everything I had to aim in two different directions while running and casting spells—but in the end, both projectiles still managed to ignite their targets. They fell back into two more burning, shrieking beasts.

Yeah, those things really, really hated fire.

A new cacophony of howling made me shiver. They had been calling out to each other this whole time, but now they sounded even louder, and closer… and in the direction we were going.

Freya stopped, trembling. “We didn’t make it.”

“Aren’t we almost there?” I noted.

Viela patted the snow leopard spirit on her furry back. “We’ll get through this. You have us now, remember?”

Freya took a deep breath, regaining a little composure. “I hate to say it, but I’ll be counting on you,” she sighed. “Be ready for anything.”

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