Chapter 1 Part 1

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Mara stopped abruptly in her tracks. Moments ago, there had been the sounds of crickets, an occasional bird chirping, the giggling sass of chattering squirrels as they scurried from tree to tree, branch to branch. Suddenly, all was quiet. The breeze whispering its secrets through the foliage, giving relief from the heat of the day, stilled.

Stepping off the path, Mara had the niggling sensation that someone watched or followed her. Catching a glimpse of something out of the corner of her eye, she glanced in that direction, but saw nothing unusual. Trying unsuccessfully to shrug off the disconcerting feeling, she cautiously placed one foot ahead of the other. Trained to move stealthily, no gravel moved under her step, no leaf rustled. Step by step, she returned to the pathway that led to the river. The distant song of slowly moving water was all she heard.

Then as suddenly as the quiet had descended, there came a great howling. It sounded like a pack of dogs or wolves, but it was louder, more grating to the ears, more ominous. It had a spooky, hair-raising quality.

A shiver ran down her spine. She stopped midstride. "Grut?" she wondered aloud. Surely, not, she thought, but could it be?

Few grut, the dreaded beasts of Sinespe—the world under, the world of the hopeless and dead—had been seen in the area for some time, as few of the Select they were sent to pursue and to destroy, remained. Still, the cacophony was unlike any she'd encountered before.

As though in response to her query, the screeching, howling lament increased in volume.

In an instant, the smell of the air changed. Earlier, an intense, almost floral-like scent had piqued Mara's curiosity, driving her to follow this particular wooded path to find the source of the fragrance. It compelled her to follow her nose, though it took her far from her intended track. But now there came a pervading stench. It reeked of danger, was rank like decay, like death.

For a moment she thought she could make out the smell of blood, but a survey of the trail around her revealed none. Intensely alert, she recalled an instructor having surmised that blood was red because the color screamed danger! Big on colors and smells, he encouraged his students to give careful consideration to them. "Smelling danger in advance," he lectured, "can be an important skill, as it may serve to keep one from coming upon it casually or unaware."

Mara fleetingly contemplated turning back, but her training as an Oathtaker caused her to brush the thought aside. She could feel the emotional tugging, the urge to respond to the call, that an Oathtaker felt when encountering perilous circumstances.

Her heart racing, she continued toward the sound. It became more insistent with each passing breath. She eased her way through the brush toward the screaming chorus. A thorny branch caught at her tunic. She pulled herself free, tearing a small patch from her clothing, then approached a giant oak.

Though the heat had lessened from the peak afternoon hours, a sheen of perspiration covered her. She wiped her brow with the back of her hand as she took a quick mental inventory of the things she carried: weapons, supplies, wits. She gave a nervous inward laugh over that last one.

The screaming continued, unrelenting.

She crouched low behind the oak, its branches bent nearly to the ground. Its full summer shroud already displayed a dry fuscous brown cast. She grasped hold of a low hanging branch, found a notch in the trunk for her leather-booted foot, and boosted herself up. Dressed in simple, free flowing garb, she easily melded into her hiding placed. She glanced out.

"Great Creovita!" she muttered. Grut. There must be an entire pack of them! A shiver ran down her spine. Her heart raced. Her hands shook and her stomach clenched. A single scratch from a grut claw, fang, or tail, would infect, causing a painful death within hours. The victim's skin would begin to burn away and his—or her—throat would close. She watched below.

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