May 17

The Arcane | Chapter Te-- Dang It

    We’d already left the Fenglow by the time I woke up the following morning. The Vale had returned to the dark sky with the darker forms of trees and mountains cast against it. I sat up, the boat swaying beneath me, and smacked my lips to chase away the taste of heavy sleep.
    “Good morning,” Miles called from the prow. “We were waiting for you to wake up to beach the boat.”
    I shook my head to clear the cobwebs. “Why are we-” My stomach growled. “Oh, yeah. Food.”
    He grinned. “Do you want to go now, or-”
    “Now, please,” I grumbled. “My guts feel like they’re digesting themselves.”
    “Eloquent as ever,” Keely’s voice grumbled from somewhere below the gunnel. “We will beach here.” The lurk tugged our boat to a needle-strewn bank, where dark pines bent low over the water. With surprising strength, she braced her hands against the stern and shoved the boat onto the shore. “Get off my boat.”
    “Ahh…” I groaned, rubbing a crick in my neck caused by the whiplash. “It’s not your boat.”
    She sniffed. “I have more of a claim to it than you,” she snarled. “It has wended its way through the Maw for longer than your grandparents have been alive.” She paused, then said nastily, “If they still are.”
    I glared at her and ignored the last barb. “Blah blah, picking up travelers and towing them to their watery doom, yes, I know.” I slung my pack over my shoulders and climbed out of the boat. Pine needles whispered under my boots as I stretched out my legs. “Oh, it feels good to stand.”
    Miles floated down beside me. “You should stay within sight of the boat. I’ll catch some rabbits.”
    “Alright. While you’re doing that I’ll try to find something edible of the plant variety.”
    He kissed my cheek. “Don’t poison yourself. And stay in sight of the boat. If something tries to eat you, board it and have Keely pull you into the river.”
    “And hope she doesn’t drown me.”
    “Ah, you’ll be fine. See you in a bit.” He flitted off, like a shadow chased by sunlight. I peered at Keely over my shoulder. She glared back and slunk into the black water.
    I wasn’t well-versed in edible forest plants. Mushrooms I wouldn’t touch for fear of killing myself, but there were some edible berries and plants I could recognize. I wandered through the trees, all the while keeping the boat in the corner of my eye. Despite our mutual dislike, I trusted Keely enough to keep me alive.
    I wove deeper into the pines and came across a small clearing. A few scrawny blackberry canes had managed to claw a survival out of the darkness. I picked a berry, hoped I wasn’t about to turn into a shadow creature, and popped it in my mouth.
    It was sour, but sweet enough. I picked as many as I could find and collected them in a pouch in my bag. As I was combing the canes for any berries I’d missed, Keely’s voice shrieked through the still air. “Minnow! Get in the boat!”
    My head snapped around. The boat was just visible between the trees, Keely’s pale form on the bank beside it. I scrambled toward it.
    A shadow slithered into my path. Maw open and dripping, it resembled a wolf as black as pitch, with twice the normal amount of eyes. Its head was as high as my shoulders. A low hiss rippled behind me, and I turned to find two more wolves, heads low in hunt. I ran.
    The black wolves gave chase, one of them always between me and the river. Keely kept pace in the water, but soon the river turned away and I was alone. I felt wind on my neck and ducked just as one of the monsters sailed over my head, hissing in frustration as its jaws closed on empty air. I turned right and raced off, weaving around trees and boulders, anything to slow them down. Before me, the ground dipped away into a shallow bowl. I scampered down it and ran across the flat, my breath painful as ice. Dead ahead was a tree with low branches. If I could just make it, maybe I could climb out of the reach of their jaws-
    Four more wolves slithered down the rise in front of me.  I was surrounded.
    A beast pounced on me from behind, cold and heavy. Its claws bit my skin as its teeth closed over my shoulder. With a screech, I unsheathed my knife and sent the blade through its skull. The weight on my back lifted as the wolf slumped, dead, to the ground. I scrambled away, gripping my gory dagger.
    The wolves had formed a circle around me and their dead pack member. As one monster in front of me jumped, I ran forward and crouched, driving my knife into its throat. I didn’t turn to see if I killed it; I was making for the gap it had left. The tree was so close.
    A heavy body crashed into my side. We rolled, and I ended on my back with the monster on my chest. Its massive paw pinned my arm with the knife. I tried to throw the blade at its ribs, but I only managed to scratch its flank. Its dark mouth opened wide and closed over my throat.
    And kept closing.
    Blood flooded my windpipe, and a strange, horrible sound clawed its way out my mouth. Hot, wet liquid pooled over my collarbone, and I knew that vital artery had been severed. Even if I escaped this wolf, I would die.
    The wolves began screaming. I wanted to cover my ears; it was a terrible, wailing sound. Did this signal that their prey was down?
    No-- they were dying. A wolf to my right-- one I hadn’t touched-- lay bleeding. When did that happen? Was something else killing them so it could eat me?
    The wolf crouched on my chest was ripped away. A black, humanoid shape flung it to the ground, carving four long gashes across its chest. If I could’ve still breathed normally, I would’ve sighed in relief. It was Miles.
    The two wolves left alive hissed and lunged at him, but with a scream he rent one from jaw to belly and snapped the neck of the other.
    Miles stumbled to where I lay curled on the leaves as I, with shaking hands, tried in vain to stem the rain of blood from my ruined throat. “It’s alright. Minnow? They’re dead now- it’s alright, you’ll be okay. Hey-” One taloned hand curled around the fingers I had pressed to my neck. “What is- All this blood-”
    I coughed, blood splattering across my lips. Miles stared at the ruin of my windpipe, a strange clicking sound rattling in his chest.
    “Stop- Shadow-” I coughed, my voice no longer my own. “My family- don’t let- die-”
    “Yeah, I will, just-” his voice cracked down the middle “-just keep breathing, okay? I need you to tell me your name, Minnow, please.”
    I stared up at him, my vision swimming. I was about to die, and that’s what he cared about?
    His talons curled along either side of my head. “Minnow, you have to tell me your name. Tell me now.”
    What a stupid jerk. I’d actually thought he loved me.
    “Minnow!” he wailed. “Your name!”
    What the heck. I was dead; there was nothing to lose. My lips parted.
    “Madeline.”
    The dark covered my eyes. It was silent.