The ward of castoria, p.23
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       The Ward of Castoria, p.23
 

           Robin Silverglate

  Chapter 9

  Xenther

  Dane was furious with himself for getting distracted. His main priority was to protect Bryn and here he was acting the part of the love-sick fool instead. He belatedly realized their loud words had lured the creature toward them in the first place. It was his fault that she was the one about to be attacked. If he’d had his wits about him, he would have been able to sense the creature approaching several minutes ago. If only he had just kept his mouth shut and not told Bryn how he felt, he could have gotten her safely home. Then, he and Beck could have destroyed the creature without her even being aware of the danger she was in.

  Dane saw a slight movement toward the back of the park so he forced himself to save the introspective criticism for a future time. He still had a firm grip on Bryn’s arm even though she was trying to squirm her way out of it.

  “Stop moving,” he said in a low, commanding voice. He hoped if they were quiet, they might be able to buy some more time before the creature decided to attack.

  “You’re scaring me, Dane. Let go,” Bryn said a little too loudly.

  He grit his teeth as he hissed out at her. “I’m not the one you should be scared of right now. Keep your voice down.”

  “Not until you tell me what’s going on.” Bryn once again tried to remove herself from his grip. It was too late at this point. Dane could tell the creature had crouched its legs into an attack position. Dane’s first priority was to get Bryn to a safe place. Running away with her was not an option because this creature was known for its speed. He decided the safest place for Bryn right now would be someplace high up.

  He grabbed Bryn and hoisted her over his shoulder while she screamed in protest. She shoved her arms against his back and tried to push herself off of him.

  “Dane! Let me go!”

  “Stop fighting me!”

  He kept a firm grip on her and then sprinted to a nearby tree. He jumped to the lowest branch and climbed up a few more just to be safe. Then he placed her down directly on a sturdy limb about half-way up the tree.

  By this point, Bryn appeared to be in a stunned state of silence. He roughly grabbed her hands and placed them around the trunk. “Hold on.”

  Dane felt bad when he realized he had accidentally scraped her arm against a tree limb, but he knew it was minor compared to what would have happened if she had remained on the ground.

  “How—” Bryn asked in astonishment, her breathing labored.

  “I can’t explain now,” he said urgently. “Just hold on as tight as you can.” As if on cue, the tree shook violently back and forth. Dane held onto it in order to keep his balance and was relieved to see Bryn was secure in her position for the present. A few loosened branches and leaves fell on top of them as if to attest to the strong jar they had just experienced.

  “What’s down there?” asked Bryn whose eyes were wide with fear.

  “It is a xenther,” said Dane. “And a very angry one at that.” He looked down at the ground level and could just make out the large, six-legged creature running away from the tree. Dane knew another attack was coming. “He’s coming back. Don’t lose your grip.”

  Bryn did as she was told without question now and held onto the trunk as hard as she could. She turned her head into his chest for added protection. Dane watched the ground and held on tighter just at the moment the xenther bashed its head into the base of the tree.

  He knew the trunk would not be able to withstand many more attacks. So, once it stopped swaying back and forth, he jumped down to a lower branch.

  “You’re not going down there,” Bryn said in disbelief. “That’s insane!”

  Dane shifted his eyes up at her and said, “I told you I would do anything to protect you.”

  Bryn sounded scared for him as she said, “Please don’t go all manly on me in order to prove a point. That thing will kill you.”

  Dane grinned and said, “Don’t worry about me. I’ve killed its kind before.” And with that, he jumped the rest of the way down onto the ground.

  “Dane! Come back!”

  He did not have any more time to respond. He had to concentrate fully now. A xenther was a dangerous animal and was very difficult to kill. There was only one sure-fire way of slaying it and he would have to put himself in an extremely perilous position in order to do it.

  First, he needed to lure the creature away from the tree Bryn was in. He could see a giant section of bark that had already been gouged out, exposing the lighter interior wood. Dane looked around and saw the four glowing green eyes of the creature about one hundred feet away from him. Its hind legs were in a crouching position, ready to push off for another attack. Dane moved over to stand in front of the neighboring tree and waved his arms. “Over here!” he yelled emphatically. He saw the xenther slightly shift its legs in his direction.

  Dane sighed in relief as the creature sprinted at him instead of Bryn. He could hear a throaty chuffing noise coming from the xenther and its thick feet pounding against the ground as it charged nearer. He would have to stay in front of this tree as long as possible because he did not want it to change course and attack Bryn’s tree instead. The timing of his jump had to be just right. If he jumped too late, he would be at the mercy of the xenther’s most dangerous weapon. Two razor sharp horns jutted out from where its nose should be. One horn pointed up and the other pointed down. He had been stabbed by a xenther horn a few years ago and had not forgotten how painful it was. Dane had been fooled into thinking he could jump to the left at the last second, yet had forgotten that a xenther could easily twist its head and attack with a side-to-side motion.

  Dane was not about to make that same mistake twice. When the creature was just a few feet away from him, Dane hurdled vertically into the air, grabbed onto the lowest branch of the tree and lifted up his legs. The xenther’s body was so heavy, that it was unable to stop in time from hitting the trunk. The blunt side of its horns gouged out a chunk of the tree as it smashed into it. Dane held firmly onto the branch as the tree swayed back and forth for several seconds. As soon as it was relatively stable, Dane hoisted himself up to sit on the branch.

  From this position, Dane could get a much better look at the xenther than before. Its body was as tall as the picnic table it stood next to and its limbs were thick and muscular. The creature was covered in large brown scales. Dane guessed, by the size of its horns, that it had to be a young male. The only visible part of the xenther’s head was its horns and glowing eyes. Dane knew that its mouth and long neck were safely contracted in an interior cavity inside its body.

  Bryn called over to him. “Are you all right?”

  “Yes,” he called back. “Please don’t make any noise. It’s not a very smart animal and I’m hoping it will forget you’re there.”

  Dane watched the xenther’s eyes slice up at him and then over to Bryn’s tree. It was clear it was making a decision on which tree to attack next. Then, Dane silently cursed when he saw the xenther move back to the front of Bryn’s tree.

  As it loudly snorted, Dane was glad Bryn stayed perfectly still on her branch. She did not scream or try to move in anyway. He was sure she must be terrified, but on the outside, she appeared to be very calm. He needed to find a way to get the xenther’s attention back on him and it needed to be soon. Dane slid down to the ground, pulled out his sword that he kept hidden in the folds of his jacket, and began to run. This time, however, he sprinted into the open field of the park instead of to the protection of the trees.

  “Hey!” he called loudly over his shoulder in order to divert the xenther’s attention.

  The creature heard him and began to chase. The speed of the xenther was faster than Dane could run, so he soon heard it on his heels. He leaped into the air and did a back flip over the creature. The xenther’s top horn barely missed Dane’s legs by inches. It sank its bottom horn into the ground and used the momentum to quickly spin itself ar
ound and face Dane again. The creature propelled itself into another attack, yet Dane was too close for the xenther to use its speed to its advantage.

  The long neck of the xenther swiftly extended out of its protective cavity. The slimy, pink skin of the neck gleamed in the moonlight. Dane could see two rows of sharp, pointed teeth open in anticipation of latching onto him. He knew xenthers often snapped out their necks in order to surprise their victims in close proximity attacks and he was about as close as he could get. As he leaped up into the air, he swung his sword below him and sliced the exposed neck of the creature.

  By the time Dane landed, the xenther’s body had crashed into the ground with a loud thud. Dane then took his sword and jabbed it into the open cavity where its neck had been. A sharp spasm shot through the xenther’s body, but then it lay suddenly still. Dane let out of sigh of relief as he sheathed his sword. He had performed his duty as Protector. Bryn had been the target and he had saved her. He was truly relieved she was out of danger.

  At the same time, he felt a great sense of loss. Bryn would no longer need him. He had no excuse to be near her anymore. And what was infinitely worse was that she did not even want him near her. Bryn had made it abundantly clear in the moments before the attack. Maybe she would trust him now, but hadn’t she said she never even liked him? Dane realized he could not just sit here and wallow in self-pity. There was so much to do. For one, he needed to get Bryn out of that tree.
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