The sound split the night like the last cry of a dying torture victim, setting the hairs on the back of their necks to standing on end. Llyn hissed a curse under her breath as she cast a glance over her shoulder, crashing headlong through a bush on Murikeer's heels. Again the shriek rose into the air behind them, the baying howl of a sinister hound set upon their trail. Muri staggered with a hiss and Llyn fairly ran over him in her haste, grasping his arm and dragging him to his feet as she dodged around him, breath whistling past her teeth.
The creature, a dog for all visual appearances, had set upon them as dusk was settling across the chill northland. Like no dog Llyn had ever heard, that creature's voice. It did not howl, it shrieked like a banshee, sending icy tendrils of fear racing up her spine with each utterance into the silent darkness. Muri identified it as a moondog the first time they managed to catch sight of it, a pawn of the daedra Lilith, most likely in the command of a Lutin. She cared not who commanded the thing, her only concern was escape. There were no thoughts even of standing to fight the beast, for its voice was fear to all who heard it.
Even Murikeer, seemingly fearless in the face of the constant Lutin patrols that they had passed in the days since breaking through the Lutin perimeter, showed the strain of fear with each ululating howl. He ran with his tail low, his fur standing on end with each cry. Llyn's own fur stood on end as she staggered along in his wake. They were paralleling the road, rather than making use of the broad, flat expanse. The huge road was in constant use, supply trains traveling back from the forests with food, wood, and other items. Where they were going was as yet a mystery, but Muri pushed on northward with all possible haste, so they would eventually learn.
Plunging down a hillside, they half ran half fell, dodging bushes in their haste. A glimmering witchlight bobbed along ahead of them, giving light where there would otherwise be inky darkness. Clouds covered the sky, blotting out moon and stars, forcing Murikeer to use his magic despite the danger it posed to any alert eye for leagues. At least they were no where near the roadway, the moondog having turned their path directly east, doggedly pressing the hunt long into the night.
Muri knew that the beast would be able to push them far longer than any mortal creature, for he knew it gained some of its energy from the very land itself, from the same wellspring of energy from which he drew his power. It also sustained itself on their fear, though he was not sure how close it had to be to do that. Keletikt had told him of these creatures, moondogs, as they were the totem of his tribe. Immortal hunters, creatures of magic, they were the greatest hunters of the tundra, though they only hunted at night. For a tribe given to the practice of shamanism they were the most appropriate totem, creatures of both spirit and earth. Keletikt had not told him if they could be slain.
He certainly hoped they could be, for he could not continue indefinitely. His body was failing, the ache of his running beginning to overwhelm the fear the creature's shrieking howls induced. His breathing was swift and ragged, his steps faltering. Reaching the bottom of the hill he grasped Llyn's upper arm, bringing her to a sudden halt.
Her dark eyes gleamed in the dim illumination of his witchlight as she spun on him, her muzzle contorted with fear, muzzle open and gusting for breath as lather foamed at the corners of her mouth. "What?!?" she barked sharply, her hand going to the hilt of her sword, a hand that shook visibly. Whether by fear or exhaustion Muri did not know. He glanced around, holding his grip upon her arm lest she turn and run once more, for he knew he would follow.
They were in the bottom of a steeply walled valley, standing on the banks of a narrow, shallow stream. He gave his head a jerk to the side, upstream. Llyn nodded and fell into step behind him as he plunged into the shallow water, letting his witchlight hover down close to the surface so that they might see where they were placing their steps. Already he could see the glimmering mote of light flicker and flare, his magic was fading. With the land so thoroughly denuded of life, he could not quicken his spell to the earth to sustain it, nor could he swiftly regain what power he used. From above and behind came the piteous shriek of a dying creature; the monody's howl once again. They had no way of knowing how many Lutin's followed the beast, if any did at all. Muri gave a short flick of one hand as he waded from the stream several hundred paces from where they had entered. The witchlight immediately bobbled and floated away, up the far side of the valley. Llyn gasped and grabbed his tail, jerking him to a halt.
"What did you do that for?" she gasped out after several faltering attempts, turning him about and clutching his shoulder with painful intensity, her body bowed as she fought for breath.
"Lead them away." he hissed, his body also bowed slightly as he gulped air in past his words, his legs shaking, "It won't lead the damned dog astray, but the Lutins will follow the light, not us." he turned and headed away once more, toward the distant end of the valley.
"You hope." Llyn choked out behind him as she forced her body to once more place paw before paw, squinting her eyes to focus on the dim grey line in the darkness ahead of her that was Murikeer's dorsal stripe. He grunted an affirmation as he splashed through the creek once more, out the other side, forging onward as swiftly as the darkness would allow.
For another hour they continued forward, the terrorized shrieks finally ending shortly after their light bobbled its way over the crest of the valley's far wall. Muri had sent it on a direct line westward, quickening it on what little energy that was still present in the land. It would not last forever, he knew, but perhaps long enough to lead their pursuit astray. The silence of the moondog's howl was a positive sign, giving them a chance to banish their fear. The clouds had parted at long last, shedding moonlight across the valley floor, much to their relief.
Staggering, breathless and exhausted, they came to the end of the valley, and the end of the line in despair. A sheer wall of stone climbed into the darkness at the end of the valley, the walls of the defile having grown steeper with each passing league, unseen by those following the course of the streamlet down the center of the vale. Only the moonlight revealed the nature of the trap, bringing them to a sudden, startled halt.
"Oh, bloody hell." Llyn muttered as she sat down heavily in the water, resting her elbows upon her knees and canting her head back to look up toward the lip of the box canyon some three hundred or more feet above. Trying to climb that in the dark would be little more than suicide, even for an experienced climber, and that she was not. Nor was Murikeer, who stood beside her with the same horrified expression on his muzzle. He had chosen the wrong path, and here it ended, and with that end would come their doom once the hunters realized their error and turned to retrace their trail.
"Where is the water coming from?" Llyn asked at length, glancing down at the small stream in which she sat, "A cave? There's no waterfall." She stood and began wading upstream, Muri falling into step beside her. A cave, at least, the could defend themselves in, or hide in.
Indeed, there was a cave. A narrow cleft between two huge slabs of drab grey shale, worn smooth by the passage of water over the years. The entrance was narrow, perhaps six feet wide, and tall. Beyond the entrance it opened out slightly, littered with dead logs and age smoothed round rocks. By the rough collection of debris Murikeer assumed it was a sort of cataract, a narrowing of the flow of water during floods. He found a place to sit down in the tangle of deadwood, watching the entrance of their shelter.
The moonlight made the entrance little more than a dark pit against the wall of the defile, and would give them the defense advantage.
And, as a sort of small bonus, the defile was alive. The hordes of Lutins had not bothered to strip this far end of the vale bare, leaving a few short trees and brush growing tight against the walls of the defile. The stream had its own life as well, from within the cavern, and without. Muri smiled to himself as he watched the thin, shimmering white energies coruscating about the earth surrounding them.
"I would not call this a pleasant place to get trapped." Llyn observed as she moved to the back of the shallow cavern, where she encountered the edge of a large pool of water. Beyond lay darkness, and Muri was hesitant to burn the power needed for a witchlight to illuminate their bolt-hole. "We've only my sword, your bow, and your pick." she observed, giving her sheathed weapon a shake. Muri nodded, not moving from his seat. He could not have had he wanted to, his legs were too weak.
"It's all we have." he whispered, watching the entrance. Bushes crowded the edge of the streambed, but they were not an especially thick species, long of trunk. Any careful approach through the tall bracken would be passably silent. "There's no need to worry about food or water, merely weapons." He unlimbered his bow, running the string through his fingers to check for frays. The weapon had seen some rather rough treatment over the past few days as they crawled, climbed, and dodged their way past Lutin patrols, or dispatched the occasional straggler stumbling across them. The string proved to be in good condition, as was the bow, despite many wet days.
"What food?" Llyn asked as she returned, finding a seat on another jutting piece of deadwood. They had been able to catching nothing bigger than crows for days, and even those were by luck. Without any forest or other cover it was proving frustratingly difficult to sneak up on anything much larger than the constant swarms of insects that seemed to boil up from the very ground itself. In desperation, even those became meals; either by accident or design.
"Fish." Muri supplied as he strung his bow, taking a few arrows from his quivver and leaning them against a nearby branch. He would have to be miserly with them, for he only had fourteen arrows. Of those fourteen, nine were the rune-stone tipped skull-crackers he had fashioned. They were tough, but generally did not survive the discharge of the shatterstone spell cast upon them. His pick was far more substantial, which was the only reason it could have the spell cast upon it repeatedly, though even it would eventually wear down and break. "And whatever rodents live in this deadfall." he rapped the fletched end of an arrow on the log.
Llyn meffed and shook her head at the idea of any sizable fish living in the minor stream bisecting the cavern. She shifted her seat glancing outside as Muri looked down at one of his arrows, "What fish?" she chuffed, "This strea... hsssst!" she cut her statement short with a feral, angry hiss that brought Muri's attention up abruptly. He looked at her for a moment, startled, then outside.
Standing silently in the center of the stream perhaps a stone's throw from the cavern entrance was their hunter, the Moondog. It was not large, as dogs go, and certainly not built to do more than harry its prey. A slender, long legged runner, it lacked the broad shoulders and heavy muzzle of a true war dog. Its muzzle was long and tapered, though the teeth that gleamed white against the pale fur were longer than those either of them had ever seen on any dog. Dead white eyes glared balefully at them, despite the darkness of their shelter. It knew they were there.
Muri knocked an arrow swiftly, shifting his posture into a half-crouch against the log. A brief glance revealed the sudden dimming of the energies flowing around him, and the much brighter glow of the beast. It's mere presence absorbed the energy like dry earth would absorb rain. He raised the bow, drawing the string back to his cheek as he heard Llyn's enraged snarl off to the side. How these beasts could stand the loss of the forest was a mystery, despite the rapacious nature of their sinister existence. Without the forest, there was no energy to sustain them.
With a thrumming crack the arrow was loosed. It sped to its mark almost too fast for the eye to see, striking the water short and to one side of the fearsome beast, which never so much as flinched. Muri swore and Llyn wailed a rapid series of short epithets that should have boiled water as a another shape emerged from the shadows of the bushes. The Moondog never turned its attention from the cave, its hackles rising and falling as it sidled toward the Lutin, pressing is shoulder to the short tracker's hip.
"Can't you use a bow?" Llyn rasped, her voice more animalistic, churring growl than human as she turned her glare at him.
"Yes!" he hissed, "Can you?"
"Better than you can." she extended a hand and Muri placed the bow in it, handing across the normal arrows he had set aside. He suspected the Lutin could not see them in the darkness, though it knew that its hound had run them to ground. Perhaps it had not even seen the first arrow as it was coming through the brush. Llyn knocked an arrow as the Lutin knelt beside the moondog, which merely continued to glare toward them. It did not growl, though its lips were pulled back and its ears lay flat against its narrow head. In fact, it was utterly silent. They had never heard it approach, though Llyn had seen it. She could not say she saw it arrive, merely it was not there one moment, then seemed to appear in the heartbeat of time she glanced toward Murikeer.
The Lutin squinted at the cavern, nodding at something, and reached to its hip where a satchel hung from a shoulder strap. Its hand came back up holding a long, curved horn of some beast, a huntsman's signal horn. The horn never reached its lips, however. The bow's string hummed once again and another arrow leapt from the shadows of the cavern, taking the Lutin just below its ribcage. With a startled cry it staggered a pace and fell into the water. The moondog's hackles came up and it charged the cavern, its muzzle parting as that terror inspiring shriek issued forth once again.
Muri's own hackles stood on end as the beast charged, moving with the fluid speed of a striking snake, the water spraying from under its paws making barely a whisper. He snatched the jade knife from his bandoleer as he half crouched, half fell into the water in front of Llyn as she drew the bow up for another shot. Immediately the runes carven into the stone and steel blade flared to life as he poured what energy he had remaining into it, then dimmed as the beast's charge brought it close. Muri gaped in amazement as his magic was drained away, and the beast was upon him.
Fear struck him a blow nearly as lethal as the jaws of the beast upon him, its shrieking howl ending in a silent snarl as it sought his throat. The beast exuded fear, it seemed to be fear incarnate, landing upon Murikeer's chest with the weight of hopelessness, his blade coming up to slash ineffectually at it. He felt his heart surge and hammer behind his ribs as his lungs fought for air, but none would come, his fear overwhelmed his breath. Only his forearm, pressed against the base of the moondog's throat, prevented a quick snap of that narrow muzzle from ending his days. It's breath was cold and foul across his face as the gleaming white teeth slashed at him, it's icy saliva leaving spots of numbness across his face, half blinding him as they struggled in the cold water.
Then wood cracked, sending the beast into a sprawl upon him, its head crashing into the water to one side. Muri choked and struggled as his head was thrust underwater by a paw as the beast scrambled back to its feet. His arms flailed, his legs coming up into the beast's gut and raking, catlike, before giving a powerful thrust that threw the beast back. With little time to waste, Muri struggled back to his knees, bringing his weapon back up even as terror threatened to paralyze him.
The moondog was quick to return, landing on its feet just outside the cavern entrance, then plunging back in with a silent snarl, teeth cracking on air as it surged toward its attacker. Muri leaned into the lunge, which was intended for Llyn, who stood with her sword drawn and ready. The moondog jerked its head out of the way as it met Muri shoulder to shoulder, nearly sending him sprawling. His blade flashed up, rattling across the beasts ribs. Llyn's sword sang through the air as she slashed, forcing the beast onto the defensive, caught between both of them.
Knife and sword glimmered in the dim moonlight filtering into the cavern as they rose and fell, darted and jabbed. White teeth slashed and struck, but there was little for them to find as Llyn's longer blade kept it at bay and Muri, at its hindquarters, sank his shorter blade into the soft flesh of its flanks. No howls emerged to voice its pain as it turned to snap at the assault upon its flanks, the whistling death song of Llyn's blade taking that opening to nearly sever the beast's head from its shoulders. Thrashing, it tumbled into the water, legs churning the luminescent white foam dark with its blood as Muri dragged himself from the stream.
With the end of the Moondog came and end to the fear; it lifted like a shroud, leaving them tired, winded, and aching but in full control of their wits. Muri sagged against a log as Llyn slumped down beside him. Outside, lying in the darkening stream, the Lutin did not move, its horn lying upon its chest, bright white in the moonlight.
"There will be more?" Llyn asked, her breathing ragged and swift as she stared out into the moonlight defile.
"I don't know," Muri nodded, his gaze fixed upon the unmoving form of the deceased creature lying within the reach of a short kick, "but I hope not."
"I'll take fist watch anyway." Llyn lay her blade in the water upstream of the moondog for a few moments to wash away the blood. After a moment Muri handed her his knife to do the same.
"I don't feel much like sleeping." Muri rasped, rubbing one of his legs to stave off an impending cramp. Llyn huffed, still trying to catch her breath, and nodded.
Eventually, though, sleep did come upon them in their turn, and no more hunters came. With the dawn they wandered into the open, with great care, and stood looking over the Lutin lying in the stream several paces beyond the cave entrance. Llyn's arrow had not proven fatal, but the Lutin died nonetheless, his ribs slashed open, head attached to shoulders only by a ragged swatch of flesh.
"Kill the beast and the handler suffers the same." Llyn observed with some awe. Muri nodded at the grisly scene.
"At least the unholy beasts can be slain." He knelt and hoisted the beast, with Llyn's assistance. They dragged it into the cavern and heaved it behind the heap of driftwood where they had deposited the moondog. They salvaged a few arrows from the Lutin, and found a pack of food. It was barely edible by their standards, but it was better than nothing and helped stave off the gnawing emptiness of their hunger. They gnawed the smoke flavored jerky as they made their way out of the valley with all the accustomed care they had adopted over the past few days.
As they stalked down the length of the valley, ducking from bush to bush until reaching a point where foragers had flattened them. Muri noted the marks along the walls of the narrow valley, and the placement of the short, tough shrubbery. The water that flowed through here was not as high as normally would be the case, something had choked it to a mere trickle. Judging by the level of the erosion lines the water was normally a good two or three feet deeper, the width of the normal flow nearly as wide as the bottom of the valley itself.
He said as much to his companion, and she merely nodded, having noticed as well. It was not until they reached a point where they could climb from the valley that they learned the cause of the much curtailed water flow.
Crawling on their bellies to the crest of the ridge above the valley, they looked westward toward the road, quite surprised that they were as close as they were. They thought that the dog had chased them further east, but in turning up the valley they had come once again near the road. It was but a half league away, cutting north south over the valley. Rather, through the valley more than over it. A huge dike had been built up to keep the general level of the road flat, though as always there was a slight drop toward the southern end of the dike.
It was truly immense, blocking the valley from ridge to ridge, perhaps a thousand feet in total length and three hundred feet high. At the center of the dike, perhaps thirty feet below the surface of the road, three huge culverts passed through the width of the dike. Huge slabs of stone had been lain out below those tunnels, to limit the amount of erosion the water would cause when it rose high enough to flow through them. There was no way of knowing the width of the dike's base, but it was plainly substantial enough to utterly block the flow of the stream on the far side. What water that did fill the streambed below came from the cavern itself, which was actually the base of a tall waterfall when the main body of the stream was flowing. Muri was once again impressed by the engineering skill put into such a massive construction, for there had to be a substantial amount of water building up behind the earthen wall.
Touching Llyn upon her shoulder, he nodded toward the north. Their objective was still in that direction, though Muri sensed that they were getting close; very, very close.