“Yeah. You ready?”
Their temporary truce was over. Nearly tripping over each other, Prue and Curtis sprinted back over the fallen maple, eliciting another groan from the tree, and inched along the narrow lip of the cliff face. They clambered down a set of stairs, jousting elbows, and ran along a walkway to arrive at an outcrop from where the final waymark could be seen, fluttering wildly atop the camp’s West Tower. Prue assumed that the other bandit trainees had been waylaid somewhere in the recesses of the gap; it was now just the two of them left.
They gave each other a quick, fleeting glance and then they were off, tearing across a swinging rope bridge to arrive at the circular stairs that climbed the side of the wooden tower. Whatever civility had been guiding their behavior prior to this moment was gone; Prue had a firm handful of the fringe hanging from one of Curtis’s epaulets, and he was desperately elbowing her in the neck at every opportunity. They made their way, ungracefully, to the top of the tower, where they both fell to the ground, pulling and shoving, crawling
the final feet to the waving banner.
It was Prue who broke away, who managed to shove past her friend and come within a finger’s length of the final waymark. But something occurred; something she could not, at that moment, understand or explain. She froze while a feeling of absolute terror and hopelessness poured through her entire body.
The three black foxes, freed of their former clothing, prowled closer to the Mystics, who had all outstretched their arms as if reaching to catch the lazy snowflakes that drifted down from the slate-gray sky. This behavior seemed odd to the assassins, who were used to their victims whining and groveling when their end was in sight. It was no matter; this way, the whole ordeal was bound to be much less messy. Darla gave a quick glance to the other two foxes: Now was the time.
A length of bright golden filigree connected each of these objects in the mandala, one to the other, a sign of the interconnectedness of the Wood.
And then the ground came alive.
Suddenly, the grass beneath their paws was a bed of quivering, slithering life, snaking its way between their toes and around their ankles. Once it had wormed its way around their legs it held fast, imprisoning them. The two males snapped and growled, angrily trying to wrestle themselves free. One of them had come close to a small shrub of wax myrtle, which was busy entangling its palmlike leaves into the hairs of the fox’s coat. Darla, held tight by a few patches of writhing grass, snapped loudly at the Mystics.
Iphigenia raised her hands out to the wax myrtle and closed her eyes. There was an earthy tearing sound, and little white tendrils of root erupted from the soil, winding around the body of one of the foxes. His snarls turned to helpless yelps as the roots, having made a kind of trough in the earth, began pulling him down into the ground. Within moments, all that remained at the spot where he’d been standing were a few loose piles of dirt and a patch of black fur.
Darla and the other fox helplessly watched their compatriot be buried alive. With renewed vigor, they growled and flexed their haunches. Suddenly, the grass tore away at their paws and the two foxes broke free of their bonds, leaping, teeth gnashing, for the throats of the Mystics.
“Run, Elder!” shouted Bion, the gray fox, as he dove in the way of the pouncing Kitsunes. The bodies crashed together in an explosion of teeth, fur, and flesh. Iphigenia, thrown from her meditations, fell backward, landing with an agonized yawp on the ground. Were it not for the fact that the very blades of grass at her feet rose up to cushion her fall, she might not have been able to regain her footing. The human woman Mystic, Eutropia, helped her to her feet and held her arm as the foxes behind them fought bitterly.
“To the trees!” said Iphigenia, with some difficulty. “Our only hope.”
Dutifully, the two Mystics escorted the Elder toward the line of trees at the edge of the clearing. The sound of the three foxes’ melee could be heard behind them. A scream came from Bion; he shouted to the retreating Mystics, “RUN!”
Iphigenia turned to look and saw that he had been struck down, his muzzle flattened against the muddy ground. Blood seeped from his nostrils. The two Kitsunes bared their teeth and gave pursuit. Eutropia let go of the Elder Mystic’s arm and turned to face the assassins.
Darla saw this. “Watch the plants!” she hissed to her fellow.
Eutropia held out her hands, palms open, to the ground below her feet. The tawny blades of grass leapt alive at her command and began whipping at the arms and legs of the approaching Kitsunes. But the assassins had better judged their opponent; they stepped quickly through the thickets of grass and avoided the larger bushes; the quivering greenery could not hold their prey. Before the Mystic had a chance to engage, the foxes had leapt with fearsome agility and barreled the woman to the ground, teeth gnashing.
Iphigenia and the antelope Timon heard their fellow Mystic’s screams as they fled for the safety of the tree line; they did not hazard a backward glance for fear of losing what little distance they’d put between themselves and their pursuers. “Quick, Elder,” said Timon. “Climb on my back.” Iphigenia did so, wrapping her arms around the antelope’s slender neck. With a grunt, the Mystic kicked into a gallop, racing for the edge of the clearing. They could hear the foxes behind them, freed of the clutching grass, tearing after.
Iphigenia, astride the antelope, did what she could to hamper the assassins: The varied plant life of the meadow struck out wildly at the sprinting foxes. It wasn’t until they’d made the line of trees, though, that she was able to create any significant obstacle. She looked to the high boughs of the trees—the fir, the maple, the hemlock—and she beseeched them to help in their flight.
Branches, whipping lightning-fast from the heavens, descended on the two black foxes as they reached the edge of the clearing, and they yelped in pain, the wood making bright red lacerations along their sides. Timon leapt the trunk of a bent hemlock that had tipped sideways into the ground, and Iphigenia grunted at the collision when the antelope made landfall on the other side.
Darla, neatly dodging an arcing cedar bough, bounded over the hemlock while the other Kitsune ducked low and scrambled beneath. Iphigenia saw this; she breathed deep and conjured. The male Kitsune made it only halfway under before the tree bore down in a quick, groaning motion and pinned the fox, hard, to the loamy ground. He yelped loudly, but his compatriot, Darla, did not stop to assist. She did not see him pushed farther down into the ground; she did not see the little fingers of plants’ roots make a white web over his head and suck him deep into a furrow that closed over him like a lapping mouth.
Despite the tactical advantage of the woods, the trees and bushes all working in tandem to check the pursuit of the assassin, Darla was gaining on the two Mystics. Timon was unable to fully gallop carrying the weight of the Elder Mystic; he faltered by a stand of willows. Iphigenia slipped off and whispered in his ear, “Go. Go to the two half-breed children. Warn them.” He gave her a quick worried look, and then, in a shot, disappeared into the knot of trees. Iphigenia turned to face her attacker. She calmed the quaking greenery. It trembled to a stop.
Untrusting, Darla slowed her pace to a deliberate, silent stalk. “This is it, crone,” said Darla as she rounded the old woman.
“Yes, it is, isn’t it?” said Iphigenia. With that, she sat down on the cushion of salal vines at her feet and deftly wrapped her legs in lotus position. Her eyes fell peaceably closed.
The fox leapt. The surrounding forest, under no command or request, convulsed mournfully as the assassin hit her mark.
Prue collapsed on the wooden floor of the tower, suddenly overcome with the worst pain she’d ever experienced; it felt like all her blood had stopped flowing and her every nerve ending was set to flame. Her mouth was opened to scream, but no voice came. Everything green around her was shouting at her, hollering through the cavity of her skull, as if each and every piece of vegetation, from the smallest patch of moss to the tallest tree, had witnessed some horrible degradation. She put her hands on her ears to blot the sound, but it was no use.
Her eyes darted around her, trying to figure out how and why this was happening. She saw Curtis above her; his lips were moving, but she couldn’t hear his voice. She felt him grab her shoulders and shake them. Her whole frame felt frozen and impotent. She found herself teetering on the edge of unconsciousness; and yet the screaming was so much more intense than it had been that day on the bluff. And then, as soon as it had begun, it all stopped.
She stared up at Curtis, wild-eyed, and grabbed his arm, her voice suddenly returned to her in this new vacuum of silence.