Authors: Thomas M. Reid
Xaphira sighted down the length of the bolt on her crossbow, trying to take true aim despite the jostling of Dancer’s gait, but before she could fire at the beast, another blur of motion caught her eye. A second creature had appeared on the scene, slinking through the underbrush. It dashed from its cover, leaping across open ground in great, fluid strides, rushing toward Emriana, who was on her knees, trying to get her bearings. A third one appeared as well, not too far behind. Xaphira jerked the crossbow in that direction and squeezed the trigger in one swift motion.
The shot was not true and merely scratched the lead cat, grazing the great, feral beast. The glancing blow sliced across its spotted golden pelt near the shoulder. It was enough to divert the dire-jaguar attention, though, and the massive cat leaped and twisted in midair, spinning around to snap at its new perceived threat, the third creature behind it. When it landed, legs splayed and tail twitching, it let out a great, screaming roar, a challenge to its counterpart.
Xaphira never stopped to see what effect her shot had had, though. Discarding the crossbow, she leaped free of Dancer before the horse could follow its frightened mate back up the streambed and landed in a dead run to join her niece. Emriana was struggling to her feet, watching the first of the three dire-jaguars with an ashen face. Xaphira noted that the dire-cat watched the girl warily, waiting its chance to leap
in and attack. She moved between the girl and the beast, settling onto the balls of her feet.
“Stay close to me, and keep low,” Xaphira commanded the younger girl, never taking her eyes from the cat, while the other two began to circle to either side, prowling on huge padded paws the size of sunmelons. “If one gets too close, try to hit it somewhere on the face. But don’t let it bite you.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Emriana asked, her voice tremulous. “Look at the size of them!”
Xaphira had to admit that the beasts were beautiful, in a deadly, savage way. They were was As large as mastiffs and just as muscular. Their golden eyes glittered dangerously in the morning sunlight, and the mercenary officer could sense a baleful intelligence there, something primal and dark, old like the land itself. One of them opened its mouth wide and issued an ear-splitting scream, a bold challenge to the two women. Its fangs were as long as Xaphira’s fingers.
Beside her, she could feel Emriana shudder.
Suddenly, one of the three opposing Xaphira darted in, rearing up on its haunches and swiping at the woman with thick, black claws extended. Xaphira shifted her weight just enough to avoid the deadly talons, while at the same time flicking one fist out to snap against the cat’s nose. As if that were some kind of signal, the other two rushed in simultaneously, and Xaphira dropped low, into a crouch, pushing Emriana down into the dirt as she twisted back to face the two of them.
The second dire-jaguar struck low, lunging at Xaphira’s ankle, forcing her to kick at it with her booted heel, while the third came in higher, launching itself at her head. Rather than block that third attack, Xaphira sagged backward, over Emriana’s prone form. She landed with her hands outstretched
behind her as if she wanted to crabwalk, but as soon as the cat shot past, its raking claws whisking past her nose, she was upright again, jabbing a rapid punch inside at the great beast’s ribs.
Almost in the same motion, Xaphira jumped and spun around, snapping another kick at the first feral cat, which had shaken off her punch and was darting in close again. She could not completely stop the dire-jaguar from its lunge, but she used leverage and its own momentum to redirect the beast, causing it to collide with the second cat, which was coming at Xaphira again in a leaping blur, fangs bared. The blocking maneuver was effective and the two huge felines collided, spat, and howled at one another. For a moment, the two creatures were a blur of claws, fangs, and flying fur; then they parted and retreated, slinking out of harm’s way. The three dire jaguars separated themselves from Xaphira and Emriana and once more began to circle the two women, tails twitching, waiting to spot a true opening in the mercenary officer’s defenses.
Suddenly, all three dire jaguars rushed Xaphira at once. As quick as she was, she knew she would never be able to fend off three simultaneously. As she snapped another kick in the direction of the closest beast’s head, a flash of motion caught her eye from down low, near the ground. She landed her kick solidly, slamming the dire-jaguar jaw shut, but the great cat managed to swipe at her leg with one paw. She almost bit her tongue in pain as she felt the talons cut through her boot and rake her leg.
Xaphira nearly stumbled off balance as she completed the motion of her kick, and the dire-jaguar she had struck twisted in midair from the force of her blow. It landed with a shriek and darted off, disappearing into the undergrowth. In the same heartbeat, Xaphira followed through and snapped
an elbow into the second beast’s face, expecting to have her arm mangled for her troubles, but the huge beast collided with her, its motion strangely dull and heavy. The collision knocked Xaphira off her feet, piling both her and the dire-jaguar on top of Emriana. The blow knocked the wind from Xaphira’s lungs as the huge cat rolled on top of her, feeling like dead weight.
The third beast mistimed its leap and sailed over the top of the pile, but Xaphira felt its hind claws rake her across one hip, and she would have cried out in pain had she any breath. As it was, the dire-cat on top of her flopped over and lay still across her face, blinding her and cutting off her air. The mercenary officer felt Emriana struggling beneath her legs, trying to shift so that she could get up.
In a panic, Xaphira began struggling to get out from underneath the obviously dead dire-jaguar that was atop her face. All the while, she was desperately thinking, this is it. They’re going to rip Em to shreds, and I’m next.
Despite her pain and fear, or perhaps because of them, Xaphira found the strength to shove the carcass away from her head. She scrambled out and up, bringing her fists up, expecting an attack. But the remaining dire-jaguar was several paces away, limping as it paced back and forth. Blood leaked from a wound along its foreleg, saturating the sandy ground. It screamed a defiant challenge at the two women then turned and slunk off into the forest.
Panting, Xaphira peered in every direction warily, looking for signs of the third cat, which she had chased off with her powerful kick. She could not see either one, but she feared that one or both had circled around, hoping to sneak back in close for another attack. Finally, when it was obvious that the two remaining
dire-jaguars were gone, she allowed her shoulders to slump in relief, letting down her guard.
Emriana, who was seated near Xaphira’s feet and breathing just as heavily, was holding one of her new throwing daggers, its blade bloody. Her eyes, which were big and full of fear, looked back and forth between Xaphira and the dead cat lying next to them.
Slowly, Xaphira rose to a kneeling position, resting her hands on her knees. She grinned at her niece. “I guess you found a use for them,” she said between breaths, nodding at the weapon. “But you’re supposed to throw them.”
Emriana looked at the blade in her hand, dropping it as though it were white hot. “I did, the first time,” she said, pointing at the dead cat beside the two of them. Xaphira turned to gaze at the creature and spotted the thin wound piercing its chest, just between its front legs. A steady flow of blood was just subsiding. “It was within reach, though, so I grabbed it again.” Then the girl shuddered. “I thought we were finished,” she added, swallowing hard.
“So did I,” Xaphira confessed, grimacing and examining her wounds. The cuts on her leg were not deep, for her boot had absorbed the majority of the damage. Her hip, however, was bleeding freely, soaking her trousers in crimson. “Thanks to you, though, we’re still here,” she added, reaching into her shirt for the medallion dedicated to Waukeen.
Suddenly, Emriana was beside Xaphira. “You’re bleeding!” she exclaimed. “It looks bad,” she said, tentatively touching the slash marks with one finger.
“It is,” Xaphira replied, wincing. “Give me a moment.” Closing her eyes, she began to pray. The pain was making her light-headed, but she pushed the discomfort out of her mind for the moment and concentrated on the orison of healing. Pressing her palm against
the wound, she muttered the final words and felt cool, soothing energy radiate into her hip.
When Xaphira opened her eyes, the gashes in her clothing revealed only fresh pink skin and lots of smeared blood. A second spell closed the wounds in her shin.
When she was done, the mercenary officer noticed Emriana sitting next to her with her knees drawn up. The girl was hugging them tightly and watching intently, her yellow-gold eyes wide with concern. “That’s a pretty handy talent to have,” she said when she understood that Xaphira was finished.
Xaphira nodded. “Only when no one is trying to take my head off,” she replied, “or I’m about to pass out from the pain.” For a moment, she thought of what might have been, if her injuries had been worse. “Have you ever had to field dress a wound before?” she asked.
Emriana shook her head.
“Well, if you’re going to accompany me tonight, you’ve got to know more than how to throw a dagger.”
Emriana giggled, realizing what her aunt was agreeing to. “Tonight?” she said, her eyes shining with excitement.
Xaphira nodded. “But only if you do what I say, beginning with learning how to stop someone from bleeding to death.”
“The way you fight, I won’t need to do it very often,” the girl said. “It was …” she paused, contemplating. “Amazing,” she said, her face filled with wonder. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you do that before. And against three of them. You’re incredible.”
Xaphira chuckled as she got to her feet. “Not so much,” she replied as she wiped a forearm across her sweat-soaked brow. “Without you there, they would have taken me down. I’m getting old and slow.”
“It was one against three!” Emriana protested.
“Sure, and in that instance, the best thing I could have done is take them out quickly, before they tired me out. But those cats were smart. They were toying with me, wearing me down before they prepared to close in for the kill. I was a fumbling buffoon this morning.”
Emriana rolled her eyes, refusing to let her aunt’s words diminish her appreciation of the display. “Whatever you say. I certainly could not have done any of that.”
“Ah, but eventually you can, if you want to learn,” Xaphira remarked. “I can teach you.”
Emriana smiled, looking genuinely delighted at the prospect. “I would like that.”
Xaphira smiled. “Come on, let’s get back. Those other two might come back for more, and other things are going to come feast soon, regardless,” she said, pointing at the dead dire-jaguar. “I don’t want to be around when the quarrels over portions start.”
Together the two women began to hike back up the streambed, and it was not long before they found Dancer and Honey, nickering at one another as they feasted on berries.
The ride back to the country estate was less boisterous, and along the way Emriana grew quiet. Xaphira wondered if the morning’s attack had unnerved her, but when the girl spoke, her words reminded the mercenary that the impending journey back to Arrabar weighed heavily on her niece’s mind.
“Did you learn anything about Junce Roundface last night?”
Xaphira pursed her lips before answering, feeling all her own concerns welling up inside her. “Not exactly, though I might learn something tonight. An old friend of mine promised to do some digging, and if anyone knows someone who can tell us more, he does.”
“You mean, we might learn something tonight. Right?”
Xaphira nodded. “Right. But we’re only going to sit in a bar and talk with Quill. There won’t be any rooftop climbing this trip.”
Emriana sniffed, obviously a little less enamored of the expedition than she had been previously. “Well, let’s hope we learn something, at the least,” she said determinedly. “Every time I think about that assassin still running loose in the city, after everything he’s done to our family …” She left the thought hanging there, but Xaphira understood.
‘ “Me, too,” she told her niece. “We’ll get him, Em. I promise.”
“Good,” the girl replied. “Because I can’t sleep, knowing he’s still free.”
By Waukeen, where did it come from? Vambran wondered, half in a daze. He shook his head, forcing himself to think. He scrambled to his feet, holding on to a railing for support, and peered all about the ship.
Lady’s Favor wasn’t long for the surface. She was already sitting much lower in the water than she should have been, and she continued to lean hard to her starboard side, pulled over by the gargantuan squid-thing that clung to her from beneath. Several men were already in the water, including some of the Crescents, though they, at least, had heeded the signal song and were standing atop the waves rather than floundering beneath them. But one unfortunate sailor was high above the waves, held tightly in a barbed tentacle that had coiled around him. As Vambran watched, horrified, the tentacle
whipped the screaming man back and forth rapidly, slamming him hard against the waves and choking off his cries.
The creak and groan of the listing ship grew louder, accompanied by several violent pops. Vambran could feel the vibrations of those cracking timbers in the deck beneath his hands and feet. The beast was pulling the ship apart.
Where the hell is Kovrim? He’s got to get up here before the whole blasted ship goes down!
Za’hure went stumbling past Vambran’s position, shouting orders at the top of his lungs even as he collided with another sailor who had lost his balance and was skidding across the width of the deck toward the railing. The captain grabbed hold of the other man by the arm and swung him around in the other direction, shouting an order that Vambran couldn’t make out. Somehow, the sailor stumbled in the direction Za’hure had pointed, pulling a cutlass free of his belt and sliding toward one of the thick, rubbery appendages that held tight to the sinking ship. The sailor took a huge swing at the fleshy arm, gouging a slender hunk out of it. Other men moved to join in, hacking and sawing at the great tentacles holding fast to the ship. Vambran wanted to move in to aid them, but at that moment, one of the huge barbed appendages rose up from the side of the ship. It still held the sailor from before, though the man hung limply in its grasp, his head dangling at an unnatural angle. Using the corpse as a bludgeon, the kraken raked the deck of the ship, knocking its attackers away in violent and sickeningly fleshy collisions.