The torrential downpour soaked into High Priestess Daena Vulatanne’s tattered dark-blue robes, making the handle of the small axe she held slick. She readjusted her grip and blinked her eyes against the periodic flashes of lightning which dyed the northern shore of the mountain stream, surrounding forest in monotones. The thunder that followed muffled Daena’s senses, causing her to feel as though she were trapped inside a single image burned on parchment. This image seemed to be part of some fantastic story involving monsters and unholy creatures, judging from the horrific beast before her.
It looked like a starved, giant wild boar with blackish-gray skin pulled taut against a large bony frame. Two jagged tusks protruded from its lower jaw, and saliva dripped from its mouth. An arrow jutted from the side of its snout, which seemed to be causing it slight discomfort, as it occasionally shook its head. But this did little to divert its focus as it dug the tusks into something on the ground.
She glimpsed a shredded brown tunic and realized the object was her younger sister T’alorin. The thirteen-year-old girl’s body twitched reflexively with each strike. Her left arm—adorned with a blue and white woven bracelet—was stretched toward a large crossbow. She had no idea where the girl had gotten the weapon from, but her confusion was immediately overshadowed by alarm as a flicker of lightning reflected off the dark-red pool spreading out from beneath the girl’s body.
Daena abandoned all thought and ran towards the creature. It responded with astounding speed and ferocity, charging her in return, with its head bent low as if to impale her with its huge tusks. Her foot caught on one of the rocks along the stone bank, tripping her, and the axe flew from her hand, lodging itself in the monster’s left eye. It let out a horrendous cry and jerked sideways in response, slicing a tusk diagonally across Daena’s right wrist as she threw out her hands to halt her fall. She instinctively drew the arm in and landed hard on the rocky ground.
The boar frantically shook its head while attempting to dislodge the axe, T’alorin’s unconscious body forgotten behind it. Daena could have tried to reach the girl, but the impact had momentarily left her dazed, her body aching, and her wrist throbbing. She soon regained her senses, but so did the creature. It shook the axe free and resumed its stance over T’alorin. Its left eye was clenched shut while a pool of dark blood leaked from the wound and down the side of its snout; the other eye glared threateningly at Daena.
She returned the gaze with one of dismay. There seemed to be no conceivable way to reach T’alorin, and she was out of weapons. A rope shot past her, snaring the end of the arrow in the creature’s snout. She spun around.
An injured young man in his mid-twenties stood along the bank downstream from her and held the end of the rope in the crook of one arm while his other arm hung lifelessly at his side. A dark-red gash could be seen along his bicep beneath the torn sleeve of his green tunic, blood trickling from the wound and flowing down to a leather bracer wrapped around his forearm. Lightning reflected off the wound, and Daena saw a dark outline around it as though someone had circled it with charcoal.
The man yelled something to her, but his voice— overpowered by the clash of thunder and the howl of the wind—went unheard. He repeated it, but she could only shake her head in confusion.
Dropping to the ground, Daena felt something whip past the top of her head. She glanced back to see the creature was attempting to pull itself free of the rope. It jerked its head left and right before abruptly spinning clockwise upstream. There was a splash behind Daena, and she looked to find the man was now in the water. She started to crawl toward him, but he called her off.
“Get the girl!” he shouted.
When Daena looked back, the creature was at the edge of the bank with its head bowed low, the rope rigid with the strength of the current. T’alorin was now perfectly accessible, and Daena rushed upstream and rolled the girl onto her back to listen to her heartbeat. It was barely detectable. There was not much time left.
The creature let out a strained groan as it wrenched backward.
Daena pulled T’alorin out of the way just as its rear hooves landed exactly where the two of them had been a moment earlier. Startled by a cry from above, she looked skyward. The man was falling toward the beast, lightning reflecting off the blade of his sword.
The man plunged the sword into the creature’s back as he landed. Bucking even more wildly, the beast let out a horrendous moan. It started bounding upstream and downstream, attempting to dislodge the man.
Daena clutched T’alorin protectively against her and rolled aside as the boar lumbered past, and then she rolled back the other way as it passed them again. She lay on her back, with the child atop her, while a lightning-accented sky spun above and rain splattered her face. It felt like a surreal dream.
Reisa, her attendant, appeared in her vision, her aged and slightly wrinkled face grounding her.
“We must withdraw immediately,” the old woman said.
Daena struggled out from under T’alorin. “What about the man?”
Reisa helped her up. “Leave him.”
Daena glanced back in his direction with uncertainty. The creature continued to buck madly. Despite only having one usable arm, the man had somehow managed to hang on.
Reisa’s yell barely registered above the storm. “High Priestess, we must see to T’alorin’s wounds!”
Reisa was grasping the girl’s upper torso, and Daena went to collect the girl’s legs. The beast let out a strangled cry, and Daena looked downstream to watch it stumble sideways into the river. The man pulled his sword free and did a back flip onto the bank. The beast continued to stagger sideways, howling in agony and splashing water everywhere as the current pulled it deeper.
The stranger watched until the beast disappeared beneath the surface and then sheathed his sword. Daena stared at him as he silently approached.
His presence was both intimidating and intriguing. She desired to know who he was, why he was injured, how he had found them, and what he was doing at their compound. But before she could utter a single word, he passed by He stooped to pick up the crossbow and she started to speak up but was interrupted by Reisa’s earnest voice.
“High Priestess, please.”
The clouds suddenly broke, allowing the moon to bathe the ground with its light. Daena looked up in surprise, seeing the majestic orb hanging among the crystalline blanket of stars. Its peacefulness belied the chaos of the evening. It seemed the unexpected storm had passed as quickly as the stranger’s presence.
She took T’alorin’s feet and the pair hurried to the infirmary.