She lay on her back, knowing that she was pinned down, but gasping for breath nonetheless. With wide eyes, Sifani stared up at her attacker. What she saw was something she had no name for.
Claws. The first things that Sifani took in were the claws. Yet in the split second that followed, she was more dumbfounded by the thing the claws were attached to.
The creature that crouched on her sat on trembling, horse-like haunches of stringy muscle, but its resemblance to a horse ended there. Nothing about its shaggy covering of fur, large lurid eyes, or short-necked head – like an earless dog – was normal.
All that in one moment, and then Lorin was upon the creature, tumbling over Sifani as he tackled it off her chest. To her own fleeting chagrin, Sifani screamed when yet another black body streaked past her from behind. There were two of the things! And they were both going for Lorin now!
With a yell – Sifani had gotten her breath back, damn those things! – Sifani stumbled to her feet and ran to Lorin’s defense. Even as she did, she saw three blazing figures of light approaching the fight in speed. Squinting, Sifani jerked her face away by instinct. It was Jatan, and Antian and Namiss! What in the Deities’ names did they think they were doing?
Bracing her body, Sifani sent one monster reeling with a sound kick to the side of its head. The blow knocked it away from Lorin, and its pained whimper immediately became a snarl as it turned its fangs toward Sifani. She forced down a shiver, staring at those fangs. This is a creature of the epheria, she told herself quickly as the thing stalked toward her, so if I leave the epheria, perhaps it will disappear, in turn…
Sifani pressed her eyes closed to the blue-washed world, hoping desperately she was right.
When she opened her eyes to the real world, the dogs were still there.
Luckily for her, Namiss appeared at Sifani’s side, knives in either hand, while Sifani was still gaping.
“Don’t just stand there, Sif!” Namiss screamed.
Dark hair swinging, Namiss slashed one blade across the monster’s snout. Even then, it took Sifani another moment to reorient herself. As the creature continued to train its ruby-eyed gaze on Namiss, Sifani took advantage of its distractedness and flanked it. Snarling, she charged, flinging her arms around the creature’s body and grappling with all her strength. Its head twisted, snapping, searching for something it could clamp its jaws upon.
Sifani managed to snake one arm around the monster’s muscular neck. She used her other hand to grip its lower jaw, forcing its snout straight upward. Namiss moved in, her blades flashing. A crimson line bloomed across the creature’s throat, spraying blood.
Simultaneously, Namiss and Sifani let the body fall and turned to where the other monster had been attacking Lorin. Lorin and the two men with him were standing, thank Donis – Jatan was even holding a stout branch for a club – but the creature was eyeing them all with unalloyed hatred. Moreover, though it was limping, it was still moving toward them.
Namiss held aloft a knife. “Move, Antian!” she shrieked. “Move!”
Antian turned and saw them. He had been with them long enough to know that people moved when Namiss said to move, and staggered aside.
With a vicious flick of her left wrist, Namiss let loose her second, still unbloodied knife. It took the monster in the eye, and it released an outraged, injured cry – a long-lasting screech that made Sifani want to claw at her ears.
“Run!” Sifani ordered through the pain of the noise. She heard Lorin’s voice shouting the same thing only a hair behind her.
Five pairs of feet pounded across the hard-packed ground of the park as they took advantage of the monster’s wound. As each one of them fled through the entrance, Lorin counted them under his breath and then spun and closed the gate, its metal frame ringing as he slammed down the latch as well.
Sifani watched numbly as the creature threw itself against the gate. Its cry was rife with rage. She and her companions simply stood outside the park and stared at it for a minute, shocked into complete silence. As its maniacal eyes darted from face to face, Sifani couldn’t help but wonder, however foolishly, if it had been sent to hunt – to kill – one of them.
Her companions’ silence lasted through their pulling up their hoods and making for the tower once more. There would be much to talk about once they were back in the privacy of their hideout.