Dim light shines ahead. The end of the path is in sight at last. How long has it been since I last glimpsed the sky? It must be nearly a week at least. When I
Dim light shines ahead. The end of the path is in sight at last. How long has it been since I last glimpsed the sky? It must be nearly a week at least. When I entered this slice of wilderness, my chin looked like chiseled stone, but now curly black hairs cover it. The jungle foliage above shades everything below. Predators move around me, trampling branches and skittering through rotting carcasses. Most were smart enough not to test my blade, but the man-sized centipede that did nearly ingested my face before I cleaved it into pieces. The torch in my hand is nearly burnt away.
When the flame goes out, the things that have held off for days will charge me. They want a meal. I take in a deep breath as I rub my hand over the beard that’s grown on my chin. Swinging my pack down, I rummage through it to find the lone piece of salted pork remaining.
The torch dies.
No time to waste. I toss the meat behind me, grab my pack, and charge toward the clearing ahead. The jungle comes alive as all manner of monstrous beasts converge on the discarded morsel, but not every animal goes for the easy meal.
Using the little light filtering in from the distant clearing, I spot the hungry maw of a Snapping Drake, the long-necked wingless variety, charging into my peripheral. It’s a mercy that this kind can’t spit flames. My hand goes for the blade bouncing off my hip, but before it’s drawn a patch of dark void comes to life above the vicious reptile.
A lean, muscular panther jumps down to devour my attacker. First law of the jungle, you’re always being hunted. The Snapping Drake forgot that, and now he’s dinner for another predator. My blade comes free of its sheath but stopping to intervene doesn’t cross my mind. Instead, my feet continue to the growing light. A hissing snake descends to block my path. Its jaw opens wide, and venom oozes from its fangs. My blade swings forth, and the razor edge makes short work of the monster’s form. Its insides spill out and cover me in the remains of its last meal. I’m momentarily blinded, vulnerable to anything.
“Stop,” calls a stranger. “You’re out of the jungle.”
I do as I am instructed and wipe the bloody remains from my eyes at the same time. Ahead of me, a grass-covered hill descends to a small village, filled with wooden hovels. A shoddily crafted road leads away from the dwellings, twisting around a solitary peak. A castle is built into the side of it. My destination.
A little girl stands just ahead of me. “You can put the sword away now.”
She’s so small I didn’t see her at first. I give my sword a good flick, and most of the remaining viscera flies off. The blade slides quietly back into its sheath. The weapons bloodthirst is momentarily satisfied, but I’m sure it won’t be long before the thing starts asking me to use it again.
“You are?” I ask.
“Where are your parents?”
She points to the dwellings. “Isn’t that kind of obvious.”
I smile. It’s been a long time since a kid’s fed me sass. Probably not since my own was still alive.
“Can you take me to them? I’m going to need rest and food before I head up to see the Baron.”
The girl’s face goes white. “He took my sister last year.”
“Well, the sooner I get to him, the sooner your sister is back.”
“No one returns from his place.” She looks to the castle in the distance. “They say he eats their souls.”
“Well, I don’t have one of those. So, he won’t be able to eat mine.”
The girl laughs and beckons for me to follow her down to the village. If only I were joking. I trail her, continuing to remove bits of the snake and whatever it ate from my traveling cloak.
To Be Continued…