“Why don’t you do that thing just like you did me?”
She just stared at me, eyes wide with terror. She was breathing hard, but I could see something wild beneath the fear in her expression.
I sneered at her. “What’s wrong with you, Rachel? Get this over with then face me!”
Her mouth moved again. “Rachel.”
I could feel some energy come back even as more confusion seemed to grab hold of Rachel’s mind. She finally shook her head violently and stomped toward me. Only at the last second did she even bother stepping aside to avoid the butt end of the spear shaft.
“Look!” It was all but a scream. “I don’t know who this Rachel is you people keep talking about, but it’s not me!” She stopped just short of my face, the wild look all the more apparent for the proximity. “My name is Natalie, all right? Natalie! Na. Ta. Lee! I’m no one else! I’m me. I’m…”
Suddenly she seemed to notice something wrong with him.
“Why do you have sticks growing out of your head?” she said weakly.
That one actually surprised me. Mostly because she looked truly surprised
“They’re… antlers,” I said, as if speaking to a toddler. Had she gone crazy over what she did to me?
She shook her head slightly and took a step back. “I’m Natalie,” she whispered. “No one else. I’m Natalie Sharp. Natalie.”
I gave her the look I usually reserved for all crazy people then looked over her shoulder.
“It’s here,” I informed her.
What game was she playing? Why would Rachel claim to be someone else? What was wrong with her?
The chimerical beast slunk out of the shadows of the trees and began to circle around to our left, keeping to the edge of the small clearing. It looked like a cross between a wolf and a spider – fur and exoskeleton, fang and mandible grown together in a random conglomeration that looked like it should fall apart at any second. It did not look like it should be able to prowl over the forest ground with the skill and grace of a tiger.
The thing had strength, I could see that. But it was nothing for Rachel.
She turned and saw the monster and started shaking violently.
“My name is Natalie. I’m real. This is… a nightmare…”
I heard the voices of the townspeople creeping out through the forest, too. This should be the pitchfork-and-torch brigade, then. Also known as cannon fodder.
Rachel was breathing harder, nearly hyperventilating. Every inch of her said she wanted to run some more, but she was too terrified to move a muscle.
The monster leaped at her. She screamed and ducked down behind the tree, just barely getting out of the way of the flailing spider legs. I tried to watch her move. She was clumsy and awkward. She looked like she could still run for miles if she had too, but her arms and legs were getting in her way as she tried to keep me and the tree between her and the monster.
The monster squealed. It was closer to the sound of a boar than a wolf, and Rachel fell to her knees. The chimera slid and skittered and leaped at her again. It flew through ten feet of open space, mandible-jaws gaping, drool and other putrid liquids dripping from its teeth.
It was yanked to a sudden stop just inches from her face.
I looked up. I hadn’t even noticed the men on horseback enter the clearing. They must have come in at full sprint, and one of them had lassoed the chimera around the neck, pulling hard and flipping it in mid air. A second rider followed him up with a lasso that caught both back legs, and they both spurred the horses on without missing a beat.
These were not the drunken, dirty miners from the town. No one in Rachel’s town could do something like that.
I couldn’t help but be impressed. Rachel was trying to pull herself together, watching the horsemen drag the thing away from her. She looked strangely pleased, as if she thought plain rope could actually hold the thing.
What was wrong with her?
She crawled back to the tree, crouching against it like she thought she could hide. She peered around, watching to see where the men dragged the monster, just as some of the other villagers on foot entered the clearing. They were calling for Rachel, but they called her Natalie.
An old lady, dressed in basic but fine clothes and an eye patch over her right eye, stepped out in front of the crowd, watching the monster struggle against the ropes. The two men were down on the ground now, hacking at it with plain axes, the idiots. Her gaze took in the whole scene until our eyes met.
“You’re awake!” she all but screamed.
There was something familiar in her voice… but that made absolutely no sense. I had never seen her before in my life.
“That’s impossible! The seal is broken!”
I had no idea what that was supposed to mean either, so I just shook my head.
The men yelled out in sudden pain as the long, spindly legs stuck out and sliced through chest and legs. The horses let out their own sounds of pain as the thing righted itself and struck out at everything around it.
Gunshots filled the air as some of the men and women lined up in front of the old lady and fired. Nothing struck home or caused any serious injury. The beast just shook itself like an annoyed mutt and charged.
But it didn’t charge the shooters. It went right for Rachel.
She tried to duck again, but she wouldn’t be lucky twice. The chimera jumped and landed on her with its full body, quickly wrapping four spidery legs and two that still resembled something canine around her.
She screamed, but it was muffled by the fur. The thing began to bite at her like a crazed chicken – pecking at her, gnawing at her flesh, pulling muscle, and lapping up blood.
This wasn’t just a malicious, torturous thing, I realized. It was looking for something. It never bit twice in the same place.
Then suddenly it squealed its piggish squeal again and sunk its teeth into the flesh and bone of her sternum. There was a definite crack before the girl simply passed out from the pain. The chimera’s head flew backward and blood, bone, and skin flew into the air.
And in the midst of the gore, something shone.
The Blessed Jewel!