"Damn it." Hugh stood up on his throne. "I told them to stay the hell out of the ravine."
I stood up. To the left the trees shook. Something galloped up the mountain slope straight for us.
"What is it?"
"Ochokochi. Big, vicious, carnivorous, long claws. They like to impale people with their chests."
"They grab you and impale you on their chest. The shapeshifters spooked the herd. Stupid sonsabitches. I asked one thing-one damn thing-and they couldn't do it right. The herd is heading for us. Normally I'd move out of their way."
"But we have the horses." Then I remembered-the path up to the meeting place was narrow and steep. We had seven horses, and getting them out and down the path in time to escape was impossible.
"Exactly. When the ochokochi go mad like this, they slaughter everything with a pulse."
A dull thudding came from below, the sound of many feet stomping in unison. How many of them were there?
Hugh jumped off the throne to the ground. "They're coming straight for us."
I moved left, putting myself between the woods and the corral with the horses. The sound of thudding feet grew, like the roar of a distant waterfall. The horses neighed and paced in the enclosure, testing their tethers.
The trees shuddered.
"Don't let them grab you." Hugh grinned at me. "Ready?"
"No time like the present." I unbuckled the spare saber at my waist, unsheathed it, and dropped the sheath on the grass.
The blackberry bushes at the edge of the clearing tore, and the woods spat a beast into the open. It stood about five feet tall, half-upright like a gorilla or a kangaroo, resting the full weight of its body on two massive hind legs. Long reddish fur reminiscent of chamois dripped from its flanks. Its front limbs, muscular and almost simian in shape, bore long black claws. Its head was goatlike, with a wide forehead and small eyes, but instead of the narrow muzzle, its face ended in powerful predatory jaws designed to shear rather than grind.
What the bloody hell was that thing?
The beast saw us and rocked back, opening its limbs as if for a hug. A sharp, hatchetlike ridge of bone protruded from its chest. Bits of dried crud clung to it, and they looked suspiciously like bloody shreds of someone's flesh.
Go to the Black Sea, meet new people, see beautiful places, get killed by a mutant carnivorous kangaroo goat. One item off my bucket list.
I pulled Slayer from the back sheath. Hugh raised his eyebrows at the two swords but didn't say anything. That's right. Hold any comments and questions till the end.
The creature opened its mouth, baring sharp teeth, and yowled. The terrible sound rolled through the clearing, neither roar nor grunt, but a deep bellow of a creature without power of speech driven by fear and bloodlust.
I swung my sabers, warming up my wrists. Hugh unsheathed his sword. It was a plain European long sword, with a thirty-five-and-a-half-inch blade, a simple cross-guard, and a leather-wrapped hilt. The hilt was long enough for one-handed or two-handed use. The beveled blade shone with a satin finish.
The bushes broke. More ochokochi burst into the open. The leader bellowed again.
The monsters dropped to all fours and charged.
We stepped forward and swung at the same time. I moved left, dodging the charge, and sliced the beast's shoulder. The creature screamed and swiped at me with its claws. I leaned back just enough to avoid it and spun the swords in a practiced butterfly pattern. The bottom blade caught the beast's side; the top sliced at the side of its head. Blood sprayed. The ochokochi reared and crashed down, its legs jerking in violent spasms.
I spun my blades, surrounding myself with a wall of steel. One butterfly on top, one on the bottom. If they could bleed, they should feel pain. Here's hoping they had enough brainpower to keep clear of the thing that hurt them.
A second beast rushed me. I cut. It bellowed in agony, twisted aside, sliced and hurting, and ran off into the woods. Banzai! I didn't have to kill. I just had to hurt them enough to make them flee.
They came at me together, and I wove through the incoming rust-colored bodies, cutting and slashing. They bellowed and roared. I breathed in the aggression they exhaled and lost myself to slicing through muscle and ligaments. I'd done this hundreds of times in practice and in real fights, but no memory and no practice could compare to the pure exhilaration of knowing your life was on the line. One wrong move, one misstep, and they would trample me. I would die impaled or clawed to death. The fear stayed with me, a constant knowledge in the back of my mind, but it didn't paralyze me, it just made everything sharper. I saw the ochokochi with crystal clarity, every strand of hair and every panicked and rage-maddened eye.
Hugh worked next to me. He moved with a smooth, sparse economy, the kind that can't be learned in a dojo or in a mock fight. Hugh swung with an instinctual anticipation, a sixth sense of knowing where to land his strike and how to angle his blade for maximum impact, and when his sword touched flesh, the flesh tore. He cleaved bodies like they were butter, wasting no effort, moving without a pause, as if dancing to a rhythm only he heard. It was like watching my father. They called him Voron because death followed in his wake, the way it followed ravens in the old legends. If Voron was Death's raven, Hugh was its scythe.
We moved in perfect unison. He tossed a body at me, I sliced it, drove one at him, and he finished it with a precise, brutal cut.
More ochokochi splashed against us like a furry wave.
Two beasts descended on me, pounding the ground in tandem, barely two feet of space between them. I had nowhere to go and I couldn't stop both. I reversed the blades and stood.
They came at me, screaming. Twelve yards.
"Kate!" Hugh barked.
Ten. A moment too soon, and they would crush me. A moment too late and my life would be over.
The breath from their mouths spilled over me.
Now. I dropped to my knees and slashed across their forelegs with both swords in a single cut.
Before they tumbled forward, the severed muscles and tendons failing under their weight, I pulled the swords to me and stood up. The two beasts passed on both side of me and crashed behind my back, crippled.
"Damn, that was beautiful!" Hugh shouted, pulling his blade from a shaggy body.
An ochokochi lunged at him, too fast for the sword strike. Hugh swung his left arm. The back of his fist hammered the creature's skull. The ochokochi swayed and fell.
I had to avoid being punched by him at all costs.
There were no beasts within striking range. The wave of ochokochi had broken against us.