of the Night
By John Outram
About the author
"You imagined it," replied Dasque. "The wind howls through the trees and makes all kinds of sounds."
"It sounded like a woman's voice, crying out," said Kavlar.
"Pay it no attention," replied Dasque. "On a night like this, stay by the fire safe and warm. This is an evil place, this forest. The wind in the trees plays tricks, leads a traveller away from the path. And there are all kinds of dangers in the dark -- quagmires and pits, wild beasts. Ignore the wind."
Dasque, a seasoned traveller in these parts, pulled a thick sheepskin cloak around his shoulders and settled by the fire. The younger man, Kavlar, sat poking the fire thoughtfully. Born and raised in a wild country, he had little time for tales of demons and such, but he was well aware of the real dangers of wandering in the darkened forest. He knew, too, that the night played tricks on minds wearied with a long day's journey. Even so, he was certain he had heard more than just the wind in the trees, and inclined to think that Dasque had heard more than he cared to admit.
"Tell me that was the wind!" he exclaimed as another cry rose above the steady murmur of the forest.
"That was the wind," replied Dasque. "Or a fox, maybe. Once, in Matraban, I heard a sound in the night--"
"I know what a fox sounds like," hissed Kavlar angrily. "There, listen! That was a cry for help! I don't know a wind or a fox that speaks the Crisian tongue like that.
Kavlar was on his feet in a second, snatching up a brand from the fire. Dasque looked up with a troubled face. He was no coward, Dasque, his courage had earned Kavlar's grudging approval in a dozen fights, but he was afraid now. Kavlar shot him a look of pure contempt.
"I don't know what you're afraid of," he sneered, "but I'm going to have a look. You can come with me or you can stay here by yourself."
Dasque stared into the flame, humbled by the fierce youth's stare.
"I tell you, this is a bad place. The wind and the night play tricks. Don't go out there, Kavlar."
"I'm not afraid of the dark," replied Kavlar.
"Then take this--" Dasque threw Kavlar the tiny object he had been rolling in his fingers while they spoke "--and I pray that it will bring you luck. I never used to believe the stories about his forest either. But now I do."
Kavlar looked at the piece of silver Dasque had tossed him. It was a small talisman of Tanith, the Moon Goddess. He slipped the chain around his left wrist, then drew his long sword.
"There's no time to waste," he said curtly
Then he turned and ran off into the shadows of the wind-blown pines. Dasque shivered and piled more wood onto the small campfire. For the fourth time he heard the woman's voice, crying out in fear or pain, but he resolved to stay where he was.
"Please! Please! They are almost upon me! Oh help, help!" wailed the voice, from somewhere to Kavlar's left. He halted uncertainly. He had thought the call had been ahead of him before, maybe a little to the right. Was the night playing tricks, as Dasque had suggested? Or was the woman moving away, maybe escaping whatever it was that threatened her? Kavlar listened for sounds of pursuit, but there were none, only the sound of the wind blowing through the branches. He set out doggedly in the direction from which he thought he had last heard her cry.
Kavlar realised he was in danger of losing his way. The sky was dark, starless and moonless, and the trees crowded close around him. He thought Dasque and the fire lay directly behind him, but it was hard to tell. The forest path lay to his left -- he was confident of that. But he knew how easy it was to make a wrong turn in the dark, and already his torch was more than half burned.
She screamed again, high and shrill, and this time Kavlar threw caution to the wind. He crashed through the trees, felt the torch torn from his hand, and plunged on into the darkness. He told himself that whatever threatened the girl must have some light of its own by which to menace her. Guided by her voice, he hurtled on.
Then he stumbled, and at the same time came to his senses. The screaming had stopped. He steadied himself against a tree trunk, his sword extended against an unseen enemy, faint light gleaming along the rune-carved blade. There was something there, something that stank of beast-fells and dead flesh. He could sense a menacing presence ahead of him, between the trees.
"Warrior? Can you hear me?" came a trembling voice. "I am close, very close. There is something nearby, I am frightened."
"Don't be afraid," growled Kavlar. "I'm here now."
"I am so afraid," she replied. "There was a beast, a hideous beast with great jaws…"
"Don't be afraid, I'm nearly there," said Kavlar as he pushed himself forward, guiding himself by the sound of her voice, wary for any sign of movement in the trees to either side. He heard her sobbing softly as he approached.
Then, for an instant, the clouds parted and a bright, full moon shone down through the branches. There she lay in that ghostly light, a once-beautiful woman, her pale flesh torn and ravaged by savage beasts that had half-devoured her, her fine silk robes ripped and stained. The moonlight sparkled on a talisman about her neck, a talisman identical to that wrapped around the wrist of Kavlar's sword-hand.
Kavlar barely had time to take this in. His gaze was drawn instead to the strange beasts that flanked the woman, blood dripping from white fangs. In shape they were like tall, slender greyhounds, with their hunched shoulders crested with a thick ruff of black and white fur and their long, slim legs ending in strange, bird-like claws. Each stood nearly five feet high. Delicate muzzles armed with sharp canines fully four inches long gave the pair a nightmarish look, but their aquamarine eyes seemed strangely human, strangely sympathetic, as they took him in.
"Oh stranger, I fear you are too late," said the first of them in a female, human voice. "I fear the beasts will devour me."
The other beast swished a long, bushy tail of black and white rings as it edged towards the dumbfounded man. Then, with a scream of fear identical to those he had pursued through the darkened forest, it sprang.
For a split second Kavlar forgot himself, forgot everything, his mind reeling with the images before him. Then, as glistening claws reached for him and fanged jaws gaped at him, he thrust his sword through the creature's neck until he felt the hilt strike flesh. Its weight bore him down. The sword was torn from his grasp, and he felt the talisman slip from his wrist. The moon was darkened again.
The second beast was nearly upon him. He could see nothing, but he could sense its presence, feel its hot breath upon him as it closed. Thrusting the carcass of the first creature away from him, he drew a short knife from his boot and waited.
"Oh, come to me, my sweetheart, let me taste your flesh," murmured the woman's voice in sensual tones. "Let my lips caress your skin, let your body be consumed and become one with mine."
"You -- monster!" gasped Kavlar as he grasped blindly at the thick fur around the creature's throat. The fingers of his right hand gripped strongly and with a muscle-cracking effort he thrust it back as it twisted and turned, trying to bite his arm, as he drew back his left arm for a thrust to the heart. He plunged the blade deep again and again, provoking a shriek as heart-rending as any he had heard while pursuing the siren voice through the forest. Muscle and bone gave way as the sharp steel sank home. Kavlar felt hot blood splashing over his face and chest. Then, just as his strength began to fail, he felt its lean muscles go limp, and the cry that it let out was suddenly that of a wild beast, not a human. It was dead, at last. He pushed it away in disgust.
Dasque was sitting where Kavlar had left him, white-faced and shivering in spite of his proximity to the fierce blaze. He stared up at Kavlar with terror in his eyes, maybe wondering if the blood-spattered barbarian was only another phantom of the forest.
"The blood isn't mine," said Kavlar in a matter-of-fact voice. "I was too late. They got her already, long before we were here. But don't worry, she is revenged now."
"Was it...? Was it...?"
"I don't know what it was," replied Kavlar. "Some demon-kind that devoured her flesh and stole her voice. But they are dead now. And don't worry, Dasque, you played your part. But for you I'd be a dead man."
Dasque mumbled something indistinct. Kavlar slumped down by the fire, tired and drained by his exertions, though by some miracle unhurt.
"It was the talisman," he explained. "You weren't to know it, but the woman must have been a worshipper of Tanith, maybe a priestess. And just when I was about to walk into a trap, the goddess showed her face. She parted the clouds and shone her light down on those fiends, just in time to save me."
"What are you going to say, Dasque? That there is no moon
tonight?" sighed Kavlar. "I know it. But as you say, the forest can play
tricks with your mind."
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A Trick of the Night is copyright John Outram. It may not be copied or
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