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“Are you mad? You can’t go into the forest!”
Rina finished folding supplies into her blanket and tied it into a knapsack. She embraced Margaret. “I have to. The king will keep hunting me, and more of the people I love will die trying to protect me.”
“But the creatures—they’ll tear you apart.”
“Better me than someone else.”
“Rina, please. Don’t go.”
Rina took the hand of the woman who’d raised her. “The king will not stop until I’m dead. Or, worse, until he has killed everyone I love. That means you. But even he is afraid to go in the forest. Somehow, I’ll find a way to survive there.”
“But what about the people who depend on you/ You are the only one fighting against the king. What will we do without you?”
“I’ll still lead them. I’ll just have a different command base.”
Tears formed in the older woman’s eyes. “Be careful.”
Rina embraced her one last time. “I will. I’ll find a way to let you know when I’m safe.”
Rina stood and looked up at the trees that towered before her.
Since before her birth, no one who had ventured into those woods had returned. The monsters that resided therein devoured any who tried to escape. The only road through the forest to the world beyond was guarded by the king’s sorcerers. The king made certain that his people could never leave.
For a moment, her courage failed, but she thought of Margaret. She couldn’t bear the thought of the king doing to her what he’d done to the last person caught helping Rina form a resistance. Images of the man’s remains still haunted Rina’s nightmares.
The only way to keep her loved ones safe was to take her chances in the forest.
Rina turned toward the voice that called out to her.
“Troy, what are you doing here?”
“Margaret came to me as soon as you left. She told me what you’re doing.”
“My mind is made up. Don’t try to stop me.”
“I’m not. I’m coming with you.”
“Troy, no. It’s too dangerous.”
“Which is why you shouldn’t be alone.”
Rina considered arguing with him, making him go back, but in truth, she wanted his company. The dark shadows of the trees seemed somehow less threatening with him by her side.
“Let’s go. We need to get as far into the interior as possible, and find a place to camp.”
They trekked for a long while, pushing their way through dense underbrush, deeper into the heart of the forest. It was nearing evening when they finally came to a stream.
Rina glanced up and down the bank until she spotted a flat area between two towering pines.
“There,” she pointed. “Come on.”
They spent what was left of the daylight gathering branches and building a shelter and a fire.
Rina pulled bread and meat from her pack of provisions and handed some to Troy.
“Now what?” he asked as he ate. “We sit here and wait to be eaten?”
“No. We build a safe area. The creatures don’t come out of the forest to attack the farms or the towns. I think they have some sort of magical restraint that forces them to stay within the bounds of the forest. So, we clean out a space in the forest that they can’t enter.”
“I don’t think it works that way. We’re still in the forest.”
Rina shrugged. “Then we’ll figure out how to kill them.”
“Right, because that hasn’t been tried before.”
Rina smiled. “I stole magic from every one of the king’s magicians that I killed. My hope is that the magic that created them will somehow be able to destroy t hem.”
“Will that work?”
“It’s the only chance I—sh! Listen!”
Rina held her breath, ears straining.
“I don’t hear anything,” Troy whispered.
“That’s the problem. No crickets, no night birds—it’s too quiet.”
She stood and pulled her sword from its scabbard, nodding to Troy to do the same. She opened the pouch she carried on her belt and pulled out a pinch of the iridescent powder inside.
“Be ready,” she whispered.
She and Troy stood back-to-back, swords drawn, waiting.
Something rustled the bushes. Rina turned toward the sound.
A pair of violet eyes glowed in the dark, drawing nearer.
A head like the head of a dragon began to take shape, the glow of the fire illuminating its glistening fangs and dancing in its eyes.
Rina waited until it came a little closer, creeping on its huge, taloned feet, then flung the powder from the pouch at it.
The creature screeched, rising up on its hind legs and lunging toward Rina.
She swiped at it with her sword, but though she felt the blade strike, the blow didn’t even seem to slow the creature.
Troy, from the other side, thrust his sword toward the creature’s heart.
The monster turned and slashed at him with a claw, tearing through clothes and skin. The creature licked the blood on its claws, and then roared. The blood drove it into a frenzy, and it launched itself at Troy, jaws gaping.
“No!” Rina jumped in front of the creature’s head. Its jaws snapped down on her arm.
Rina screamed in pain, knowing at any moment the creature would finish her.
But the moment never came.
The creature released her arm, hissing and screeching as though in great pain.
Rina pushed herself to a stand and lunged toward the creature with her sword.
Blood from her wounded arm splashed onto the blade as she thrust toward the creature’s exposed chest.
This time, the sword sliced cleanly through the beast’s skin.
The creature stumbled backward, roaring.
Rina wiped more blood on the tip of ht sword and chased after the creature, stabbing it again and again until it finally toppled over.
She ragged the carcass back to her camp. Its hide would make a good tent.
Troy lay panting by the stream when she returned. He’d washed his wound, but he would need help bandaging it.
She helped him to their camp and began work.
“You killed it,” Troy said, wincing as Rina sewed shut the gash in his middle. “How?”
“My blood. Somehow it hurt the thing, made it vulnerable t my sword.”
“It only wanted to kill me more when it tasted my blood. Why did yours hurt it?”
“I don’t know. But I think I know how to make our safe area.”
If you enjoyed this story, please enjoy the complete series (in chronological order):