Acorn now knew the pack was just toying with them earlier. It was a show, a joke to them, that backfired. The warg pack was so contemptuous of their prey's supposed weakness that the thought of Acorn and her friends beating them back never even crossed their minds. But beat them back their prey did. Now the beasts had decided to not make that same mistake again. This time was for keeps...and the wargs were used to being the victors.
The pack broke upon the group like a frenzied tidal wave of hate and rage. No sound escaped their muzzles, not a snarl or whine, which only seemed to make the attack even more frightening. Tellon's swords didn't stop them or Chesterton's singing arrows, which were coming slower now, and even the last of Acorn's magic just seemed to fuel the monsters inner rage. It was all Acorn could do to keep from slipping in the puddles of blood and muck that was building under her feet and and which made her panic about the thought of slipping under the packs collective claws and being rended body from bone. She could feel the desperation building in the pit of her stomach and feverishly struggled to keep upright and to Tellon's back. His pace was slowing too, although the swings of his arms were not, and she knew it was now a matter of time before the pack finally overtook them both.
Snapping mouths and raking claws tried to catch at both of them between swings while other pack members tried to trip and separate the pair by bolting in from different angles. She was suprised that Tellon and herself were still alive actually, but was getting beaten down enough to soon only care about staying alive. Each swing of her arms brought painful protests from muscles not used to such strenuous work and popping tendons added their own protests as she kept raising her arms for yet another frantic swipe. She could feel her arms becoming heavy like useless lumps of lead and where blood and grime had collected and caked on her pelt was starting to make her itch all over. Sweat poured from every part of her body, sending a chill through her where the rank wetness made contact with the cold night's air and made her blink frantically when it ran down her face and into her eyes. She could hear Tellon panting behind her and felt him shiver and twist a few times as claws or teeth dodged his blows and made inevitable contact with his body.
The dying campfire bathed everything in a low dull red colour. Shifting shadows danced just past the edge of her sight, and every one of those shadows seemed to contain a warg. Firelight flickered on the mud and gore of their pelts and seemed to recast the wargs into something from the very depths of hell itself. She could see arrows sticking out of the warg's fur but now her tired brain seemed to take this as ornamentation for the pack now versus something that might slow them down. A steady volly of arrows had rained down on the pack, from two different directions, but had slowed and was now stopped. She wondered dully if Allora and Chesterton had already fallen to the pack's madness leaving just Tellon, Scarlet and herself to fight for survival. As her attention was distracted by this thought, a lucky swipe from one of the wargs claws caught her under her elbow and she could feel herself slipping as the blow forced her down at an angle. In desperation she tried to right herself but felt her exhausted legs gave out from under her and she fell down into the swirled gore in a bloodied heap. With a triumphant howl, the wargs fell upon her in a swirl of blood, fur and claws.
In a desperate bid for survival, she tried to twist and turn out and away from their reach. It was to no avail, the group clustered around her was so tight she could no longer see the campfire's glow or Tellon's back. Every way she tried to turn she could smell their rancid breath and feel their razer sharp claws rake across her chest and down her flank. One filthy muzzle swooped in close and she barely threw her arm up in time to protect her face and throat. She screamed as the monster closed his jaw down on her arm in a sickening crunch. She felt her wrist snap before the shooting pain actually hit her and knew it was all over now, not that she stood a chance before, but what good was a fallen squirrel with only one working arm? She could feel the last of her strength being leeched from her body by the pain and shock and hoped that when the end came it wouldn't hurt too much.
A throaty howl of challange erupted from beyond the fringe of the wargs that surrounded her and she watched in a detached manner as their heads snapped up and around to assess this new threat. A large furry paw shot down into the middle of the startled pack and roughly fastened around Acorn's shirt front. Plucking her like a bag of apples from the muddy ground, it flung her beyond the wargs reach to the outskirts of the camp's perimeter. The impact of her fall to the ground forced out her breath with a small gasp and sent shivers of agony streaking from her wrist to her shoulder. She rolled over to her side and into an unsteady crouch in time to watch Chesterton go into full beserk mode. He had waded into the middle of the pack to rescue her and now that she had been tossed to relative safety, he was free to tear into the beasts with as much frenzy as they had torn into her.
Standing at full height, with his fur on end and ears back, he seemed to have doubled in size. Behind him was Allora, twirling her iron-tipped oak staff. The two seemed to dance together, Chesterton tearing into the warg pile with his claws while Allora whipped her staff around to take care of those who tried to snap at his back. Acorn struggled to get to her feet, but they didn't want to listen. She had to get up to see if she could find Tellon, she had lost sight of him when she fell, and she feared he had already fallen to the pack. Trying again to stand, her balance remained off and she flung out her arms to regain her footing. A strong paw grabbed her elbow and helped to steady her. She whipped her head around to see Tellon's mocking grin emerge from the shadows and stretch over his bloodied face. One of his ears was nothing more than tattered shreds and great gouges steaked across his face and chest. For the second time in as many minutes she let her breath out again in a small gasp and tried to reach around to give him a fierce hug. He shook his head at her and held up his other paw. One of his swords was still grasped firmly in it and he was obviously reluctant to let his guard down enough so she could greet him. His fur was matted with gore and slime with patches of russet fur missing in some places. She figured she looked just as bad, and stood gently cradling her bad wrist in her good arm. Tellon raised his eyebrow and took her wrist gently to examine it. She hoped she didn't flinch too much at the contact and tried to remain as calm as he appeared to be.
"I thought for sure you were dead!" She gasped lightly at his probing touch.
"You and me both," he inclined his head towards the still raging bearling as he carefully examined her wrist. "Looks like we will both be thanking Chesterton once this is all over." He sheathed his sword abruptly and began to gather a few pieces of wood and rag to make a simple brace. "Your wrist is definitely broken in multiple places. Let me try to make something to keep it still until Allora can look at it."
At the sound of Allora's name, Acorn turned to start towards the owling and bear, but felt Tellon's firm grasp keep her with him. "Dammit Tellon! We have to help them or they will get torn to pieces like you and I did! Let me go!" She swore at him and tried to twist away from his hold.
Tellon shook his head. "Not for love of gold or honor squirrel." He pointed over at Allora. "See how she is always behind him and not to the side or front?" Acorn nodded in confusion. "That's so he won't see her and kill her too. When he is in full beserker mode everyone is an enemy, even friends and family. He will ignore all pain and wounds until everything he sees is dead. Those wargs don't know it yet, but they have already lost." Acorn nodded her head in understanding and stepped back to his side still panting slightly, her aching wrist once again being held by Tellon. He quickly wrapped her wrist and told her to keep it as still as possible until it could be tended to better. She nodded briefly and carefully held her it close as she turned to watch Chesterton's rage in action.
At first the pack had swarmed over Chesterton, furious at his bold rescue of their prey and intending to slaughter him for it. Within seconds however, they soon realized why he was able to do so. For every bite they made, he bit and clawed two back. Parts of wargs were soon strewn over the area, pieces that he had ripped from living wargs in an almost insane battlejoy. There was no respite and no way for the beasts to flee. Those wargs that tried to escape soon realized that they were caught behind some sort of invisible barrier, and regardless of how they clawed or dug at it they could not get past. A quick look at Allora's strained face was all that was needed to figure out who had placed that barrier. She carefully stayed out of eyesight behind Chesterton as he tore apart all the remaining wargs. The sound of screaming wargs and ripping flesh made Acorn's stomach lurch, but she found she had no sympathy for the monsters. After all, they had planned to do the same to her and her friends.
When the last warg finally fell to Chesterton's teeth and claws, Allora carefully walked up behind the bearling and tapped him gently on the small of his back. Giving himself a brief shake, Chesterton stumbled as he seemed to shrink down to his normal size. Allora stayed well behind him until he gestured for her that it was safe to come around. She nodded once and blinked her eyes. With a shimmer, the invisible wall momentarily flicked into view and then was gone. They talked softly together for a brief moment and then both walked back over to where Tellon and Acorn stood waiting. Chesterton gingerly lowered himself to the ground under one of the elm trees and sat breathing heavily. Leaning his head back to rest on the tree trunk, he moped his face with his large paw then spit one of his teeth into his palm. Giving it a rueful laugh he looked up at Allora and gave a small lopsided grin.
"Now THAT was fun, wasn't it?" He chuckled as he pitched his tooth away into the underbrush. Allora rolled her eyes in mock disgust and squatted down next to him, her knee giving a small pop of protest. She ignored it and reached out to touch his forehead and muzzle.
"I think my definition of 'fun' is very different from yours." She carefully peered into his eyes and began to softly check his chest. His clothing was rended beyond repair and it was a simple matter to remove what small shreds of cloth were left and toss it aside. He waved her away when she started to prod his chest again and coughed slightly.
"No point of doing that just yet. Have'ta wait until the body finishes reverting back to normal. I might be back to normal on the outside, but my insides aren't." He grinned at her again. "It would be a shame to begin to heal me only to have to start over again when the last of the battle-rage fully wears off." Allora clucked softly to herself and shook her head.
"I can start to get an idea of what to heal," she said as she stood up. Brushing dirt from her knees, she crossed her arms over her chest and stood looking down at Chesterton.
He raised his finger as if making a point. "Lemme help you out here on this one." He shifted his seating and gave a small wince. "Everything hurts and everything is bleeding somewhere." Allora raised her eyebrow but remained silent. "In fact, the only thing that doesn't currently hurt is that damn tooth I just spit away." He moved his tongue around in his mouth. "And I think it will soon be joined by one of its neighbors." He turned and spit a mouthful of blood off in the direction of his tooth and winced again. Allora just shook her head and turned towards Acorn.
"I see you hurt your wrist." She stretched her hand to Acorn but Acorn shook her head.
"I think you better see to Tellon's face and chest first. This is just a simple break that can wait a bit longer." Allora raised her eyebrow at Acorn and turned to face the still bleeding Tellon. When he opened his mouth to protest, she raised a finger in warning and looked the two of them over sternly.
"I am either going to heal something RIGHT NOW or I am going to break something else instead. Understand?" Tellon just blinked once in suprise and then sheepishly nodded his head. Allora stepped up to him and began to carefully check the bloody streaks across his face. "These are really bad. We better clean them out really good first to speed the healing process." Tellon just winced briefly and nodded. Allora turned her head to look over her shoulder at Acorn. "Do you still have some ann'tora leaves?" Acorn nodded and offered to go get some. "Yes, I think you better get some thank you. Might want to boil some water too..." She looked around the clearing further. "Where's Scarlet?"
Acorn was limping over to stoke the fire and paused thoughtfully at the question. "I don't know, I haven't seen him since this all started. I wonder where he could be?" Continuing over to the fire pit, she added a few pieces from the fire's woodpile and stirred the tinder around a bit bringing the fire back to life and sending snapping embers swirling into the night air. "It isn't like him to just...leave like this..." she frowned in thought and went over to her bedroll to gather the ann'tora leaves. As she rummaged around to gather a fistful, she began to straighten and then froze. A pair of red eyes was watching her from the darkness beyond her bedroll.
She continued to stand up, carefully making no sudden movements, and quietly cleared her throat in the hopes that the rest of the party would hear her. By the sounds of their low chatter she could tell that they were unaware of the creature, she could not even smell whatever it was, and could feel the flight sensation start to raise the fur at the base of her tail and spread up her spine. The eyes stared at her intently for a moment, blinked once and then was gone. Acorn whirled around as if freed from a trap and bolted back to the group. Clutching the leaves to her chest she panted, "Something is still out there!" and pointed a shaky paw in the direction of her bedroll.
At the sound of her terrified voice Chesterton tried to push himself off the ground to a standing position, but could only sag weakly back against the tree. Swearing under his breath, he tried to at least fumble his daggers out of their sheaths but groaned as he felt them drop from his half-numb fingers. As the battle rage wore off it drained his whole body of energy, making even the dagger's light weight too much to carry. "I thought there was something suspicious about this whole damn mess." He half-growled to the group, "I didn't think this was a normal hunting pack we were fighting."
"Really." A soft voice came across the clearing. "And what made you come to that conclusion?" The group started at the ghostly voice that seemed to come from all around them and unconsciously moved as one to be closer to Chesterton. Without a word being said, they all knew that Chesterton was the weakest member of the group right now and would need extra help if something happened. Chesterton hated the thought of being helpless, but was grateful for the group's protection. He knew he was next to useless until his strength came back, and that was at least an hour away. Tellon drew his sword again and went into a fighting stance as Allora whipped her staff out from behind her back. Acorn knew she was pretty much useless in a physical fight, much less a magical one, so decided to call up a simple cantrip that would gave her a false magical aura and put her paw in her pouch as if grabbing components for a spell.
A monsterous warg lightly padded out of the chill darkness and stopped a couple of feet away from the group. His paws were easily twice the size of the other wargs and his pelt was a midnight black shot through with grey. His rumbling laugh exposed ferocious canines which grated together with his lower jaw as he talked, and his eyes appeared as fiery red orbs. When the warg approached close enough, Tellon took a quick step forward and swiped his sword at the figure, stumbling as the blade passed through as if through air. The warg chuckled, sending shivers of fear down the party's collective spine. Everyone began to shift nervously and could feel their fur rise along their hackles. Allora just narrowed her eyes at the laugh and made a quick gesture with her hands. The feeling of building fear passed away, to the relief of everyone, and left only an uneasy sensation to creep along in it's wake.
The warg curled his lip and inclined his head towards Allora as a mocking acknowledgement of what she had done. Lazily he looked over the grim-faced group and gave another low rumbling laugh. "I know I wasn't supposed to interfere with your pitifully small group," He growled at them, "But as I can see where you pose a threat, small as it may be, while others do not it forces me to deal with you." He began to circle the group, each member slowly swivling to keep the apparition in line of sight. Their faces became grimmer as he talked, but everyone felt confused. What did he mean by them "posing a threat"?
Allora opened her mouth to say something, but never had a chance to vocalize her thought. Each party member felt a sheering pain explode inside his or her skull as the warg completed his circut of the group. Small stars danced around in their vision and their innards felt as if they had become salt water. Acorn could feel blood start to drip from her nose as her depth perception turned off and staggering forward only seemed to make the ground tilt sickeningly.
Looking around, she could see the others faring just as badly as herself, but there was nothing to be done. Allora was on her knees, clutching her head close and bowing so her forhead almost touched the earth. A keening noise seemed to rise from her, but with Acorn's distorted vision and hearing she couldn't be sure. Chesterton seemed to be unconscious, not suprising considering how weak he already was. Tellon tried to stagger over to Acorn, but fell to the ground and began to writhe in pain.
Clamping her hands to her head, Acorn fell to her knees and desperately tried to get the pain out of her head. Chanting softly to herself, she tried to dispell whatever spell the warg was using, but could only barely dent the pain. Praying it was enough, she sent out a frantic mental whisper to Scarlet, hoping that where ever he was he could hear her. The warg narrowed his eyes as he felt Acorn's attempt to circumvent his spell and doubled his efforts. Acorn could only scream as her mind seemed to catch on fire and spread downward towards her inner magical core. She wasn't strong enough to stop this, and the warg knew it.
Just when she felt herself slipping into blissful unconsciousness, a flurry of gold and scarlet caught her eye and she heard a ferocious screech of challenge. Through her tear-filled eyes, she looked up to see Scarlet rear on his hind quarters and viciously slash the warg illusion with his talons. With a howl of rage the warg shattered into small shimmery shards and vanished into whisps of murky smoke that blew away on the night air. The searing pain in Acorn's head immediately began to dissipate, leaving only a thudding headache in it's wake. She looked over at the rest of the party and saw them stir groggily as their own mental attacks began to subside. Tellon lay in a crumpled heap on the ground with his eyes closed murmuring something to himself while Allora crawled weakly over to Chesterton and checked his pulse. Giving a deep sigh, she looked up at the rest of them and gave a sickly smile. Chesterton was unconscious, but at least he was still alive.
Acorn pushed to her feet, and staggered over to collapse next to Tellon. His eyes were still closed and he was panting lightly. Blood dribbled stickily from his nose and left a dirty trail down the side of his neck from him laying on the ground. She rested her paw lightly on his chest and gave a tight grin when his eyes blinked slowly open. Looking over at her he said, "That was no normal warg..." Acorn nodded in agreement, rolled into a sitting position, and placed her head back into her hands trying to rub her throbbing migraine away. Tellon shifted over to rest on his side and wearily looked the group over. His eyes stopped at Scarlet and narrowed thoughtfully. Looking at Acorn with a raised eyebrow he also rolled up into a sitting position. Wincing as his stomach protested queasily at the movement, he had to pause before speaking.
"Where the bloody hells were you?" Tellon's words came out slightly slurred.
Scarlet swiveled his head to look over at Tellon. "I decided to see where the wargs were going. That and maybe find out why."
Tellon gritted his teeth in painful anger. "We were almost killed! Why weren't you here to help us?" Acorn hissed softly to herself, not liking Tellon's tone, but wondered the same thing. Even Allora had stopped checking Chesterton and looked over at the large gryphon with interest in her luminous blue eyes.
Scarlet blinked at the foxling and ruffled his wing feathers with mild irritation. "I knew this wasn't a normal attack when I heard the first howl." He replied sharply, "Wargs don't travel this far out of the Western Knoll Mountains at this time of year. I took the risk of slipping past them and headed off to see what I could find."
A growl rose up from Tellon's throat, but Scarlet continued as if he didn't hear it. "What I found by following the wargs trail was very disturbing. This was but a splinter group of a much larger army of wargs." He paused thoughtfully, then added, "And they are all headed towards the lands of the Midnight Paw." Tellon stopped his growl and swiveled his ears flat.
"Absurd! Wargs would never dare do such a thing! My father would hunt them into extinction of they even dared to THINK about invading our family lands!" Tellon was outraged at the mere thought of the foul wargs descending upon his father's lands. Such a thing hadn't happend in many generations, and most foxlings would have scoffed at the idea of it happening now.
Scarlet blinked again and changed his gaze to the moon. "Nevertheless, this is the truth, which means that someone else is leading this army south. Something not a warg and capable of doing powerful magic." He shook his head. "I tried to discover the origin of the illusion before I attacked but could only catch a glimpse of swirled colors and passing distances, nothing else. Someone is trying to hide who and what he or she is and is quite capable of doing so. But why?"
Tellon felt himself grow concerned. "I don't know." He rubbed his neck and stared at the sticky mess that came away on his paw. "The first warg said foxling and squirrel meat was on the menu, which can only mean that both are to be attacked. The closest squirrel clan to the wargs would be the Black Oak Haven, and my father is obligated to go to its aid if the clan is attacked." Tellon staggered to his feet and lurched to his bedroll. Groping about he began to gather his items together for travel, a deep furrow developing on his forehead as he packed. "We best get started to warn them or we might have a repeat of what happened to your clan Acorn."
Scarlet spoke again, "There is one thing more. Among the swirling colors I did see a ring, black and gold with a strange crest." He sketched the crest in the dust of the ground with his claw. "Does this mean anything to you?" Tellon looked over and froze.
"You were right Scarlet," He said stiffly. "It wasn't a warg. It was a fox."
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