by Rob Steiner
“Mara!” Taran shouted, but his daughter only fled deeper into the forest. He caught glimpses of her white-clad body through the low hanging pine branches, but she always seemed to be ten paces ahead of him.
“Mara!” he shouted again, trying to make his voice heard above the peals of thunder and the torrents of rain that had started minutes ago. He was soaked to the skin, and the sharp needles of the pine branches stuck to his clothes, his hair, and his hands.
“Dad!” Mara screamed, from somewhere to his left, sounding farther away than he thought she was.
“Mara, where are you?” Taran shouted back.
“Daddy!” This time her voice seemed to be ahead of him. Taran wanted to weep with frustration. His little girl was out in this forest with harrowers and Tainted monsters, and he could not help her.
“Please, Mara,” Taran shouted, “run to my voice!”
He did not hear her voice again, so he charged through the pine branches toward the place where he last heard her. Taran came out of the woods in front of a creek that was swollen and flowing rapidly due to the heavy rain. It was maybe three paces across, and looked to be a pace deep. Mud and water flooded into the creek from both banks, creating a deep gully with the creek at the bottom.
Taran looked up at the other side in time to see Mara’s white shift disappear woods.
“Mara, come back!”
She must not have heard him, for she did not return. Between the thunder, rain, and the swollen creek, Taran could barely hear his own voice.
He scanned the lip of the gully for a quick, easy way down, but saw none. Both banks seemed to have suffered a mud slide that exposed tree roots, clay, and stones. Taran sat down on the bank, and then tried to ease his body down the three pace drop to the surging creek. He immediately slipped and slid all the way into the water. It was deeper than he thought, and his head went under, sending dirty water down his throat and nose. He came to the surface coughing, and was able to stand in the chest-high water. He fought the current and managed to climb the other side of the gully to where he had watched Mara enter the woods. He paused a moment to catch his breath and cough up the last of the muddy water from his lungs.
Taran was aware of lightning striking the ground less than a half mile behind him, and he knew the Tuathans on the road were being attacked. He did not care about them now, not with his daughter out here, alone and frightened. Fatimah would take care of them. Taran had to find his daughter.
He stumbled through the pine branches again, shouting Mara’s name. He grew terribly weary, and his breathing came in ragged gasps, but he kept his legs moving and he kept shouting Mara’s name. He would die out here before he gave up looking for her.
Taran stopped moving when he heard the sounds of crying coming from his left. He shouted Mara’s name, but all he heard was the crying. He charged toward the left and emerged from the forest into a small clearing no more than ten paces in diameter. Mara sat on the stump of a downed tree, her head in her hands and her shoulders heaving with each sob. Taran ran over to her and put his arms around her.
“I’m hear now, Mara,” he said, holding her tight. “Nothing’s going to hurt you.”
She wrapped her arms tightly around his neck and cried softly on his shoulder. “I thought you wouldn’t come for me.”
“Of course I came for you,” Taran said, gently pulling her away from him so he could look at her.
Her long black hair hung in strings around her face, and her eyes were red from weeping. Aside from the dirt all over her body and the oozing blood from minor scratches, she appeared to be fine.
She was fine….
“Mara,” he said, “you can walk. How are you here?”
Something wrapped itself around Taran’s ankles, yanked him off his feet, and pulled him back toward the forest. He looked at his feet in disbelief. Writhing vines jerked him into the air so that he hung upside down five paces above the ground. He heard Mara scream, saw similar vines wrap themselves around both of her arms and pull her into the air. She hung there screaming, her arms spread wide by the vines.
Taran was horrified to see a black tendril of Angra touching the ground just beyond the tree line behind Mara. It came closer, and then a man clad in a dark coat wearing a black tri-corner hat emerged from the forest, his hand raised and holding on to the nauseating tendril. He paused near Mara a moment, and then walked toward Taran. As he grew closer, a cold horror gripped Taran’s body.
Kumar Ladak stopped in front of Taran, and then tilted his head. He smiled, and Taran thought he saw more teeth in Ladak’s mouth than a normal human should have.
“Hello, Zervakan,” Ladak said. “Your daughter is even prettier than the picture you showed me.”