Wasp dropped his dagger. Oaths spewed from his mouth as he spun to bolt. He barely made it a pace before the nemu struck him across the back, tossing him to the ground. His footing returned long enough to stare at the massive form of the beast. Three slits marred Wasp’s leather tunic, the cuts deep enough to show the full thickness of his flesh. Blood pulsed from the wounds. He dropped down to one knee and cried out in pain.
Rowan sidestepped. He saw the nemu’s jaw open, strings of saliva sparkling in the light of a moonbeam. Its eyes blazed red like fire above a set of white canines. He looked away as they crunched down on his companion. Shrieks droned from the carriage. They sounded like Sarah’s, just before she joined the eternal darkness.
“A real monster,” Valter said, moving to get a better view. “I’ve always wanted to test my hand on a nightprowler.” He charged, sword to the side of his raised buckler. The blade plunged into the nemu.
Black ichor spilled from the beast’s gnarled, bony neck. It reared and struck out with a jointed limb below Valter’s shield. He took a step back, groaning. Covering all he could with his buckler, Valter lashed out again. The nemu licked the new gash to the thin sinew of his flank. Valter took the opportunity to slash again, severing its spiny tongue. Teeth slammed down onto the sword, breaking off its tip.
“Valter,” Rowan shouted. His boots refused to lift from where they were planted. He leered into the pupils of the nemu.
“Loot the blasted carriage, Rowan. I’ll handle the nightprowler.” Valter drove his sword hilt down on the nemu’s pointed nose. It toppled backward. A battle cry poured out from Valter’s lips. He leaped onto the nemu.
Rowan’s heart pounded in his chest. He turned his head toward where Wolf had been last he’d noticed. The wily man was on his knees, hands folded. Rowan had to force his mouth shut. He took a step toward the carriage. “I should aid them, not snatch their silver. How would my Sarah think of me now?”
A shrill, goat-like bleat tore through the night behind Rowan. Darkness shrouded its owner. Rowan drew his dagger from its scabbard.
Valter snarled. “Another one?” he bellowed. His breathing was heavy.
“Female,” Rowan said. He twisted to look at Valter crouching over the still corpse of the nemu. The armor over his torso hung in tatters.
“I fear my sword shan’t steal another, not tonight,” Valter said. Rowan strained to hear the words. “Not if I am to see the morrow.”
Rowan nodded. “Return to the cave. I’ll see this one to its grave or me to mine. That I vow. For Sarah.” He had to stop himself from tossing his dagger between Valter’s rolling eyes.
A similar creature trotted into view. Curved horns rose from her skull. Skin formed a pouch on her underbelly, stretched as if recently emptied. Rowan’s eyes lined up with the appendage.
“God, spare me,” Wolf said aloud, still on his knees. The nemu shifted to look at him.
Rowan took a step forward. He whirled his dagger once in a circle, scattering moonlight. His whole body shook.
The nemu sped to a gallop. She struck Wolf on the head. The cracking of bone was audible. Wolf howled, clutching at his skull. “Rowan,” he cried.
Rowan ran up to the beast and stabbed into her nearer hind leg. Ichor poured out over his weapon, onto his hands. She threw back her wounded leg, striking Rowan in the shin.
Rowan’s face hit the dirt. His head spun. Two blue specks seemed to skim across the black hide of the nemu. He put his weight on his good leg and widened the wound he had made. This time, Rowan twisted away from the retaliating blow.
Wolf scrambled toward the carriage in Rowan’s peripheral vision. A dagger wobbled in his hand, then soared toward the nemu, hitting it in the eye. The beast made a sound like a horn and lashed out with both front limbs. Wolf toppled back in a heap.
Rowan jumped under the nemu. Its ribs were sunken, gaunt. He slit the length of one bone, releasing a torrent of fluid. The beast shuffled her hooves. Rowan’s free hand crumbled under one stomp. He recoiled, biting back a scream.
The nemu backpedaled. Her horns glistened. Drool fell from her lips, falling on Rowan’s boots. The smell burned his nostrils. She tossed her head, nipping his stomach. Wolf’s dagger slipped from her eye, doused in ichor. It fell with a clatter beside Rowan’s crippled hand.
Rowan forced his cracked fingers open and gripped the dagger. With both raised, he propelled himself to one side, forcing them deep into the nemu’s working eye.
A deep croak emitted from her throat in spite of her usual cry. She thrashed, sending Rowan sprawling. He cried out between haggard breaths, “I will protect them, if my life is the cost.”
Rowan drew back one dagger. He shot his arm forward, delivering a hard blow to the Nemu’s gaping ribcage. Breath streamed from his lips in shallow huffs. Both legs strained to allow him to stand. He laid a final blow to the nemu’s heart. The dagger slipped from his grasp.
Someone wrapped her arms around his shoulder. A cold tear touched his neck.
Rowan looked up into the deep brown eyes of a young girl. Her ebony hair brushed the scrapes on his cheeks. “Sarah,” he said. “I saved them.”