A door was crushed into its frame in the distance and the sound jerked her from her morose musings. Vynasha gasped and forgot to tame her breath. There was a brief moment of terror, when she realized she was alone in a place she had never been before, at a very inconvenient time of night.
The Prince’s words rang in her head like bell, “So too are there creatures I do not understand that haunt even my own domain. You would do well to heed my warning.”
Vynasha had long ago fallen out of the habit of stupidity. Living alone in a cottage so near the forbidden north wood gave little allowance for it. Quick as she could cry out for help a bear might lumber out of the woods and maul her to death. A misplaced swipe of her axe could result in a missing appendage. And as she learned the hard way, there were no real cure for burn wounds, no one to pass her ointment for the splinters she earned building her cottage. Trying to build one from scratch was so frustrating, she had spent the better part of the season living in she and Ceddrych’s hiding place in the caves.
One thing she was certain of, as she found herself alone and at the mercy of anything that wanted to snatch her up, she needed to keep moving. She could scarcely forget the beast that stalked her during her first night here. And, because of her impulsiveness, the only weapon she had was tied to the garter about her ankle.
Using her hands and her other senses, she tried to find the route back to her room. Though the thought crossed her mind that even if she did return in one piece, would the door be unlocked? Everything felt sharper and rougher to her hands as she tread through a darkness so thick she felt it parting around her, enclosing and consuming her.
After taking the necessary turns and listening for any more ominous sounds below, she felt this journey was taking too long. Every time her inner mettle was nicked, she forced her mind to remain calm and collected.
The enclosed hall opened up abruptly to the greater passage, where unseen eyes watched her movements. The whispers began again, accompanied by a creeping sensation at the base of her neck. She had plucked the knife from her ankle with hardly a second thought, knowing it would do little to the spirits haunting this place.
Twenty steps soon became fifty, and then another score of aimless wandering that brought her no nearer her destination. Every time she started to panic she squeezed the mettle of her blade just a little too tight, just to keep her mind in the corporeal.
Another distant crash disrupted the flurried whispers and Vynasha froze. She strained to see what she could not fathom and cursed her stupidity once more.
She jumped as a heavy thud hit something in the rafters above and nearly growled at herself to keep moving. No self-respecting prey would just stand there waiting for the beast to pounce. And she was determined to be the hunter this night, the monster waiting from the veil of shadow.
Fighting the urge to reach out and clutch the walls, she relied on the difference in pressure against her ears, clung to the wind whistling through the cold passageways. When she made another turn, the whispers ceased and all spirits waited with baited breath for what happened next.
Vynasha fought the urge to cry out when the heavy tread of something began to shuffle its way towards her. She thought of turning around and running, or trying to open one of the many doors in this hall, without care to what might be waiting on the other side.
Still she could feel its presence, looming closer, could hear its heavy inhale as it caught her scent. She could do nothing but moan like a pathetic weakling when a large pair of glowing golden eyes appeared closer than an arms breadth away from her.
Too late she ducked, avoiding the first swipe of its paw. She rushed the beast instead and pushed her dagger past its thick shaggy fur until it was hilt-deep in its chest. The roar she heard as she slipped past and ran away shook the stone beneath her feet. Her arm ached from the force needed to shove the old mettle into its gut. She could only hope she had struck true and deep enough that it would not be following her for long.
The roars continued behind her, until it echoed as though from a great distance. Relief filled her bones as she realized she might have a chance. She likened herself to an animal caught in a trap or a corner. Sooner or later, that prey would turn on its captor and strike back. Only the pounding of her heart could be heard as she felt the air shift and open around her. But her hand reached out too late for the railing of the winding staircase she was expecting. Her foot slipped on the edge of the marble steps and then she was falling. Every blow of the stone against her body sent shocks through her skin and blood to the surface. She had enough sense to cover her face with her arms and hope and pray she would eventually stop rolling.
She reached out her hand to catch her fall and nearly cried out with relief when she managed to grasp something hard and secure, something warm. She tangled her fingers in the rug’s thick threads and felt her body extend below it, then stop. A muted laugh escaped her lips that quickly turned to a cry when a gust of hot air blew into her upturned face and a pair of angry golden eyes leveled with hers.
Suddenly, the pain in her body was intensified by the pressure of sharp claws that pierced her bodice and lifted her off the ground. Vynasha forced her eyes to remain open and fixed on her soon-to-be killer and waited for the blow to come. How the beast had caught up with her, she did not know, but she felt for certain the end was near. Her heart cried for the brother she knew was still alive. But a selfish part of her damaged soul longed to be reunited with the rest of their family. She had escaped death so many times before this. Perhaps this was best, after all, that she die the most gruesome and horridly.
For an infinitesimal moment those solid golden orbs stared unblinking. She was pulled into them and glimpsed flashes of the animal in their black iris. The claws dug into her flesh but then, to her amazement, they retracted and she was crushed into a furry chest. Something hot and sticky seeped through the skirt of her dress as the beast descended the stair. To her amazement, the hilt of her dagger was still protruding from its chest.
She commanded herself to stay awake, though the temptation to fade to oblivion would have been a much easier way to cope with the pain. She clutched her fingers into the thick tufts of fur and concentrated on the creature’s great heaving breaths as he carried her. Every bound and leap the beast took sent fresh waves of needling pain through her body. She settled for the strong likelihood that her life might have been prolonged, but soon it would be over.
The beast slowed its gait, shifting to side step something she could not see. Stone shifted and grated against itself around them, and then they were traveling down more steps, deeper. All sense of time and distance became lost to the rapid yet constant lull of the beast’s heart.