A sound reached his ears: the low growl of a beast of prey. It came from somewhere off to his right, behind a small stand of rocks a few dozen paces back from the camp. He sniffed the air and immediately his senses were on full alert. The scent of predator met his nostrils: raw meat, blood, and the pungent odor the beast used to mark its territory. It mixed with another aroma, one he recognized. Scorched hair. Red-hot metal. Sweat-stained leather.
The Hunter reached for his sword and cursed to find it missing. He'd left belt and blade hanging over the horn of his saddle. Only Soulhunger remained, the blade strapped in its sheath at the small of his back.
It will have to do.
He hobbled toward the outcropping of rocks as quickly as his injured knee allowed. The growling grew in intensity, accompanied a moment later by a loud, unmistakable grunt.
A new scent entered the melange, similar to the first, but distinct in its pungent odor.
Damn it! Two of whatever the accursed things are.
Ignoring the ache in his leg, he lurched forward into a run. Soulhunger slipped from its sheath with a ring of steel on leather. The dagger whispered in his mind, eager to feed. Man or beast, the blade didn't care; it craved blood, regardless of its provenance.
The Hunter raced around the pile of rocks, Soulhunger held at the ready. Graden lay on the ground, struggling with a massive shape so black it seemed a void in the evening gloom. Eyes of a horrible yellow burned above long fangs that shone in the darkness, and the creature's lithe muscles rippled beneath midnight feline fur. Graden's massive arms bulged as he struggled to keep the beast's raking claws away from his face. The battle was not going well.
To make things worse, another pair of amber eyes burned in the darkness beyond. The form moved like lightning, slipping through the night with all the stealth of a shadow. The burning orbs latched onto the Hunter and, for one heart-wrenching moment, stopped him in his tracks. Snarling, the beast crouched and leapt.
The Hunter had only a moment to raise Soulhunger before an immense weight slammed into him, knocking him to the ground. Its warm, fetid breath reeked of blood and rotting meat. Drool dripped from the massive cat's jaws and soaked his face. He grunted as the beast's claws carved deep furrows across his chest, shoulders, and face. Blinded by his own blood, he struck out with Soulhunger and sliced through fur and flesh.
The beast howled and swiped at the Hunter with an enormous paw, laying open the arm he threw up to stop the claws from tearing out his eyes. Acting on instinct, he thrust Soulhunger upward. Hot blood gushed over his arm as Soulhunger's razor edge drove through flesh, bone, and cartilage inside the massive creature's gaping jaws.
The beast swiped at him, but the attacks grew weak. The Hunter, staring into the burning yellow eyes, saw primal fear fill its gaze. He forced the blade further, seeking the soft mass of the beast's brain.
The greatcat lashed out weakly with its massive paw, almost as if by reflex. With one final shudder, it slumped atop him and lay still, its immense bulk pinning him to the ground. Gore soaked through his clothing, assailing his nostrils with the scent of fresh blood. His face, chest, and arm throbbed where the raking claws had laid open flesh.
A stifled grunt of pain met his ears. Graden still wrestled the other beast, and the raking claws and long, razor-sharp fangs drew closer to ripping out the big man's throat with every heartbeat.
He can't survive much longer.
The creature had to weigh nearly as much as a horse, and every muscle in the Hunter's body strained as he heaved. Slowly, the enormous bulk shifted, lifted, and fell aside. Ignoring the burning slash marks on his upper body and face, he rolled to his feet and lurched toward Graden. He raised Soulhunger, its grip slick with dark blood, and slammed it into the creature's head.
The midnight cat barked in pain, but the blade's keen edge cut off its cries. The beast slumped, lifeless, and the Hunter shoved its bulk to the side. The effort sapped his last reserves of strength. He fell to his knees, panting, gasping for breath. Graden lay before him, clearly too exhausted to move.
'Kill him,' purred the voice in his head. 'Take his life force and let it fuel you. You're far away from camp. Everyone will think it was the beasts. Just like Udell.'
Soulhunger pulsed in his hands, lusted for blood.
Haven't you taken enough lives today? These two creatures died…
'Beasts! Insensate animals! We demand the blood of humans!' The demon's snarls set his head pounding with such ferocity that he nearly cried out.
No. The Hunter clenched his jaw and squeezed his eyes shut. Not this man.
'Why not? What is he…'
Because I say so. He fought to push the voices back. You will have your prey, soon enough. But not him.