Maury turned toward the messenger who brought the news. “Like the others?”
“And the hunters?”
“The hunting party is still out, but the last report said they lost the creature in the woods.”
“Keep me informed.”
The messenger bowed and left the room, and Maury turned to the old woman who sat on the chair to the right of the throne. “Any insights, Ada?”
“The creature is not natural, that much I know. Magic was involved in its creation. Magic stronger and more powerful than any I can claim.”
“Can it be stopped?”
“All magic can be stopped, and all creatures can be killed, but beyond those basic truths, I have no answers for you.”
Maury paced the dais. “Where did it come from?”
“My king, you know the answer to that without any assistance from my seeing.”
Maury stopped at the window and stared out at the seemingly endless forest that encircled his kingdom. The forest that started as a grove over a thousand years before, meant to protect the kingdom from attackers, was now home to the very things that threatened to destroy it.
“Yes,” the old woman confirmed.
“What does he want?”
“That, too, is a question to which you already know the answer.”
“The throne. He still believes he was the rightful heir.”
Far away, so far that they looked like a swarm of insects, a flock of black birds rose above the trees in a flurry of panicked flight.
“What can he hope to accomplish by this?”
“He is holding the kingdom hostage. Your people will rebel if they believe you cannot keep them safe. When they are rioting, demanding that you protect them even though you cannot, then William will come to claim the throne with the promise that he will rid the kingdom of the very creatures he brought forth.”
“You can see all that with your enchantments?”
“No. I have known your brother since his birth. It does not require magic to understand his methods. He will continue to increase his power in order to turn the people against you kill them until you no longer have a kingdom to rule.”
“Then I have no choice but to surrender the kingdom to him.”
“I wouldn’t say that. If you want to keep your people safe, you must find a way to destroy the creature.”
Before dawn the next morning, Maury was awakened by commotion in the hallway outside his chambers.
He glanced at his wife, sleeping fitfully beside him, and rolled from the bed to find the source of the racket. Her pregnancy was not going well, and he didn’t want her to lose any more rest.
He threw on a robe and went out into the hallway. “What’s going on?”
“Your Majesty, the hunting party has returned. What’s left o it.”
“What do you mean?”
A man stepped forward. His clothes were torn and bloody, and the side of his face was blackened, the flesh seared.
Maury sucked in his breath. “What—”
“We found the creature’s lair.” The hunter’s voice rasped, scarcely audible. “It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. All my men—everyone except for me—”
The hunter collapsed, his armor clattering against the marble floor.
“Get Ada. Quickly,” Maury ordered.
The guard disappeared, and Maury bent toward the hunter. “Can you tell me how to reach the creature’s lair?”
Ada appeared just as the hunter finished giving Maury instructions and began her ministrations on the wounded hunter.
Maury turned to the guard. “Gather the army. We’re going after the creature. And send servants to take care of this man.”
Within moments, the hall buzzed with activity. Ada barked orders at the servants, instructing them in caring for the man. When all was quiet, she addressed Maury. “I’m going with you.”
“No, I can’t risk you getting hurt.”
“How many of your men have already died? This creature is magical. The best chance of killing it is with magic, and I am the only one who knows any. Perhaps I can figure out how to kill it. Or at least what it is and how it was conjured.”
“What about the queen? If something happens to you, who will care for her? And my son, my heir, who grows inside her. Who will keep him safe?”
The old woman nodded. “I understand your concern but if we do not destroy the creature, there will be no kingdom left for him to inherit. I am coming.”
Maury sighed, but nodded. “I’ll have your horse saddled.
The forest was dark, the morning sun scarcely penetrating the thick canopy.
Maury led his army deeper in, following the hunter’s directions.
The silence grew as thick as the trees the further they went.
“We should be close,” Maury whispered.
A moment later, he entered a small clearing.
Bits of armor and broken weapons littered the trampled grass, but there was no sign of the slain bodies of the hunting party.
A chill ran through Maury, making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.
At the opposite end of the clearing, in a small burrow that looked almost like a cave in the underbrush, a pair of amethyst eyes glowed.
Maury drew his sword. “Get ready, men!”
A head like a dragon attached to the body of a lion with the wings and claws of an eagle emerged from the hole which seemed far too small and filled the clearing. It raised up on its hind legs, its claws digging into the earth, its front talons pawing the air above Maury’s head.
The creature hissed and opened its mouth.
Maury raised his sword and shield, dug his heels into his horse’s sides, and charged.
A burst of flame washed over him, heating the metal of his armor so it burned him, but he kept on, rushing toward the thing, thrusting his sword upward.
The beast screeched and drew back.
Black blood seeped from its chest.
The army rushed in, closing on the beast.
It swiveled, snapping its jaws at the nearest soldier, snatching him from his horse, devouring him even as it swiped at another soldier with its front talons.
One after another, the beast killed his men, not seeming to tire.
Maury couldn’t understand it. Why were they unable to kill it, after he’d wounded it?
Ada’s voice filled the clearing. “Stop!”
The sound held a hypnotic note that compelled even the beast to pause; for a moment, the whole forest stood still.
Ada looked at Maury. “You must kill it, your Majesty. Only you can.”
Maury rushed forward, swinging his sword at the monster’s neck.
The sun reflected in the creature’s eyes, a flash of violet, just before they shifted to a dull, dead black as the creature’s head separated from its body.
Time resumed its flow, and the army surged in to surround the king.
“Bring the body,” Ada ordered. “I need to study it.” She turned her horse toward home.
Maury rode to catch up. “Why the hurry? It’s dead. We’re safe.”
“Don’t be a food. That wasn’t the only of its kind. We are no where near safe.”
“That’s why you want to study it.”
They rode in silence for a moment before Maury spoke again. “How did you know I could kill it?”
“I smelled it in the wind.”
“Why was I able to kill it, when my men weren’t?”
Ada looked at him, her eyes seeming to read his very soul. “When I can answer that, then we will be safe.”
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