The creature stalked through Brekkin forest, its massive body plowing easily through the branches and twigs of the thick undergrowth. It could smell the elusive scent that quickened its blood, and also the sweet innocence of a small girl child as she played not far ahead. The tantalizing smells drew it forward, closer and closer.
Soon, the creature was no more than a few feet away from the child. The scent of her was almost overpowering, and the beast sniffed the air, huffing in great quantities of the delicious aroma. It exhaled, sending a gust of its foul breath over the leaves of the bush that concealed it, and paused, withers quivering in anticipation.
The beast was not concerned that the child would see it crouching there, waiting and watching. It had long since grown accustomed to the cloak of evil magic that clung to it like cockles, protecting and concealing it.
The beast waited a moment longer, wanting to catch a trace of the other scent it had followed down from Galhad mountain, the scent that drove it to madness and beckoned it across the miles. But it could not find any trace of what it had come for, and so it remained, watching the child play.
A man was with the child. Not young, nor old, but a healthy man in the prime of his life, he played alone with the young girl in the quiet meadow. By the scent of him, the beast knew the girl was his offspring.
The man began to swing the child around and around in his arms, eliciting a bubbling giggle from her. The sound grated on the beast's nerves, and it gave a low angry growl. Faster and faster they twirled, until they were almost a blur to the creature that watched them, eyes glowing with hate.
A single thought, one buried deep in the beast's mind, asserted itself again, reminding the beast of its purpose. There was a litany of enchanted orders given long ago, a single all-consuming command that had been burned into its thoughts with such powerful magic that it was now a permanent part of the beast. It was an echo of the evil magic that cloaked it. Seek... find... capture. Seek...find...capture.
The beast's tongue flicked out to catch the drool trailing from one long set of fangs. Yes, Master, I will not fail you. I will please you, Master. I will please you this time, it thought.
The creature crept closer, then closer still, until it was so near it could feel the brush of air as the man twirled the child. An evil grin pulled back the lips of its many mouths, and it smiled.
The man and the child, still unaware, played on.
Between one heartbeat and the next, the creature pounced, and as it did, the cloak of evil magic fell away for just a second. The child squealed as she saw it, a high thin shriek of abject terror that echoed across the meadow and was quickly choked off.
The man turned to face the unknown threat behind him, shoving the little girl behind his back for protection.
But it was already too late, much too late.
Kaitlin looked up from the task of stripping the bushes of their fruits. It was dim and cool in the shade of the garden, but she was still hot. She longed for the day to be done, so she could run through the forest to the waterfall. Closing her eyes, she could imagine the cool spray of water as she dove through the waterfall and into the deep pool that it fed into. The water would be very cool, almost cold, for the waterfall was a runoff of the Cailuk River that ran down from the mountains. Even on a hot day, the water was always blissfully cool.
Kaitlin opened her eyes again, a smile hanging about her mouth. Maybe her new friend would even join her. It would be nice to see Shazara again, almost as nice as gliding through the cold refreshing water. Kaitlin absently felt for the bulge in her pocket, thinking of the gold hidden there. She wouldn't have the small nugget of proof if not for her new friend.
Kaitlin giggled to herself, hope and joy sprouting anew within her as she patted the small bulge in her pocket. She had the proof that she needed; now all she had to do was convince her friends to help her. And that wouldn't be hard at all after she showed them the gold. She sighed happily as she thought of the adventure ahead, and then went back to picking the succulent berries from their stems.
Kaitlin's basket was finally full an hour later, and she lugged the fruit back into the kitchen of the little cottage that she shared with her sister. Maria was already there, bent over the rough wooden table as she prepared fruit for yet another pie.
"Kaitlin, you need to run those two pies into the village for me before dark, I have to finish these. They both go to the Shoar family. You know, down by the Smithy's shop?"
"Yes, I know where it is. Is it okay if I stop by to visit Jake on the way home? I haven't seen him since last Saturday."
"Sure, honey, just don't dawdle. You have to be home before dark, you know that."
"I will, Maria, I promise. Is there anything else I can do to help before I go?" Kaitlin picked up the pies, wrapped them gently in a clean towel, and then placed them in her basket.
"No, Kaity, there isn't." Maria paused in rolling out pie dough to give her a loving smile. "Thank you for asking, though. Be very careful on your way to the village, I mean it."
Kaitlin nodded, returning her sister's smile. Maria was so good. Kaitlin sometimes wondered how she had gotten so lucky as to have such a great older sister, though Maria was more of a mother to her than anything. Kaitlin couldn't even remember her real mother, or her father either, for that matter. It had been so long ago when they died. Maria had always taken care of her, had always found a way to keep things going. Baking pies was just one of the jobs she took on so that they could keep the lovely little cottage in the mountains. If not for her resourcefulness, Kaitlin knew they would have lost their home long ago, and would have had to move into the village.
"Mind if I take a tart with me? I'm starved!"
Maria glanced at the pile of fruit tarts that lay cooling on the counter. "No, go ahead, I made a few extra for you, anyway. I know how you like them. If you don't mind, you could also deliver the tarts to Mr. Mackar while you are out with the pies. I know it is a long walk to his house, so if you don't want to, it can wait until morning." Maria gave Kaitlin a fat smile, knowing what her sister's response would be before she gave it.
"Mr. Mackar? Sure! I'll be able to see Rebecca and Tyn while I'm there. I don't mind at all!" Kaitlin gathered up the tarts, wrapping them in a towel, too. She left out two for herself, and then put the rest into her basket. "I'll be back before dark, Maria, I promise. I want to go swimming by the waterfall later."
Maria nodded as she began to chop the fruit for her latest pie. "All right, Kaity, but I'd feel better if you took Dun with you when you go."
Kaitlin grimaced, she hated taking Dun to the village. He always scared everyone silly. "All right, Maria, if I have to."