Saturday, April 9, 2016

Threat of the Fire Demon - Chapter 21

It can’t be said that the rest of the winter passed without incident. A tree fell from the weight of the snow at the arrival of a later storm. It clipped the corner of the upstairs apartment where Brela lived in Charles’ house. They closed off the apartment and Brela had to move downstairs for a couple of weeks until Charles and Saul could make the needed repairs.

Brela was capable of making a dishrag taste good, so she made the produce from the goblin delivery stretch further than any of them thought possible.

However, in that sweet week in February when all the citizens of The Realms were teased by nature into thinking it was going to be an early spring, even the meat had run critically low. Charles and Saul decided to go for a day hunt. It was too much of a risk to stay out overnight. For the last couple of weeks they had heard the werewolves howling and Saul told Charles privately that he saw a vampire lurking at the edge of the woods. The natives were restless and they were the nasty sort you didn’t want to meet up with in the dark even if you were the last Light Bearer and a Baretii. Just because they had not heard of an incident between their kin and the vamps, it did not mean there wasn’t a chance if the later were hungry enough. As for the werewolves they would be willing to take down anything. They were just generally a nasty tempered bunch.

The possibility of game was as lean as the chance of finding stray watercress growing in the frozen stream. They went for hours without even finding tracks other than those of birds.

A brave little squirrel dropped a nut on Saul’s head about mid-day. The irritated cat extended his claws and bound half-way up the trunk of the tree after the pest before he heard Charles’ chuckle and fell back down to the ground.

“He’d hardly make a mouthful,” Charles laughed.

“I don’t know about that,” Saul countered as the brave little beastie continued to chitter at them from the high limbs above. “He looks pretty fat to me. Bet he has a large cash of nuts. We could follow him and rob his pantry,” the cat teased back.

“Oh, you are a heartless fellow,” Charles admonished, “picking on someone so much smaller than you.”

Charles watched as Saul’s grin morphed into an open mouthed inhale. The cat smelled something. His sense of smell was not as good as the canine based races in The Realms, but it was still far superior to Charles’.

“What is it?” the man whispered.

“A bear.”

Charles immediately pulled his bow off his shoulder and notched an arrow. “We need to get out of here. With game as scarce in the forest as we have encountered he is probably very hungry. He might be hunting us.”

Saul shook his head. His ears pricked forward trying to catch the sound of the beast. If he had this strong a scent they were close and either he was a very nasty smelling bear, or he was very large. Luckily Saul felt certain they were downwind from the beast.

“A bear is an awful lot of meat to pass up,” the cat said.

They both stood staring at one another for a moment. Then Charles nodded his head and followed Saul as he started to track the bear.

*****

The bear snorted and scuffled on the other side of the brush. They could see him pawing at a downed tree’s trunk seeking out grubs, termites, anything edible. He was massive. A huge grizzly moved in from the mundane world to The Realms where the hunting was easier. He had traveled a long way from his original home.

Saul motioned to Charles that he was going to get the bear’s attention so the man would have a better angle for the shot. He took off circling to the right.

Moments later the bear caught the scent of the cat and rose up on its hind legs in order to see over the brush. Charles drew back, took aim and fired.

As luck would have it the moment his arrow was let fly a werewolf howled not far away. Perhaps it was the werewolf that the bear scented rather than Saul, but in any case the bear turned and the arrow lodged in his shoulder rather than his chest. He bolted off away from the werewolves and to the left of Saul’s position. The cat fell to all fours and took off in pursuit with Charles bringing up the rear.

“Saul!” Charles shouted. “Don’t get too far ahead,” he warned.

But the cat sped on, bounding from forest floor over dead trees and boulders in hot pursuit of the injured bear. Soon Charles was left behind to trail after them by the path they left through the snow and the blood trail from the wounded bear.

He must have been trailing them for over an hour when he heard a horrible commotion in the distance. The bear was growling and snarling in fury and Saul’s half human cries mixed with hisses and screams ripped through Charles. He doubled his pace and began to run full out to catch up to his friend. There was no need for stealth now.

The next he knew there were werewolf calls from what seemed like every corner of the forest. Before he could reach Saul the sounds of battle were joined by decidedly canine snarls, barks, yeps of pain, and growls.

When Charles finally made it to the scene it was pandemonium. It appeared to be the same pack of werewolves from their encounter in the spring, three large males. They were all fainting in and out circling the bear as it held Saul down with one huge paw. Saul was unconscious. His dagger’s ebony handle reflected the late afternoon light at the edge of the clearing they were all in. The cat was covered in blood.

The bear had done considerable damage to both Saul and the three werewolves. One wolf was bleeding from a swipe the bear gave it across its mid-section. It would be lucky if it did not bleed to death before getting home. The leader of the wolves was holding one of his arms tight to his side, trying to staunch the flow of blood from a shoulder that had been ripped open. The third wolf was relatively untouched until the moment Charles entered the clearing and his gaze shifted from the bear to Charles. The bear took the opportunity to lung at the wolf and raking his back with a huge clawed paw. The wolf let out a blood curdling howl.

Charles could see they were all on the losing side of this engagement. He lifted his hand palm toward the bear and shot a bolt of energy so blindingly powerful that it not only knocked out the bear and everyone else in the clearing, but it drained Charles to such an extent that it brought the man to his knees. He remained there gasping for air and gathering his strength back within him enough so he could move to aid Saul.

Charles had to roll the dead bear off his friend. Its upper body had fallen on Saul. The werewolves began to revive around them as Charles examined Saul. He was bleeding from the head, shoulder, left side and his left hip was half torn away.

Charles did not pay any attention to the werewolves as he tried to staunch the life’s blood flowing from his friend. He sensed them tending their own wounds and helping each other. They were a tough race. Though Charles thought the one wolf was a goner, he noted while binding Saul’s head that the wolf was still on his feet. In spite of being bloody he was still helping the other two wolves dress out the bear and divvy it up for transport.

“Leave me the pelt,” Charles ordered with no thought that his request would be rejected.

The leader of the pack dragged the pelt over and even assisted Charles in moving Saul into the warm skin and wrapping him up in it like a cocoon which they tied on both ends with rope from Charles’ pack.

“I have to get my people back home,” the leader said. “You understand.”

Charles would not be getting any help with Saul from this point on. He did understand. The leader was pale from loss of blood and his pack members were worse off them he was, yet they seemed determined to take the meat as well. They must have hungry females and pups at home. In Charles mind, they were welcome to it. Whether intentional or not, they had kept the bear from killing Saul.

“I can handle it from here,” Charles said and offered his hand in friendship.

The werewolf clasped his arm and without another word picked up his bundle of bear meat and trotted off with his two pack mates at his heels.

Charles picked up the end of the rope tied around the bear skin holding Saul and began the long process of dragging him back to the toboggan and then on home.

*****

When Charles and Saul had not returned by mid-day the day after their departure for a one-day hunt, Brela packed up Simone in a contraption on her back and she went to the closest neighbors for help. They in turn, went to their neighbors, and them to theirs, until the whole community of residents which Charles looked after were searching for him and Saul.

They found them several miles from home. Overnight Charles made it back to the toboggan and bundled Saul aboard, but the going was slow with such a heavy load and by the time morning broke the man was exhausted and barely able to stand. He built a fire and was tending to Saul’s wounds when help arrived. Saul was bundled back up and they carried the cat back to Charles’ house. The Wizard was fetched with his magical fairies tucked safely in the pockets of his heavy robe and the dense growth of his beard.

The Wizard and his team of healing fairies did their best, but Saul had been mauled badly and not tended to until more than a full day after the event. The wizard felt confident about his recovery, but not so much so about the injury to his hip. He believed it was a distinct possibility the cat-man would never walk upright again. The muscles of his left leg had been shredded and would never be the same again.


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