[This post is from Thomas Merlin Ambrose’s point of view.]
It was idyllic until the birds stopped chirping.
I froze and took a slow breath, then another. The woods were dead silent where a few seconds ago they’d been awake and alive with the sound of birdsong. Nothing moved. I couldn’t even hear the creek to my left, nor the sound of the wind rustling branches above my head.
In the silent stillness, my heart started to beat a little bit faster.
What had been a perfect summer afternoon suddenly started to feel cold, the chill seeping through my sleeves and jeans, sinking into my flesh until it felt like it was gnawing on the very marrow of my bones.
Deep breath. Exhale slowly. Again.
It was easier to tell myself to do that than to actually do it.
An errant cloud eclipsed the sun. I started to hear voices, indistinct but close, unintelligible but achingly familiar. My heart hammered against my ribs.
It felt like forever since I’d heard those voices.
Voices—voices of a man and a woman who were supposed to be dead.
It was hard to breathe. I turned slowly toward the sound of those voices, voices accompanied by the sound of footsteps that were moving away from me. I swallowed hard. The world grew darker around me, as if night was falling early.
A chill crept down my spine. Everything felt wrong.
Yet, at the same time, I knew that this was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Their voices faded even as the darkness closed in around me, as if the sun had set hours too early and far too quickly. I stopped, listening. They were far away, now, deeper into the ravines that spidered out alongside the river that ran out toward the lake. Holding my breath for a few seconds, I could just barely hear them in the distance.
There was still no birdsong, no wind in the trees. It was achingly still. The quiet crunch of old leaves beneath my feet even seemed too loud.
There was something out there, something that wasn’t them, something high in the trees, between them and the river—because their ultimate destination, I knew, was the river’s bank. When you really wanted some privacy, that was where you went—down through the ravine to the edge of the river. Even now, when someone wanted to go fishing, they usually didn’t go that way. There were easier access points than down those slopes and through the tangle, terrain I knew as intimately as my own room.
It was full dark, now, with moonlight slanting through the trees. I forced myself to breathe evenly, trying to calm my racing heart. It wasn’t real, but it was. It was an odd sort of dissociation that even I wasn’t quite used to experiencing.
An unearthly shriek split the air and I shot to my feet, swallowing the curse that rose to my lips. I knew what that was, what had made the sound, but I hadn’t seen one in over a year, not since the last testing attack on our borders, on the wards that kept the village safe.
But I was outside the wards, now.
And the camazotzi still haven’t forgotten what my family’s done to them—and they never will.
Bile crept up in my throat. I wanted to run but it felt like my feet were trapped in cement. There was something keeping me there—maybe morbid curiosity, maybe fear.
There came the sound of crackling brush, of running footsteps, of heavy breathing. Three figures dashed through the brush and tall grass ahead of me, stopping a dozen feet from where I stood in the shadow of an old and massive oak. They crouched together behind a fallen log, the moonlight falling just enough onto them in their shadowed spot that I could see their faces.
My throat swelled. I had never seen my parents so young, nor the friend that was with them. My mother wore her hair pulled up into a tail, her face pale in the same moonlight that gilded my father’s hair with silver. Old Drew was older than them even then, but he, too, was different, far younger, lacking the worry lines around his eyes and mouth that were so familiar to me now. They were all breathing hard as they crouched together there.
Then my mother asked, “Did it follow us?”
I knew that it had—I could feel it coming, getting closer—and my father did, too.
His hand was on her arm. “Give me your pendant.”
A twig snapped. She went tense, reaching up and grasping the pendant and chain that hung around her neck. She jerked on it once, then again. It came free and she pressed both into his palm.
I watched as he held the pendant like a skipping stone in his hand, gazing out into the darkness toward where I could sense the camazotzi coming. It was getting closer.
They were wasting time they didn’t have.
And yet, my throat was too tight. I couldn’t even manage a whisper, let alone a warning. Breath burned in my lugs and my eyes stung.
Why couldn’t I warn them? It was too close and getting closer. They didn’t stand a chance.
“When I throw this, run,” my father told them.
“Thom?” My mother sounded startled, worried.
“Just run,” he said. “I’ll be right behind you.”
They looked at each other. My mother straightened up first. She must have seen something, because she went rigid for a second and gulped in a breath.
I saw it, too—the glint of gold in red eyes. Moonlight painted the thing blacker than black, but their eyes always gave them away.
“Get ready,” my father said. Next to him, my mother and their friend tensed to run.
I caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye, but I couldn’t tear my gaze away from them. My heart was in my throat, threatening to choke me.
He whipped the pendant at the camazotzi stalking them and my mother and their friend took off running. The creature let out a roar of pain as my father shot to his feet and took off after them, only a couple of steps behind.
The wounded camazotzi shot upward, into the trees. Air rushed into my lungs. I could move again.
There was a second one to my left.
My defenses were down.
I dove for it, its edge glinting silver in the moonlight, half buried in the mud a few feet from where the first camazotzi had crouched. It was a talisman—my gut screamed it—and it might just be enough to save my sorry ass from the second camazotzi that was rushing at me from my left, as if sensing its quarry was far too vulnerable.
My fingers closed around the chain and I turned my dive into a roll. Light flooded the woods around me—darkness turning to daylight in the space of a few seconds. I blinked rapidly, using my senses as much as my sight to orient. My heart hammered and the air crackled around me as I rolled to a crouch, then came to my feet.
Radiance built around the pendant hanging from the chain in my hand, as if drawing in the ambient power of the nearby lines. It was the only defense I had as I groped for my own power—power that was at my fingertips but yet felt oddly distant, almost depleted.
Hell of a time to be half defenseless.
The camazotzi hesitated for a second.
Then it lunged at me, claws outstretched.
All around me, the world exploded.