He tried to place himself in front of Elen, wedging her into a crevasse in the trunk. But she pushed him away. “Forget about me!” she cried. “Protect him.”
Cairpré’s eyes stayed fixed on the bat-like creature. “Those fangs . . .”
Aghast, I stared at the dark shape descending, drawing closer by the second. Already I could see the three gleaming fangs. And the hooked claws jutting from the leading edges of the wings. I could almost feel them tearing at my flesh, my ribs, my thundering heart.
At least I could draw the beast away from the others! I glanced down at my sword, half buried by leaves at the base of the tree, then suddenly remembered a more powerful weapon. My staff! I tore it free from my belt.
Cairpré seized my arm. “No, Merlin.”
I wrenched free. Clutching the staff, I leaped clear of the knot of roots.
The shriek of the kreelix cut through the air, drowning the poet’s own shout. At the same instant, its enormous, hook-winged shadow fell across the rowan. The beast skimmed the very top of the tree, shearing off dozens of smaller branches as it passed. Debris showered me.
I brandished my weapon, calling on all the powers embedded in its wood. Now. I need your help now!
The kreelix careened, ripping at the air with its wings. Then it plunged toward me, the thick brown fur that covered its head and body flattened from the force of the wind. Its mouth opened even wider, thrusting its fangs outward. I realized that the creature lacked any eyes—that, like me, its ability to see came from some other source.
As the three fangs arched toward me, I stepped back, catching my heel on one of the rowan’s roots. Though I struggled to keep my balance, I tumbled over backward. The staff flew from my hand, rolling down the hillside.
I started to push myself to my feet—when my hand struck the leather belt of my scabbard. The sword! I grasped the hilt. As I pulled the blade free, it rang faintly, like a faraway chime.
Scrambling to my feet, I had barely enough time to raise the sword before the kreelix struck. It flew straight at me, its wings and voice screaming as one. Now I could see the veined folds of its ears, the dagger-like edges of its claws, the scarlet tips of its fangs. Its shadow raced over the trees below the knoll, then up the grassy slope.
Planting my boots, I reared back. Do not fail me, sword! I braced myself. You are all that stands between us and death. I swung.
All at once, a blaze of scarlet light exploded inside my head. At the same time, a powerful force slammed into me. Even as it threw me backward, it seemed to reach deep into my chest. To rip the strength from my body, and the sword from my hands. I spun through the air, unable to breathe. With a thud I landed, then rolled to a stop.
I found myself on my back. On grass. And leaves. Yes, it felt like leaves. But where was this place? A short, labored breath. Air at last! I tried to rise, but could not. The clouds spun above me. And something else, something darker than a shadow.
“Merlin, watch out!”
Though I couldn’t tell whether the cry came from within me or without, I forced myself to obey it. Weakly, I rolled to the side. A split second later, something slashed into the ground, barely missing my head. It rang softly, like a distant chime. Like . . . something else, something I could not quite remember.
Straining, I sat up. Blurred, unconnected shapes swam before me. A branch . . . a claw . . . or a blade? The broad trunk of a tree—no, it looked more like . . . I wasn’t sure. Hard as I tried, I could not focus. Could not remember. Why was I so dizzy? Where was this place, anyway?
With great effort, I concentrated on the bloodred shape that was growing steadily larger before me. It had two, no three, gleaming points in its center. It was round, or almost round. It was hollow, and very deep. It was . . .
A mouth! All of a sudden, my memory flooded back. The kreelix was almost upon me! It stood