Aylen took a noisy breath and plunged into the dense forest, holding aside ferns and briers to find the diminishing path. They moved, slow and steady, through the forest. The haunting calls of the emrialk continued, but Aibek couldn’t catch a glimpse of the creature. He craned his neck with every screech, both wishing for and dreading a glimpse of the fabled emrialk.
Surely all the stories weren’t wrong; they must be truly beautiful to inspire such fantasies. His aunt had always said the emrialk were giant wolf-like creatures with a heavy mane like a lion’s, and a long, narrow face. They were reputed to be as sleek and limber as a summer fox, but with the hunting habits of a lone wolf.
Aylen led the way through the heavy brush.
His steps slowing, Aibek peered into the deepening forest. Was it out there, watching him?
Will I even be able to see it if it decides to attack?
Another screech rent the air, this time closer. His heart hammered against his ribs and he resisted the urge to run into the forest toward home. Instead, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, forcing down the panic and waiting until calm had replaced it. When he opened his eyes, he froze, not even daring to breathe. There, where he had stood only a breath before, stood the largest creature Aibek had ever seen.
It lowered its sleek brown neck and brought its face to Aibek’s level, watching him through angry, intelligent eyes. The emrialk cocked its head to the side. Without a sound, the creature lowered itself to the ground in a hunting crouch, folding legs as tall as Aibek under itself. Its red and white striped nose stretched out the length of Aibek’s arm, the black end quivering as it sniffed at the travelers. Aibek cringed at the foul breath blowing in his face, but couldn’t make himself move.
A heavy chestnut mane concealed much of the creature’s shoulders, but the back and legs revealed powerful muscles under a dappled brown coat. It stretched closer, its head larger than Aibek’s entire being, and flattened its pointed ears against its skull. The black fury in its eyes, focused and intent, made his blood run cold, and Aibek tried to scream. Unable to force a sound from his mouth, he flailed his arm, smacking at the air beside him until he connected with flesh.
“Ow! What was that--” Kai fell silent when he glimpsed the creature behind them. “Emrialk!” Kai’s scream broke the spell, and Aibek reached for his sword. “You can’t fight it! Get in the trees!”
Panic clawed at Aibek’s throat, but he yanked his sword free of its scabbard. Behind him, Serik grunted, and Aibek glanced over his shoulder. Serik stood at the base of a thick Shadow Tree.
“Drop your pack!” Aibek backed toward Serik, keeping the creature between himself and his mentor. “It’s too heavy!”
Serik did as he was told, and Kai reached down from the same tree and gave Serik a hand up into the low branches. Aibek kept watch as his friends retreated to safety, holding his sword at the ready.
As Serik climbed, the creature screamed again and leapt at Aibek. Lightning fast, it swung a paw edged with claws as long as table knives at his head, but Aibek ducked behind the nearest tree. The skinny trunk cracked under the blow and toppled.
The beast swung again and Aibek leaned away as the rest of the tree exploded in splinters. With nothing left between them, Aibek found himself face to face with the giant canine again.
“Aibek! Get in the trees. It can’t climb,” Kai shouted from somewhere above.
The emrialk looked up, distracted by the yell. An opening. Aibek darted forward, poised to strike, and thrust his sword at the creature’s exposed neck. Faster than Aibek could react, the beast raised a foreleg and swatted at him. Aibek’s sword connected with the pad of its foot and thick, purple blood squirted from the wound. The emrialk screamed, withdrawing the injured paw and swiping again. Aibek dodged, but couldn’t move fast enough. The blow threw him backward into a skinny birch tree, which splintered and dug into Aibek’s back, knocking the air from his lungs.
No time. He had no time. The beast descended on him in a heartbeat, its hot, foul breath blowing in Aibek’s face before he could recover.
Frozen in terror, Aibek held his breath as the emrialk lowered its massive head and looped dagger-like teeth through his belt. Recognizing what was about to happen but powerless to stop it, he grasped his sword tighter. His first fighting teacher’s voice rang through his mind, admonishing him to relax his muscles before falling to minimize injury, and he concentrated on following that advice. Wind whipped past his face, robbing him of breath, as the creature lifted him from the remnants of the tree and flung him through the air. Aibek landed in a mossy clearing, though the vegetation did nothing to cushion his landing.
Pain flashed through him as his head collided with a log. Blood stung his eyes. He struggled to open them and see through the red. Somewhere nearby, the emrialk screeched, the sound creating an explosion of pain in Aibek’s head.
Gasping, Aibek dropped his sword and scrambled up the nearest tree, his ribs and shoulder aching with every move.
Another piercing scream, this time closer. Without stopping, he clambered up the tree toward the safety of its topmost branches.
Fire ripped through his leg, and Aibek clawed at the limbs above. Unable to pull himself up, he glanced back at the ground and the creature intent on his death. The emrialk had buried its claws in his calf, pinning him to the side of the tree halfway up. It screamed in fury as he kicked, struggling to free himself from its deadly grasp. With another swing, the emrialk crushed his knee against the tree trunk.
The bark crumbled and dug into his leg, the torn leather failing to protect him. Aibek’s head swam from the pain as he desperately grappled with a branch above. He had to get away. His pack caught on a nearby branch, yanking his hand off the limb and leaving him dangling far above the ground. His friends waited in the safety of the canopy, and he yearned to climb up to them. Instead, he lowered himself until the pack came loose, swung it off his shoulders and tossed it down into the creature’s face. The pack connected with the creature’s twitching snout and it screeched, tossing its head to dislodge the bag. The emrialk moved its paw and Aibek scrambled up the tree.